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Choices and Constraints

Gender Differences in the Employment Expectations of Final Year Undergraduates in a University in Central China

Jian Zhu

This book seeks to investigate gender differences in final year undergraduates’ employment expectations of their starting jobs, including salary, occupational and working region expectations, and to identify factors that have contributed to gender differences in these expectations. It employs an on-site self-completion questionnaire survey and a follow-up semi-structured interview carried out in a university in Central China. The study adopts the conceptual perspective of ‘choice and constraint’, which means that male and female final year undergraduates are able to make their own choices towards employment expectations; however, their choices of employment expectations are limited by a number of constraints. Empirical studies find that there are gender differences in employment expectations. This study further reveals the influence of gendered economic roles, experienced or perceived sex discrimination in China’s graduate labour market job preferences and parents’ expectations on those gender differences in employment expectations.
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Chapter Three: Review of the Relevant Literature and Theories

← 34 | 35 → CHAPTER THREE

Review of the Relevant Literature and Theories

3.1 Introduction

This chapter outlines existing literature and theories regarding gender differences in the labour market by grouping them into three approaches: individualist approaches, structuralist perspectives and approaches emphasizing both choice and constraint. It also attempts to link empirical studies about gender differences in employment expectations to each theoretical perspective. After describing the relevant theoretical perspectives and empirical studies, it puts forward the conceptual framework for the present study – choice and constraint – and contextualizes this into China’s background.

3.2 Explaining gender differences in the labour market

Whilst women’s position in the labour market has improved in the past few decades (Woodfield 2007), women and men are still segregated in different sectors where women tend to have lower paid and lower status jobs compared with men (Hakim 2004). Currently China has a higher female labour force participation than many other countries (Hausmann, Tyson and Zahidi 2009). There is evidence that the gender earnings gap in urban China has widened to some extent (Gustafsson and Li 2000; World Bank 2002; Zhang et al. 2008). For instance, in 1988, the ratio of female-to-male annual earnings in full-time jobs was 84 per cent; and the corresponding ratio declined to 76 per cent in 2004 (Zhang et al. 2008). ← 35 | 36 → Statistics also show that the female-to-male earnings ratio in China continued to decrease from 2006 to 2009 (Hausmann, Tyson and Zahidi 2006–2009). What is more, gender segregation in China’s urban labour market still persists (Wu and Wu 2009). However, as argued by C. L. Li (2009), the segregation has been decreasing, with more and more women making inroads into white-collar sectors.

Scholars have proposed a variety of perspectives to explain gender differences in the labour market, which generally can be grouped into two main approaches: individualist approaches, which tend to emphasize individual factors as explanations of gender differences in the labour market, and structuralist perspectives, focusing on social factors that constrain or limit individual factors, for example, choice (Roos and Gatta 1999; Woodfield 2007). It is noteworthy that the differences between individualist and structuralist perspectives for explaining gender differences in the labour market do not necessarily mean that there are fundamental ontological differences between the two (Hodgson 2007; Woodfield 2007), rather, the differences lie in ‘where analytical and explanatory priority is granted’ (Woodfield 2007: 13). There is also a third approach where scholars focus on both choice and constraint as factors that have affected gender differences in the labour market (e.g., Crompton and Harris 1998; McRae 2003).

3.2.1 Individualist approaches

Individualist approaches to explaining gender differences in the labour market are based on the idea that ‘all social phenomena (their structure and their change) are in principle explicable only in terms of individuals – their properties, goals and beliefs’ (Elster 1982: 453). Theorists argue that gender differences in the labour market should primarily be explained through an understanding of individuals (Roos and Gatta 1999; Woodfield 2007). Within this broad group, there has been a debate over whether social phenomena should be explained purely by individuals alone or by a combination of both the individual and the relations between individuals (Hodgson 2007). Individualist approaches in this arena, however, seem to give some emphasis to extra-individual factors, albeit often implicitly, but ← 36 | 37 → the analytical focus is on individuals (Woodfield 2007). Generally, neo-classical economic theories of human capital and rational choice, as well as preference theory, belong to the individualist approaches.

Neo-classical economic theories of human capital and rational choice. These theories hold that workers are rational and labour markets function efficiently (Anker 1997). They also hold that people invest in their own capital (e.g., education, on-the-job training) with the hope that their investments will finally pay off for them economically (Wharton 2004). These theories have been used to interpret the gender earning gaps (Blau and Ferber 1992; Browne 2006; Mincer and Polachek 1974; Roos and Gatta 1999) and gender segregation (Anker 1997; Becker 1981, 1991 and 1985; Polachek 1981; Woodfield 2007) in the labour market.

With regard to the gender earning gaps, neo-classical economic theories of human capital and rational choice argue that gender differences in earnings mainly result from men and women having different productivity in the labour market (Blau and Ferber 1992). Scholars argue that men and women bring different human capital to the labour market; for example, education, on-the-job-training and work experiences, or other factors facilitating productivity (Becker 1985; Davies, Mosher and Grady 1996). Proponents of the theory attribute the gender pay gap to the domestic division of labour in which women spend more time and effort than men looking after children and dealing with other household chores (Davies, Mosher and Grady 1996; Nakamura 1990; Walby 1988).

In respect of gender segregation in the labour market, advocates of these theories contend that women choose sectors that require lower skill levels and that are less penalized if work is interrupted by childcare, and hence these sectors are primarily female-dominated (Polachek 1976 and 1981; Zellner 1975). They also argue that those sectors have higher starting wages and lower wage growth, with a lower depreciation of discontinuous work histories than male-dominated sectors (Trappe and Rosenfeld 2004).

Only a few studies have been carried out about the employment expectations of pupils and students (Webbink and Hartog 2004). Major and Konar (1984) conducted a study using a questionnaire survey with fifty management students including thirty-one males and nineteen females in the State University of New York at Buffalo. They found that male ← 37 | 38 → students generally expected about 16.5 per cent higher salaries than their female counterparts at career entry and 46 per cent higher at the career peak. When the underlying reasons behind gender differences in salary expectations were explored, they suggested that career path was an important factor affecting gender differences in salary expectations. In Major and Konar’s research, they used the term ‘career path’ to mean that males and females had different further education plans, differing timetable offull-time work and various occupational choices, all of which were closely related to human capital in the labour market. They noted that females were more likely than their male peers to work in personal sectors, which offered lower salaries than high salary sectors, for instance, management.

Major and Konar’s research has been expanded or replicated by a number of scholars. For example, through a mail questionnaire survey of 388 final year undergraduates (205 males and 183 females) sampled in two universities in Midwestern states of the USA, Smith and Powell (1990) found that male final year undergraduates’ expected salary ten years after their graduation was $10,000 higher than that of their female peers. They also argued that the gender gap in pay expectations could be related to the fact that females were less likely to pursue professional degrees after their undergraduate programmes than were their male peers. These findings have been further confirmed by other studies. From telephone surveys based on 1205 college seniors with 519 males and 686 females, Jacobs (2000) found that female final year undergraduates in the USA expected just 72.1 per cent of their male peers’ expected salary at the age of thirty. He concluded that this was because male final year undergraduates had quite different education plans from their female counterparts, in that the former were more likely to pursue postgraduate programme in Medicine, Law and Business; whilst their female peers tended to study Education and Nursing programmes at postgraduate level.

Scholars have also carried out research to elaborate other aspects of the career path factors that may lead to gender differences in salary expectations. As far as differing timetables offull-time work are concerned, there is no consensus in the literature. In a study carried out in the College of Commerce and Business Administration at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, Blau and Ferber (1991) sampled 388 participants, and found that female final year undergraduates expected a similar salary to that ← 38 | 39 → of their male counterparts upon graduation, but not later on. Their data showed that females planned to work for fewer years than males, however, Blau and Ferber (1991) argued that those differences did not explain the observed gender differences in salary expectations. However, Heckert et al. (2002) had a different view. They used a mail survey to sample 371 college students in the USA, with 110 males and 261 females, which revealed that females expect a lower salary at career entry and peak than males do. They did not find significant differences between males and females regarding expected years offull-time working and educational degree expectations, however. They concluded that the only difference between the genders was time out of the workforce for child-rearing, with females predominantly taking the childcare responsibility that might result in gender differences in expected salary.

According to Orazem, Werbel and Mcelroy (2003), career planning, measured in their study by the extent that respondents have integrated their academic and work experiences into their career planning, also contributes to gender differences in salary expectations. They carried out a survey of 92 male and 117 female final year undergraduates at Iowa State University in the USA, examining gender differences in salary expectations for these final year undergraduates regarding their first jobs, and found that males’ expected pay exceeded that of their female peers by about seven per cent.

Alongside these quantitative-oriented studies focusing on gender differences in salary expectations, scholars have also conducted qualitative research based on human capital theory to address the gender differences in expected salary. For example, Machung (1989) interviewed seventeen male and thirteen female final year undergraduates and found that male final year undergraduates tended to expect higher salaries than their female peers both for their first job and at the career peak. Machung further argued that the gender gap in salary expectations widened significantly during the respondents’ life span. However, one of her explanations for this was that males were inclined to study programmes that offered higher pay, for example, Business, Engineering and Applied Maths; while females were more likely to major in Humanities and Social Sciences. She contended that ‘[B]usiness and Engineering currently are one of the best routes to a well-paying job; the Social Sciences and Humanities one of the worst’ (Machung 1989: 41).

← 39 | 40 → Neo-classical economic theories of human capital and rational choice have faced criticism. One criticism is against the assumption that there is a perfect labour market (Anker 1997; Blackburn et al. 2002); failing to take into account issues like discrimination or fluctuations in the labour market. These theories rest on the assumption that ‘individuals are “free” to make rationally maximizing decisions in a competitive labour market’ (Crompton, Hantrais and Walters 1990: 330–331), an assumption that has been challenged by labour market segmentation theory (e.g., Mallier and Rosser 1987) and the feminist theory of patriarchy (Walby 1990), arguing that the labour market is structured. These theories also ignore the complicated factors that contribute to decision making (Browne 2006), for example, gender stereotypes in the labour market.

Preference theory. This theory was developed by Hakim (1998, 2000 and 2004), to offer a theoretical basis to understand women’s choices between productive and reproductive work. Unlike traditional theories that treat women as a homogeneous group, Hakim (2000) regards women as heterogeneous. Hakim (1996 and 2000) shows that women at all levels of education and in all social classes choose one of three lifestyles; work-centred, home-centred, or adaptive. Work-centred women are only a small proportion and they focus on competitive activities in the public sphere. For those work-centred women, family life is not their priority (Hakim 2006 and 2008). Adaptive women would like to combine employment and family work without giving a fixed priority to either, and they want to enjoy the best of both worlds (Hakim 2006 and 2008). They are the largest group among women, and are found in substantial numbers in most sectors (Hakim 2006 and 2008). The third group, home-centred women, is a minority group, and they prefer to give priority to private life and family life after they get married (Hakim 2006 and 2008).

Preference theory also argues that in prosperous modern societies, such as the USA and Britain, women’s preferences become a central determinant of life choices, especially the choice between a focus on activities related to children and family life and an emphasis on employment and competitive activities in the public sphere (Hakim 2006 and 2008). Hence they also become the principal determinant of employment patterns (Hakim 2000). Meanwhile, as well as emphasizing personal preferences, Hakim ← 40 | 41 → (2000) does not deny the impact of structural or institutional factors on women’s employment. She argues, however, that the social-structural factors, especially social class, constraining women’s choices are of declining importance (2000, 2006 and 2008) with the evidence that:

[I]n the prosperous modern societies that permit a much greater variety of lifestyle choices than in the past, preferences become much more important choices than in the past, when economic necessity or relative affluence was generally the dominant force shaping women’s employment decisions. In particular, the combination of the contraceptive revolution, the equal opportunities revolution and changes in the workforce mean that in the new scenario women have genuine choices in how to shape their lives. (Hakim 2000: 169)

Hakim further argues that social structural and cultural influences are just influences, rather than ‘coercive powers’ (2000: 170). Therefore, Hakim claims that ‘people can choose to reproduce or transform social structures’ (2000: 170). She offers as an example evidence that in the 1990s some young Japanese women had just one child to show their rejection of the terms and conditions of motherhood whereby to bear and raise children was their primary social role in patriarchal Japanese society.

Preference theory was to some degree tested by two national surveys carried out in Britain and Spain (Hakim 2002 and 2003). For example, using a 1999 British survey of 1691 men and 1960 women to test the classification of women’s lifestyle choices and behaviour, and to generalize the taxonomy to ‘sociological research on women’s employment’ (Hakim 2002: 440), Hakim found that ‘lifestyle preferences are a major determinant offertility, employment patterns, and job choice’ (2002: 428).

Hakim’s preference theory has also been criticized. The first criticism comes from arguments that preference theory has paid too much attention to choice, and therefore overlooked the fact that choice is not completely free, rather it is performed within a set of constraints (Crompton and Harris 1998 and 1999; McRae 2003). For example, Hakim argues that people’s social class is becoming less important in determining their employment. However, empirical evidence in Britain refutes this argument because it shows that in 2008, the hourly salary of men with higher professional and managerial jobs was 2.5 times higher than that for men with lower skilled ← 41 | 42 → jobs, whilst the corresponding figure for their female peers was 2.9 times higher (National Equality Panel 2010). Second, it is suggested that labour markets operate in different places and in various ways (Peck 1996) and since Hakim’s preference theory is mostly based on western contexts it cannot be generalized. Third, Blackburn et al. (2002) claim that preference theory has not taken into account the power and choice of employers. The functioning of labour markets is very complex; alongside acknowledging employees’ roles in the labour market, employers’ interests and needs should also be given emphasis (Blackburn et al. 2002). The interaction between the demand side of employers and the supply side of employees is ubiquitous in the labour market; one cannot function properly without the other.

To sum up, individualist approaches have been criticized because they minimize, even sometimes ignore, the influences of extra-individual factors. Neither neo-classical economic theories of human capital and rational choice nor preference theory have paid sufficient attention to extra-individual factors, and many sociologists argue that there are fundamental problems with individualist approaches (e.g., Ajzen and Fishbein 1977; Woodfield 2007). For example, Ajzen and Fishbein (1977) argue that the relationship between attitudes and action is far from linear and rational. Instead, we need to understand the gendered pattern of attitudes and behaviours and the gendered structural and individual constraints and facilitators when addressing gender differences in the labour market (Woodfield 2007).

3.2.2 Structuralist perspectives

Structuralist perspectives for explaining gender differences in the labour market, in particular, retain the basic principles of structuralist perspectives in general. They contend that social organization, rather than individuals, is the focus of research and that social organization imposes constraints on individuals (Abrams 1982; Giddens 1979, cited in Wharton 1991: 376). Therefore, structuralist perspectives trace gender differences in the labour market ultimately to the social and personal constraints individuals confront. Structuralist perspectives include labour market segregation theory, patriarchy theory and gender role socialization.

← 42 | 43 → Labour market segregation theory. Labour market segmentation theory has evolved from the first generation to the fourth (Jenkins 2004). Doeringer and Piore’s work in the 1960s is taken to represent the first generation of labour market segmentation theory, which develops the notion of a dual labour market based on the USA context. That is, there is a primary labour market, with stable, secure working conditions, favourable job prospects, scope for promotion and relatively high wages (Mallier and Rosser 1987), which is usually occupied by white men (Jenkins 2004). On the contrary, the second labour market, with unstable working conditions, poor prospects and low wages (Mallier and Rosser 1987), is filled by women, ethnic minority workers, the disabled and young people (Jenkins 2004).

The second generation of labour market segmentation theory argues that the segmentation of the labour market is a ‘capitalist strategy’ (Jenkins 2004: 10), which intends to maintain control over the production process (Gordon 1972; cited in Jenkins 2004: 10; Peck 1989). It also argues that the function of all the labour market segments is to limit the competition for jobs to employees who are already working within the segment (Ashton and Maguire 1984), and consequently, movement between segments is difficult (Jenkins 2004).

The third generation of labour market segmentation theory increasingly explores the fundamental dynamics of the labour market, and it is suggested that there is no single institutional dynamic (Peck 1996); rather, gender differences in the labour market can best be understood by means of a number of perspectives (Rubery 1992). As a result, ‘a full appreciation of women’s position in the labour market could only be gained if it was acknowledged that the two spheres, those of home and work, interpenetrate, each conditioning each other’ (Jenkins 2004: 17).

The fourth generation of labour market segmentation theory recognizes that the family is a major factor influencing women’s decisions to enter the labour market through the negotiation of women’s dual roles (Jenkins 2004). Peck (2000) also argues that work and home are not the hermetically sealed and separate spheres that they were assumed to be. On the contrary, work and home can interpenetrate via various methods which strongly influences men’s and women’s behaviours in the labour market (Peck 2000).

← 43 | 44 → Briefly, early labour market segmentation theories (the first and second generations) tend to focus on the separated labour markets in order to explore men’s and women’s participation in the labour market. However, later labour market segmentation theories (the third and the fourth generations) recognize that a better understanding of men’s and women’s behaviours requires an integrated view which is based on not only the labour market, but also the home.

Like other theories regarding women’s subordination in the labour market, labour market segregation theories have also been criticized. For instance, Anker (1997: 323) argues that labour market segregation theory does not explain why sectors are segmented by gender, and it also fails to consider ‘a number of critical, non-economic and non-labour market variables and forms of behaviour, mainly because they lie outside the competence (and often interests) of economists’. Moreover, it is argued that labour market segregation theory can only help to explain gender segregation in USA companies, and thereby lacks validity for wider generalization (Walby 1988).

Patriarchy theory. Unlike theories arguing that it is females’ position in the family that has brought them less commitment to paid work than their male cohorts, feminist patriarchy theory contends that female disadvantages in the labour market result from men’s active exclusion of women (Walby 1986). Hartmann and Walby are the most influential scholars in the area. Hartmann (1976) has firstly placed patriarchy as a crucial factor for explaining women’s lower position in the labour market, and defined patriarchy as men’s domination of women, especially men’s control of women’s labour. Moreover, Hartmann (1979 and 1981) highlights occupational segregation as the key mechanism used by men to restrict and constrain women’s access to paid work, which consequently makes women financially dependent on men.

Walby has developed Hartman’s theory of patriarchy, and she defines patriarchy as: ‘a system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women’ (1990: 20). Walby (1990) also categorizes patriarchy into two groups: private patriarchy that excludes women from paid work and forces them to devote their time to domestic work; and public patriarchy, whereby women have been collectively exploited by employers who have paid women lower wages than men. Walby (1990) ← 44 | 45 → has also identified two different patriarchal strategies in employment: the exclusion strategy, aiming to prevent women from getting access to the area of paid employment; and the segregation strategy which focuses on separating women’s work from that of men and on preventing women’s promotion to higher positions.

As far as China is concerned, women have unavoidably encountered quite a number of restrictions and constraints on paid work. Firstly, women have been excluded from particular jobs in the guise of protecting women’s rights and interests. For example, women are not allowed to take jobs like ‘Mining’ that demand strength, as regulated in the Female Employees Employment Protection Regulations published in 1988 (ACFTU 2010b). As mentioned above in Chapter Two, women and men have different statutory retirement ages, which means that normally men retire when they are sixty years old; whereas their female cohorts retire at fifty or fifty-five (for female cadres) (Ministry of Labour and Social Security 1999). Finally, women have been treated unequally in political areas, which is regarded as ‘one of the key markers used to identify the relative status of women’ (Edwards 2004: 109). There are low numbers of women in key political positions (Edwards 2004), as will be discussed in Chapter Six, and women politicians tend to be concentrated in the lower levels of the political hierarchy (Ye 2000).

Criticisms of patriarchy theory have been extensive. Firstly, the theory has been criticized as being circular because ‘patriarchy is used to explain a situation of patriarchy – male dominance is “explained” by the fact that men dominate’ (Blackburn et al. 2002: 521). Secondly, the concept of patriarchy is ‘ahistorical, and lacks sensitivity to the experiences of different groups of women’ (Crompton 1999: 3). As argued by Eisenstein (1983, cited in Crompton 1999: 3), the category of ‘women’ in the early theory of patriarchy is actually a reflection of white, western, middle-class women, it, therefore, may be difficult to generalize to a wider range of women of different colour, social class, or nationality, at various times and in differing places. Finally, Browne (2006) also contends that feminist patriarchy theories, especially Walby’s theory (1986), tend to underestimate women’s agency and overestimate men’s. For example, Walby claims that ‘men have usually been successful in excluding women from the better work’ (1986: 248), men are therefore assumed as omnipotent.

← 45 | 46 → Gender role socialization. There is no consensus towards the gender role socialization in terms of how to classify it. Some scholars argue that it should be grouped into the individualist approach (e.g., Hull and Nelson 2000; Wharton 2004). For example, Wharton (2004: 168) argues that ‘the process of gender socialization is another kind of individualist explanation for sex segregation’. Others, however, tend to group it into the structualist approach (e.g., Woodfield 2007). For example, Woodfield (2007: 34) contends that socialization is a kind of ‘the individual as a product of the social’, which means that the role of socialization is a clear cause and demonstration of social forces on the individual (Woodfield 2007). I agree with Woodfield’s ideas in the present study.

Gender role socialization is the process of how children of different sexes are socialized into their gender roles so as to meet a society’s expectations and are taught what is appropriate to be a male or female by agencies like family, peer groups, school and the media (Crespi 2003; Weitzman 1979). It is argued that gender socialization starts at the moment we are born (Crespi 2003), from the question, ‘Is it a boy or girl?’ (Gleitman, Friedlund and Reisberg 2000: 499).

Gender role socialization may contribute to gender differences in the labour market in several ways. First, it might lead men and women to fulfil different adult roles whereby men are expected to prioritize working career and their role as a primary breadwinner, and women are expected to prioritize their interpersonal roles as a wife/mother, even though they may also be employed outside the home (Betz and O’Connell 1989; Granrose, Chow and Chew 2005; Reskin and Padavic 1994). Second, as addressed by Reskin and Padavic (1994: 42), it also ‘may contribute to a tendency for men and women to hold different values that affect their work lives, such as how important it is to have authority on the job or make lots of money’. Third, it affects job opportunities as well (Reskin and Padavic 1994). Men and women are socialized to fit their proper roles, and they tend to prepare for careers that are appropriate for gender roles. In detail, females are more likely to find jobs which could facilitate the balance between family and work so that they can manage to deal with childcare and house work; and males are inclined to focus on jobs which will earn better pay in order to ← 46 | 47 → play the role of breadwinner within the family (Granrose, Chow and Chew 2005; Reskin and Padavic 1994).

When this is applied to contemporary China, it is suggested that men are more inclined to highlight the paid work than women (Aifeng 2000; Zuo 2003). As for university students, a well educated group, both males and their female counterparts regard career success as important, but female students are more likely to rate work-family balance highly and less inclined to emphasize their work goals than their male peers (Bu and Mckeen 2001; Zhou, Dawson and Herr 2004).

Empirical research reveals that gender role socialization has affected gender differences in employment expectations. Studies carried out in western countries find that it has impacted on gender differences in salary expectations, at the points of career entry, career peak or at a particular time (e.g., when the cohort will be in their thirties, see Jacobs 2000). In detail, studies carried out in the USA show that males are more inclined to highlight factors like money (e.g., Blau and Ferber 1991; Jacobs 2000; Machung 1989; Major and Konar 1984). On the other hand, it is suggested that females are more likely to highlight non-economic goals, such as the intrinsic interest of the work (Major and Konar 1984), intellectual challenge (Blau and Ferber 1991), self-fulfilment or independence (Machung 1989), helping people (Jacobs 2000), and work-life balance (Jackson, Sullivan and Gardener 1992). These differences between men and women have led to the so-called gender gap in expected salaries.

With regard to university students in China, studies find that female university students are more likely to highlight jobs stability and are less inclined to prioritize high salary jobs than their male peers. For example, Xu and Bu (2006) examined the employment conditions of 373 male and 271 female university students from eight HEIs in Nanjing, China. They observed that the female students were more likely to choose stable jobs, which were usually offered by state owned enterprises, government and schools, and less likely to choose jobs in foreign owned enterprises than their male peers. Moreover, the male university students had a higher salary expectation than their female counterparts. These findings have been echoed by another study. Based on questionnaire survey data of 693 graduating students from six universities and vocational colleges in Shandong, ← 47 | 48 → China, Wu (2007) found that male university students were more likely to choose jobs that could provide high salaries, for example, in private enterprises, while their female peers preferred sectors that could offer stable jobs, for instance, in state owned enterprises.

The gender role socialization perspective is not immune to criticism. First, the assumption that choice of occupation is shaped by people’s previous experiences, especially those that happen in childhood, is questioned by a number of scholars. For example, Reskin and Padavic (1994: 42) argued that ‘[C]hildhood gender-role socialization is actually not very important for explaining women’s and men’s concentration in different jobs, their different rates of promotion, and their different average earnings’. Gerson (1993) also found that childhood experiences accounted for little about people’s adult lives. A second challenge to the perspective comes from the argument that there is a weak link between the sex-type characteristics and the sex composition of sectors (Reskin and Roos 1990). This means that men do not necessarily end up working in male-dominated sectors and women do not always instinctively choose female-dominated sectors. Rather, both of them could cross over and make their inroads into non-traditional sectors, for example, men as secretaries and women as engineers. Finally, scholars also argue that sex-typing of sectors should also take into account such issues as normative and cultural limits on female employment and restricting female labour supply (Cohn 1985).

In summary, general structuralist perspectives have faced extensive criticisms, for example, for treating the individual as the ‘mere puppet of social forces’ (Hodgson 2007: 6) and therefore failing to acknowledge the individual’s ‘creative struggle and creative action’ (Murphy 1998: 188). Structuralist perspectives on gender differences in the labour market, especially in employment expectations, have paid sufficient attention to social factors that contribute to the so-called gender differences; however, they have, to some extent, overlooked individuals’ active roles. Therefore, stucturalist approaches to gender differences in the labour market fail to explore the active interaction between the individual and social factors; rather, they believe that individuals are passive in accepting social norms, rules or value systems, and are framed by social structure.

← 48 | 49 → 3.2.3 Approaches emphasizing both choice and constraint

Existing theories regarding gender differences in the labour market are somewhat flawed in that they have either focused on choice or constraint, and very few studies have paid attention to both sides. Scholars have argued that a full account of gender differences in the labour market cannot be achieved unless one grasps factors covering both personal choice and social constraint (Crompton and Harris 1998 and 1999; England 1992; McRae 2003).

First, Folbre (1994: 4) argues that it is necessary to develop a perspective that ‘emphasizes choice and constraint, co-operation and conflict, individual and group dynamics’. Using this insight, Crompton and Harris (1998 and 1999) examine the structuring of female employment by sampling two feminizing occupations, medicine and banking, based on a comparative study carried out in five countries; Britain, Czech Republic, France, Norway and Russia. By using questionnaire surveys and biographical interviews, they find that a series of factors affected females’ employment, such as the welfare state, family reproductive policy, approach to the liberal equality agenda, domestic division of labour and occupational structure. They, therefore, argue that on the one hand, women’s choice is a major independent variable in explaining women’s employment patterns; however, on the other hand, women’s employment-related attitudes and behaviours have been constrained by occupation-specific and national contexts. Based on these, they claim that ‘women – and men – can choose but are also constrained, a fact which lies at the root of sociological explanations of human behaviours’ (1998: 120–121).

Second, based on a longitudinal survey aiming to examine women’s work history, their sex role attitudes and the relationship between attitudes and work history in Britain, McRae (2003: 328) claims that ‘[a]ll women face constraints in making decisions about their lives’, which echoes Crompton and Harris’s findings. McRae (2003) further proposes two kinds of constraints facing women in making their choices: normative and structural. She suggests that the former is more linked to ‘women’s own identity’ (2003: 329), which includes ‘gender relations in the family and husband/partner’s attitudes’ (2003: 329). The latter encompasses factors like job availability and the cost and availability of childcare. What is more, ← 49 | 50 → according to McRae (2003), the two constraints may intertwine, at least in Britain. Although McRae’s study largely focuses on exploring women’s actions in the labour market, her conclusion could also be applied to men. Men do make choices, but like women, their choices will also face a set of constraints, such as the economic structure, social norms and their wife/partner’s attitudes.

Third, Hull and Nelson (2000) found that both choice and constraint affected gender differences in the careers of lawyers, by using data from large-scale interviews (649, with 222 women). In particular, they argue that the emerging preferences (e.g., how many hours a lawyer works, to what extent a lawyer needs to face the work-family tension) and post-entry constraints (gender inequality in employment of lawyers) could be plausible for explaining the results (e.g., male and female lawyers in Chicago begin their careers in different practice contexts and the differences grow over time) emerging from their study.

Finally, studies by Özbilgin, Küskü and Erdoğmuş (2005) and Sato (2008) are also included in this section because they underline that choices are performed within a number of constraints, although there is no special attention to gender differences in career choices or aspirations in these studies. Presenting survey data to explain influences on the career choice of 259 MBA students in three countries (Britain, Israel and Turkey), Özbilgin, Küskü and Erdoğmuş (2005: 2004) proposed three levels of constraints. At the micro level, there are factors like individual agency and different forms of capital; factors at the meso level include the processes that ‘mediate and negotiate career choices in the light of individual desires, capital and contextual circumstances’; while at the macro level, structural conditions inhibiting or enhancing career choices are included in their study. They conclude that personal human capital and capacity are more significant than structural conditions to impact on these MBA students’ career choices.

Based on a large-scale social stratification and social mobility survey, Sato (2008) conducted a comparative study of workers’ career aspirations under structural constraints in East Asia. He contends that ‘the constraints function at two levels: societal level and individual level’ (Sato 2008: 1). According to him, the societal level constraints are factors like the economic ← 50 | 51 → structure; while the location of a worker (e.g., age, gender, employment status, firm size, industry)9 in the labour market acts as the individual level constraint.

In brief, approaches emphasizing both choice and constraint bridge the gaps in individualist and structuralist approaches. Individualist approaches largely emphasize individual factors in accounting for gender differences in the labour market whereas structuralist scholars mainly underline social factors; however, neither of them has given an emphasis to both the individual and social factors in analysing gender differences in the labour market. As discussed before, approaches highlighting both choice and constraint have attempted to combine both individual factors, for example, personal choice, and social factors, for instance, constraint, so that a better understanding of gender differences in the labour market could be achieved.

3.3 The conceptual framework: choice and constraint

In this section, I will elaborate the term ‘choice and constraint’ proposed by Crompton and Harris (1998), which will be employed as the conceptual framework of the study. As discussed earlier in the chapter, both choice and constraint are important factors that have contributed to the gender differences in the labour market.

3.3.1 Choice

David et al. (1997: 399) claim that choice usually encompasses a number of rational stages shown below:

← 51 | 52 → (1) possibilities are identified and separated out as ‘different’ and distinctive from one another;

(2) information is acquired about each different option, so that they can be evaluated one against another and against previously held criteria; and

(3) this rational appraisal leads to the selection of one option as the ‘choice’.

The argument could be used critically in the study as ‘choice does not necessarily imply intentionally. Choices can be conscious or unconscious, with intended or unintended consequences’ (Hays 1994: 64). From this perspective, choices are not always rational. For the present study, the whole process of making a choice can be applied as follows:

1) final year undergraduates identify employment expectations (salary, type of occupation and location of work) as different and distinctive,

2) they get information about employment expectations (salary, occupation and location of work) from various sources, such as the internet, the labour market, careers service centres in universities and their peers; and

3) they form the employment expectations that are the most appropriate for them according to their assessment of, for example, a reasonable salary range, an appropriate occupation and a favourable geographical location.

Meanwhile, ‘choices take place in particular socially and economically structured contexts, which mean that all individuals are to some extent constrained from being entirely free to choose’ (David et al. 1997: 98). This suggests that it would be meaningless to talk about choice without situating it in the particular context. In China, first, women have studied some traditionally male-dominated programmes such as Mining and Civil Engineering, which could facilitate them having wider occupational choices. Second, during the economic transition, China’s employment policy for university graduates also experienced a trend away from the national graduates allocation policy to the mutual choice system (Agelasto 1998), which provides a favourable background for university students to make individual job choices. This means that in China’s higher education ← 52 | 53 → labour market, not only do employers have the right to choose their preferred employees, but also university graduates, as employees, can make decisions about their prospective employers (MOE 2010b). Finally, the Chinese government has passed a number of laws and policies and set up some national organizations that could facilitate male and female university students’ employment choices to a substantial extent.

Nowadays, it is common in China for graduating students to attend a number of job interviews before gaining an offer of employment. On the other hand, for employers, there is often a large number of candidates to choose from and to decide who would be the best, or most appropriate, person to employ. For example, a large online survey based on university graduating students in 2008, indicated that students graduating from HEIs need to apply for at least eight jobs on average before receiving a job offer (Mycos 2009).

By linking choice to the employment expectations of final year undergraduates in this study, it is clear that employment expectations are also part of the process of decision-making. Taking expectations of monthly salary as an example, final year undergraduates have a range of job choices with various salary levels. Facing those different choices, final year undergraduates need to assess for themselves how to choose a proper range of salary by relying on information derived from various sources, like direct experiences in the labour market, career service centres in HEIs and the internet. Also, they may have to take into account personal factors, such as their own capacities, interests and job preferences, as well as societal factors such as parental influences and social culture in order to make a reasonable choice regarding expected salary.

3.3.2 Constraint

As mentioned earlier in the chapter, men and women can make choices; however, their choices are constrained (Crompton and Harris 1999). Indeed, scholars have addressed the issue substantially (e.g., Crompton and Harris 1999; McRae 2003). To date, there are a number of different classifications of constraints on choice, such as McRae’s (2003) normative ← 53 | 54 → and structural constraints, Özbilgin, Küskü and Erdoğmuş’s (2005) micro, meso and macro-level constraints, Sato’s (2008) societal and individual constraints, and David et al.’s (1997) moral (e.g., gendered moral rationalities) and structural (e.g., income, social networks, race and ethnicity) constraints, and Himmelweit and Sigala’s (2003) internal (e.g., personal identities) and external (e.g., external circumstances such as childcare places and timing of employment) constraints. In addition, although Crompton and Harris have not explicitly contributed to the classifications of constraints, their arguments are based on a sociological perspective in that they focus on ‘how the social structure affects individuals – without in any way seeing individuals as entirely “determined” by the structure’ (Crompton and Harris 1999: 145). In other words, Crompton and Harris highlight the impact of social structure on the individual on one hand; however, on the other hand, they have not overlooked the role of the individual in accounting for human behaviour.

Having considered these different classifications, this study employs the classification of societal and individual constraints, which could be regarded as a combination of Sato’s classification of constraints and ← 54 | 55 → Crompton and Harris’s arguments of how to account for human behaviours by adopting a sociological approach. That is to say, Sato has concretized his classification of societal and individual constraints by fitting the economic structure into the societal constraints, and the location of a worker (e.g., age, gender, employment status, firm size and industry) into the individual constraints. However, this study uses different concepts of societal constraints from Sato, and it narrows down Sato’s argument about the individual constraints. This is because I regard the range of his individual constraints as too wide, as it encompasses both individual and extra-individual factors. For example, age, gender and employment status could be constraints that function at the individual level, but firm size and industry could be regarded as the extra-individual constraints.

Crompton and Harris have crystallized their argument of constraints by using empirical evidence. For example, in their view; constraints could be occupation-specific and national (e.g., economic circumstances) contexts (Crompton and Harris 1998), patriarchal practices (Crompton and Harris 1999) and individual preferences (Crompton and Harris 1998). However, Crompton and Harris’s arguments seem largely to highlight societal constraints on human behaviours, which means that little attention has been paid to individual constraints. This might be because they are contesting Hakim’s arguments of preference that have overestimated personal preference in shaping choices, since Crompton and Harris (1999: 144) argue that ‘in particular explanatory instances, an argument from structure might be more appropriate than an argument from action’.

In this regard, the present study underscores both societal and individual constraints without prioritizing one and overlooking the other. This approach bridges the gaps in both individualist and structuralist perspectives in accounting for gender differences in the labour market, since they either highlight individual or extra-individual factors, neither of them have emphasized both.

Therefore, overall, there are two sorts of constraints: individual and societal. The former constraints function at the individual level, for example, personal job preferences and personal interests; while the latter tend to include political, economic and cultural circumstances that could affect gender differences in employment expectations. When applied to the present study, in addressing gender differences in employment expectations, based on the existing literature, individual constraints could be personal job preference. Societal constraints could cover issues like different gender roles in the family, sex discrimination in the labour market as well as parental expectations. However, individual constraints are still affected by societal factors when they are used to account for gender differences in the labour market, but they are not passively shaped by the societal factors, rather, they can actively exert their own impact on the gender differences in the labour market.

In terms of individual constraints – personal job preference in the present study –, studies have found that males are more likely to choose jobs that could provide them with a high salary, both in China (Wu 2007) and abroad (e.g., Blau and Ferber 1991; Jacobs 2000; Machung 1989; Major and Konar 1984). On the other hand, females are more concerned with factors like work-life balance (Jackson, Sullivan and Gardener 1992) and job stability (Wang 2002; Xu and Bu 2006,). Job preference, one of the important factors, reveals gender differences in the employment expectations. ← 55 | 56 → Indeed, it is apparent that some items under the umbrella of personal job preference are closely related to gender role socialization in accounting for gender differences in employment expectations. Nevertheless, there are other items that belong to the personal job preference which could affect gender differences in employment expectations in a more active way.

Regarding social constraints, cultural norms, especially the traditional family role division, sex discrimination in the labour market and parental expectations, have been documented as constraints that function at the extra-individual level.

First, in respect of cultural norms, whilst China has made great efforts to improve gender equality (ADB 2006), the goal of gender equality is far from being achieved. The male-breadwinner model is prevalent in China, and females are still expected to take the main responsibility for taking care of children and dealing with housework (Zuo and Bian 2001). Moreover, quite a number of both males and females contend that even though women have jobs; women still have to play the main homemaker role in the family (Xu 2010).

Second, sex discrimination has been widely recognized as a factor that has contributed to gender differences in China’s labour market (e.g., Li and Li 2008; Woodhams, Lupton and Xian 2009; Yang 2008). In general, sex discrimination against women has led to women earning lower salaries relative to men (Li and Li 2008; Yang 2008) and having fewer job opportunities in the labour market (Woodhams, Lupton and Xian 2009). In particular, highly educated female university students still have to face sex discrimination in the labour market (e.g., Wang 2002; Wang 2004). For example, Wang (2002) reports that in terms of job hunting, female university students have to submit more job applications while obtaining fewer job posts for employment than their male peers. As a result, when university students, especially female students, are aware of the persisting sex discrimination in the graduate labour market, their employment expectations could be considerably affected.

Finally, parents’ expectations also have an impact on their children’s decision making regarding employment (Deutsch 2004). As argued by Chen and Lan (1998: 385), Chinese children are normally obedient and respectful to their elders due to the Confucian philosophy, which ‘exalts the ← 56 | 57 → scholar and emphasizes human malleability, the value of self-improvement, and the unity of the family’. Therefore, to show their respect for and obedience to their parents, university students in China, especially females, will consult their parents, or even follow their ideas to a great extent, regarding employment expectations (Chin 1988).

In summary, on the one hand, final year undergraduates do make choices regarding their employment expectations, however, on the other hand, their employment expectations are constrained by a wide range of factors that function both at the individual and societal level. In other words, their employment expectations are accommodated by the context where the choices are made. Therefore, final year undergraduates cannot make genuine choices regarding their employment expectations; rather, their choices are limited by both the societal and the individual constraints that have contributed to gender differences in employment expectations. In the present study, the societal constraints include traditional family role division, sex discrimination and parental expectations, whereas the individual constraints are represented by men’s and women’s job preferences, which are sometimes affected by extra-individual factors, for example, social expectations for gender roles. Notably, I argue that both choices and constraints are factors that have contributed to gender differences in employment expectations. However, I will not focus on the detailed process of choice-making for final year undergraduates regarding their employment expectations; rather, special attention will be paid to how their choices in employment expectations are constructed by the constraints that function at both the societal and the individual levels.

3.4 Conclusion

This chapter has critically reviewed the relevant literature and theories about gender differences in the labour market by grouping them into three different approaches: individualist approaches, structuralist perspectives ← 57 | 58 → and approaches focusing on both choice and constraint. It finds that existing literature and theories are more likely to pay attention to gender pay gaps in the labour market, but little emphasis has been given to gender differences in occupational choices. With regard to gender differences in employment expectations, once again, gender differences in salary expectations have attracted more scholars’ attention, and research regarding occupational expectations between males and females is sparse. The topic of gender differences in expectations of geographical region of work has rarely been studied.

This chapter has proposed a conceptual framework: choice and constraint, which is mainly based on Crompton and Harris’s (1998) argument that both choices and constraints should be taken into account when explaining gender differences in the labour market. Moreover, this study has developed their ideas by elaborating the concepts of both choice and constraint and by applying them to the Chinese context. In the next chapter, it will be argued that the study requires a mixed design combining both quantitative and qualitative methods.


9 Industry is divided into primary, secondary and tertiary industries, see Sato (2008) for a review.