Students in the U.S. are often encouraged to choose a career that fits their passions and interests. This message pervades many aspects of American culture from the advice given by parents and guidance counselors to the messages conveyed by popular advertisements. While pursuing a career that matches one's interests seems like common sense, our research shows taking this advice may have an unexpected downside.

The advice to follow one's passions, compared to other common career advice, can discourage women more than men from considering traditionally male-dominated fields like engineering, finance, and computer science.

In our studies, we asked women and men to make hypothetical career choices based on following different pieces of advice, such as select a career that will enable you to follow your passions, or nurture and support others, or have a good income and job security. When women and men were told to choose a career based on following their passions, women mentioned fields that were made up of a lower proportion of men compared to men, creating a gender gap. However, when women and men were told to select a career that would enable them to make a good income or nurture and support others, gender gaps in career choices were smaller.

Potentially Insidious Advice

The recommendation to follow one's passions sounds good, but it can undermine freedom of choice and perpetuates women's underrepresentation in male-dominated fields like engineering and computer science. As these fields continue to have an outsized role in shaping the future of our society and our world, this gender gap remains a problem because these fields continue to miss valuable contributions from talented women, and women miss lucrative and influential career opportunities.

The advice to pursue one's passions is not universally valued. Indeed, this advice is less prevalent in some places outside the U.S. Past research has shown, for example, that students from countries like Malaysia, India, and the former Soviet Republic of Armenia are encouraged to select career paths that provide economic and job security. Interestingly, there is some evidence to suggest that gender gaps in STEM in these countries are also smaller compared to the gender gaps observed in the U.S. The value placed on using one's passions to guide one's academic and career choices is more prominent in the U.S. than in some other countries where career choice is more commonly based on factors outside the self, such as financial security.

Some may argue that women and men simply have different interests, and that is what drives the gender gaps we observe in male-dominated fields. However, our research shows that gendered interests do not make gender gaps in male-dominated fields inevitable. When women and men are encouraged to use factors outside of themselves to make academic and occupational decisions like choosing a college major or job based on job security and income or supporting others, gendered interests have less power to shape career decisions, leading to fewer disparities between women and men.

We are not recommending that American students forego their passions in favor of choosing careers based on pay and job security. Pursuing a field that one is passionate about can be highly motivating and personally satisfying. However, what we find is that when women and men make career choices based on the advice to pursue one's passions, they tend to limit their choices according to a predefined path that society has laid out for them. Students may be dismissing opportunities they could be passionate about without ever giving them a try. So, women and men could expand their potential interests by exposing themselves to options they may have initially overlooked.

Interests are malleable and what people take interest in is greatly shaped by their circumstance. For example, try recalling a time you tried an unfamiliar cuisine and ended up enjoying it. Or perhaps you were introduced to a game by a new colleague that you were initially wary about, but you ended up having a blast. You may have even taken an elective in high school or college because it was the only one that fit your schedule, and it ended up being your favorite class that term. People readily discover and develop new interests.

As a fresh set of graduates in the U.S. begin their careers, now may be a good time to reconsider or even reevaluate the advice of pursuing a career that aligns with one's passions. Along with considering familiar interests, students in the U.S. could open themselves up to the possibility of discovering or developing new passions. Students might also consider the sensibility of other career advice prominent outside the U.S. such as the pursuit of careers that enable financial security. Considering such alternatives may help students in the U.S. liberate themselves from the societal expectations placed upon them by their passions.

For Further Reading

Charles, M. (2017). Venus, Mars, and math: Gender, societal affluence, and eighth graders' aspirations for STEM. Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, 3, 1–16.

Chen, P., Ellsworth, P. C., & Schwarz, N. (2015). Finding a fit or developing it: Implicit theories about achieving passion for work. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(10), 1411–1424.

Siy, J. O., Germano, A. L., Vianna, L., Azpeitia, J., Yan, S., Montoya, A. K., & Cheryan, S. (2023). Does the follow-your-passions ideology cause greater academic and occupational gender disparities than other cultural ideologies? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication.

Soylu Yalcinkaya, N., & Adams, G. (2020). A cultural psychological model of cross-national variation in gender gaps in STEM participation. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 24(4), 345–370.

Oliver Siy is a user experience researcher at Google. He is interested in examining how well-intentioned efforts to promote diversity can backfire.

Adriana L. Germano is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at Yale University. She is interested in how cultural defaults, like individualism in the U.S., lead to gender and racial inequity.

Amanda Montoya is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at UCLA. She is interested in developing statistical techniques to help researchers test complex causal questions.