October 16, 2010

The Choices We Make: Preference Theory

While visiting friends a few weekends ago, I talked with my friend Rachel about her research this summer in Europe on the ways women figure out the factors involved in their decisions on when to have children and if/how to reenter the workforce. She introduced me to this as an area of research (how cool) - and told me about Preference Theory, a theory created by Catherine Hakam about how our economic situation has shifted women into three categories of preferences regarding how they balance careers and families: 1) mostly career, 2) mostly family, 3) somewhere in the middle.

Hakim suggests that the features of our economic situation that lead to this choice being possible include:
*women being able to control their own fertility through contraceptive use
* women have access to all levels of the workforce
*there are more white-colored jobs (which may be more appealing to women)
*the creation of less typical work hours jobs (part-time, by contract, working from home),
*changes in social attitudes that support women making different choices

Hakim performed two huge studies in europe about how women made these decisions - or determined which preference category they fit into - with interesting results. She concluded that questions about women's preferences can predict employment and reproductive choices, but that this is not true in the reverse - that women in serious careers don't necessarily fit into the "career focused" preference group. She concludes this means that women don't rationalize their choices to fit with their preferences. It's a little confusing to me and I think may be confounded a bit by the age of the women she's asking - to predict (ostensibly, younger), and to reflect (most likely, older). But the times are changing - which you can read about in another article to check out, by another friend of mine working on these topics at the Center for American Progress in DC.

I'm so curious about the questions she asked people to determine their preferences. I was trying to think of my own (maybe you could help?):

- are you interested in being the primary care-giver?
- what percentage of caregiving are you interested in?
- how far would you like to go in your career?
- when do these promotions happen in relation to childbirth?
- what are you looking for in partner in terms of childcaring? (how important is this to you?)
- what are you looking for in a partner in terms of career aspirations? (how important is this to you?)

As all of my friends and family (male and female) start to get more serious about career paths and/or about families, there are lots of conversations about where we all fall on that spectrum and maybe more applicably, how do we work the middle?


"it's generally a good idea to carry possibilities in your pocket;
you never know when you might need them"
-Mary Anne Radmacher

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