Women's Self-Ascribed Occupational Status and Retail Patronage

Elizabeth C. Hirschman, New York University
[ to cite ]:
Elizabeth C. Hirschman (1981) ,"Women's Self-Ascribed Occupational Status and Retail Patronage", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08, eds. Kent B. Monroe, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 648-654.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 8, 1981      Pages 648-654


Elizabeth C. Hirschman, New York University


Since the early 1970's there has been a steady research stream concerned with the increasing occupational diversity of women and the relationship of this occupational diversity to women's behavior as consumers (e.g. Bartos 1977; Lazer and Smallwood 1977; McCall 1977). Investigations conducted at the outset of this stream of research tended to dichotomize women into only two groups: employed and unemployed (e.g. Anderson 1972; Douglas 1976; Strober and Weinberg 1977).

Later studies, however, utilized a three member typology: housewives, "working" women and "career" women; where "working" women were defined as those who viewed their employment as a job and worked primarily for financial reasons, and "career" women were those who viewed their employment as a career and worked primarily for self-fulfillment (e.g. Joyce and Guiltinan 1978; Hafstrom and Dunsing 1978; Bartos 1977).

Based on empirical findings that support the validity of a three-member occupational typology for women, Bartos (1977 p. 37) writes: ... We must go beyond a simplistic comparison of working women with housewives if we are to understand these two kinds of markets. The contrast found in the ... behavior of career women and the "just-a-job" working women is dramatic evidence of the need to go beyond the perspective of (employed) women as a monolithic group."


The present research has two purposes. The first is to explore the overlap between a woman's self-ascribed perception of her occupational status (i.e. housewife, working woman, career woman) and her externally-ascribed occupational status. For example, professional-managerial, sales-clerical and unemployed occupational categories are three externally-ascribed status categories into which many women are often grouped by researchers (Miller, Schooler, Kohn and Miller 1979; Greenberg, Straight, Hassenger, and Roska 1978; Tumin 1967). In consumer research on such externally ascribed occupational status groupings, professionally employed women often are implicitly assumed to view themselves as "careert" women, while women having sales-clerical jobs are frequently assured to hold "working" women self-perceptions, and 'unemployed' women assumed to view themselves as housewives (e.g. Joyce and Guiltinan 1978). One important research hypothesis, therefore, is whether this implied congruence between externally-ascribed and self-ascribed occupational status actually is present for woman.

If this congruence is found, the second objective of the research will be to examine differences among the self-ascribed status groupings of women in terms of retail patronage variables. In this regard, the product area of apparel is especially important, because one of the primary ways an individual displays status to others is through apparel (Belk 1978, Holman 1980). Four areas of potential differences among Housewives, Working Women and Career Women will be investigated: (1) types of stores shopped for apparel, (2) times at which apparel shopping is conducted, (3) the dimensional structure of store attributes relevant to apparel purchases and (4) information source importance in apparel purchases.

Internal and External Status

It is important to gain an understanding of the occupational status concept and the perspectives from which it may be viewed. The term status refers to a social position; social positions nay be defined along many dimensions. Wealth, educational attainment, sex, race, religion and occupation are some of the more common dimensions for defining status in Western society (Tumin 1967). Within a given society, some social positions are normatively valued more/less highly than others, and hence may be ordered hierarchically in term of their prestige or social value. This normative, hierarchical ordering gives rise to status ranking.

One of the most important sources of status ranking in U.S. society is that of occupation (Tumin 1967). It is because of the predominance of occupation as a social ranking dimension and women's traditionally unemployed condition that women were often said to occupy a "low-status" position in society. As women acquired jobs outside the home, they altered their status and provided a means for differentiating themselves. That is, by acquiring occupations other than that of housewife, women generated greater with-in-group status heterogeneity. Occupational status became an additional dimension that could be used by researchers and by women, themselves, for differentiation.

Two perspectives may be used for studying women along this "new" differentiating dimension of occupational status: one which is externally-assigned and one which is internal to the individual. An example of an externally-assigned status system is that of labeling certain jobs as professional-managerial, sales-clerical, skilled labor and so forth. Such a labeling system is used as a social convention to ascribe status to occupations. These externally-ascribed statuses subsequently are often normatively ranked as to social desirability; for example, professional-managerial occupations are generally viewed as higher in social value than those based upon skilled labor (Tumin 1967).

A second perspective is to ask women to ascribe a status to themselves based upon self-perceptions of their occupations. Here, instead of labeling herself as (say) a 'sales-clerical worker', the women would define herself as a "Housewife," a "Working Women" or a "Career Women." For present purposes we will define "working" Women as a self-perceived occupational status to describe an occupation that serves as "just a job" and which was acquired primarily to generate income; whereas the "Career Woman" self-perception refers to an occupation that vas acquired mainly as a means of self-fulfillment.

It is expected that these two status systems will be generally consistent in actual practice. That is, that women who hold professional-managerial occupations will view themselves as career women; women who hold clerical-sales occupations will view themselves as working women, and women who are voluntarily 'unemployed' will view themselves as housewives. This expectation is based on the premise that the status ranking system characterizing the society in which the woman lives will be internalized by her as a result of socialization processes. In essence, we cone to view and value ourselves as society views and values the positions that we occupy.

Because a professional occupation is highly valued in U.S. society, a woman would be expected to view it as a means for achieving self-fulfillment and recognition. Because a clerical occupation is less-valued in our society, a women would be expected to view it, not as self-fulfilling in and of itself, but rather as a means for obtaining other objectives - for example, the generation of additional income to purchase desired products.

To the extent that externally- and internally-ascribed status systems overlap, they may be used interchangeably in examining the consumption behavior of women. That is, we may classify women either by a set of externally-imposed categories or by the self-ascribed classification scheme that they apply to themselves. Thus the first hypothesis advanced in this research is that self-ascribed occupational status and externally-ascribed occupational status for women will be consistent.

H1: Specifically, it is hypothesized that women who hold a professional or managerial occupation will view it as a career; women who hold a clerical-sales occupation will view it as a Job; and women who are voluntarily unemployed will view their occupation as that of housewife or homemaker.

It was further hypothesized that income and educational differences previously found for women based on their externally-ascribed status will be consistent with those found for their internally-ascribed status (Joyce and Guiltinan 1978). That is:

H2: Career women, housewives and working women will be ordered as high, medium and low in family income, respectively.

This hypothesis is based on prior descriptive research and also on the following reasoning. First, one reason why women who voluntarily choose not to work (i.e. Homemakers) are likely to do so is because there is no immediate financial need which forces them to seek employment. Thus, they are likely to be from moderate to high income households. Second, "Working Women" have already defined themselves as working primarily "for the income;" therefore there is reason to suspect that there is inadequate household income unless they work. Third, the fact that "Career Women" are seeking self-fulfillment as a primary reason for working presupposes that there is at least adequate household income; otherwise they would be employed mainly out of necessity and not out of desire. Further, empirical reality suggests that "career" occupations are typically the most financially rewarding. Thus, the combination of a high household income (e.g. a well-employed spouse) together with her own above average earnings should place the Career Women in the highest income rank.

H3: Career women, housewives and working women will be ordered as high, medium, and low in educational attainment, respectively.

In addition to the earlier findings that gave rise to this hypothesis (Joyce and Guiltinan 1978), there are some logical inferences upon which it may be based, as well. First, educational attainment tends to be linked to income and occupational status. Therefore, it is straightforward to reason that women who work of financial necessity (i.e. Working Women) are less educated. Women who can be Homemakers are likely to be married to well-educated men who hold financially-rewarding jobs. Women who have professional occupations are likely to be highly educated. A high level of education is generally a prerequisite for holding most professional-managerial jobs and, thus, is likely a prerequisite to perceiving oneself as a Career Woman.

Retail Patronage

The second objective of the research was to extend the examination of self-ascribed status rankings to an investigation of interpersonal differences in retail patronage. The patronage area of specific concern was that of apparel purchasing. Since apparel is one of the primary means used by the individual to create a self-identity and to communicate that identity to others (e.g. Belk 1978, Holman 1980), it stands to reason that there should be apparel purchasing differences among women based on their self-ascribed status. The specific hypotheses advanced in this portion of the research were:

H4: Women will display a different pattern of apparel shopping at various store types depending upon their self-ascribed occupational status.

H5: Women will display a different pattern of apparel shopping during various times of the day and days of the week depending upon their self-ascribed occupational status.

H6: Women will display a different dimensional structure for store attributes relevant to apparel shopping depending upon their self-ascribed occupational status.

H7: Women will display a different ranking of importance for information sources regarding apparel shopping depending upon their self-ascribed occupational status.

More specific rationales for these hypothesized differences are given in subsequent discussion.



Data for the research were generated by mailing self-administered questionnaires to stratified groups of women. The aim was to obtain proportionately equivalent representation of self-identified Housewives, Working Women and Career Women. To accomplish this, mailing lists were obtained for New York Area PTA groups, clerical and sales worker associations, and professional and business associations. Names of women were selected at random from these lists and 75 questionnaires were mailed to each type of source (e.g. PTA, clerical associations, business associations). After three weeks, 48 questionnaires had been returned on which the respondent identified herself as a Housewife, 42 questionnaires were returned on which the respondent identified herself as a Working Woman and 35 questionnaires on which the respondent identified herself as a Career Woman. Follow-up mailings (n = 50) were sent to women on the three mailing lists; and enough questionnaires were received from this second mailing to bring the total self-identified Housewives to 51, self-identified Working Women to 52 and self-identified Career Women to 50.

Because of the stratified nature of the sampling design, the approximately equal proportions of the three types of women used in the research do not, of course, mean that these groups occur with equal frequency in the general population. The purpose here was not to define parameters for the Housewife, Working Women and Career Woman status segments, but rather to examine intergroup differences. Hence group proportional equivalence rather than population representativeness was the dominant criterion.

The women composing each group in the sample are believed to be representative of the group, within the parameters imposed by use of the mailing lists. These lists restricted the sample frame to women residing near New York City and to women belonging to certain organizations (e.g. a PTA); hence the findings from the study must be generalized from cautiously both on a demographic and sociological basis.


The primary criterion employed in the research was a multi-part question that requested the respondent to identify herself as belonging to one of three possible occupational groups. The classificatory statement read:

Do you see yourself primarily as a:

(1) Homemaker, that is, your principal occupation is taking care of your home and family.

(2) Working Woman, that is, your principal occupation is a job whose major purpose is to earn income.

(3) Career Woman, that is, your principal occupation is a career whose major purpose is self- fulfillment.

Based on their responses to this question, women were classified as Homemakers (n = 51), Working Women (n = 52) or Career Women (n = 50).


Hypothesis 1.  The first hypothesis expressed the expectation that a high degree of congruence would be found between a woman's self-ascribed status and the status externally ascribed to her occupation. To test this, a contingency table was constructed comparing the three self-ascribed groupings (Homemaker, Working Mouton, Career Woman) with three levels of externally-ascribed occupational status (professional-managerial, clerical-sales, housewife/unemployed). These latter status groupings were formed on the basis of actual occupation as reported by the individual.

As can be seen from the data displayed in Table 1, there is a very high degree of correspondence between self-ascribed status and actual occupation for the women in this research. Approximately three fourths of women who considered themselves "Career Women" held professional managerial occupations; and roughly the same percentage of women who classified themselves as "Working Women" held clerical-sales positions. There was complete correspondence between women who viewed themselves as "Homemakers" and those who listed their occupation as housewife. This correspondence between occupational self-perceptions and actual occupations was highly significant statistically (p < .00001).



Hypothesis 2.  The second hypothesis stated the expectation that Career women, Homemakers, and Working Women would be ordered high, medium, and low, respectively, with regard to household income. This expectation is partially confirmed by the data in Table 2. As can be seen, the Homemakers in the sample have the highest average household income, Career Women an intermediate level and Working Women the lowest. The one-way ANOVA of group mean differences indicated that both the Homemakers and Career Women had incomes significantly higher than Working Women (p < .05 and < .10, respectively) based on the Scheffe' test for simultaneous comparisons. There was not a significant difference between the income of Homemakers and Career Women, although the general direction was opposite that anticipated.

Hypothesis 3.  The third hypothesis expressed the notion that Career Woman would be highest, Homemakers intermediate, and Working Women lowest in educational attainment. This set of expectations was partially borne out by the results shown in Table 3. The one-way ANOVA of differences in population means indicates that Career Women are highest in educational attainment, Homemakers are intermediate, and Working Women are lowest, as was anticipated. The Scheffe' test for simultaneous comparisons was significant at the p < .05 level for the difference between Career Women and Working Women. However, there was not a statistically significant difference between the educational attainment of career Women and Homemakers or Homemakers and Working Women as had been anticipated, although the general direction was as expected.

Since testing the first three hypotheses generally confirmed the overlap between self-ascribed and externally-assigned occupational status for women, analysis was extended to an examination of retail patronage. Specifically, the relationships between self-ascribed occupational status and several variables concerning apparel shopping were examined.

Hypothesis 4.  This hypothesis expressed the belief that patronage of various types of retail stores for apparel purchases would be related to self-ascribed occupational status. Five types of stores were examined: discount stores, chain stores, department stores, specialty stores and boutiques. Respondents were asked:

"In what type of store do you usually shop for your own daywear clothing?"

The responses given by career Women, Working Women and Homemakers were analyzed using contingency tables and are shown in Table 4. As can be seen, for only one type of store - the specialty store (e.g. Saks, Lord & Taylor) -were differences found at a statistically significant level among status groups. For specialty stores, Career Women were found to shop for daywear clothing at a proportionately greater level than either Homemakers or Working Women (p < .03). Further, it is important to note that a majority of all women respondents reported shopping most often at department stores for their daytime apparel. Women's apparel has traditionally been the forte of department stores, and it appears that this relationship still holds among the present respondents.

Hypothesis 5.  It was hypothesized that differences in day and time of shopping for apparel would be present among women having different self-ascribed occupational status. More specifically, it was believed that Career Women and Working Women would shop more on weekends and during the evenings; whereas Homemakers would utilize the "traditional weekday shopping hours (i.e. mornings and afternoons). This was tested by asking respondents:

"When (days and hours) do you usually shop for your own clothing?"

Response categories were:

Days: Weekdays, Weekends, or Both

Hours: Mornings, Mid-day, Afternoon, Early Evening, Late Evening





Responses to these questions were arranged in contingency cables and tested using the Chi-square statistic. Data are given in Table 5. As can be seen from the figures, there are some significant differences among alternative occupational status groups in shopping time. As was expected, Homemakers did most of their apparel shopping during the weekdays (84%), whereas the majority of both Career Women and Working Women did their apparel shopping on the Weekends or during a combination Weekends and Weekdays. This difference in shopping pattern was highly significant (p < .0001).

An anticipated Career Women and Working Women reported shopping in the early evening to a significantly greater extent, then did Homemakers (p < .0001); whereas Homemakers were significantly more inclined to shop during the morning and afternoon hours (p < .02, < .007). Thus, occupational status appears to directly relate to a woman's retail patronage habits, at least as far as apparel shopping is concerned.

These findings suggest that revilers may be attracting different occupational segments of women depending upon the time of day and the day of the week. Thus, shopping time may be a central dimension for segmenting women customers. Sales personnel, for example, could be alerted to the differential probabilities of encountering women of each occupational status group at various time periods, and sales appeals and merchandise displays could perhaps be adjusted accordingly.





Hypothesis 6. This put forward the expectation that different dimensional structures of retail-relevant attributes would characterize women having different self-ascribed occupational statuses. The specific question used to obtain data to test this hypothesis was as follows:

"How important are the following characteristics to you in deciding where to shop for your own daywear clothing?"

(1) Broad selection of merchandise

(2) Good service; helpful salespeople

(3) Convenient locations and hours

(4) Reasonable prices

(5) Fashionable merchandise

Each of the attributes examined has been determined salient in prior research on fashion apparel (King and Ring 1980). Responses were recorded on a four-point scale ranging from 'Very Important' (4) to 'Not Important' (1). To discern if different dimensional structures existed for these attributes among the three women's occupational status groups, scores for each group were input to factor analysis (principal components with varimax rotation). [Only factors having eigenvalues greater than 1.0 are discussed.] The results given in Table 6.

As can be seen from the data in Table 6, there are substantial differences among the three groups in terms of attribute factor structure. For Homemakers two factors were obtained; the first factor is correlated highly with selection and fashion while the second factor is related to service, convenience and prices. In contrast, Working Women displayed a simpler, one-factor structure in their attribute perceptions. All attributes tended to be evaluated similarly by Working Women, resulting in one, overall factor upon which each attribute loaded highly.

Career Women exhibited the most complex factor structure; three factors were extracted to represent their attribute perceptions. The first factor correlated highly with convenience and prices; the second with service, and the third with fashion. Thus it appears that for the respondents in this research, there is a substantial difference in the dimensional structure of salient attributes characterizing the three occupational status groups. This finding suggests that images of varied complexity may be perceived for apparel retailers depending upon whether a woman views herself as a Homemaker, a Working Woman or a Career Women.

Hypothesis 7.  This hypothesis expressed the notion that different rankings of importance for various apparel-relevant information sources would result depending upon the self-ascribed occupational status of women. This hypothesis was tested by asking respondents the following question:

"To get ideas about what to wear during the day would you:"

(1) Shop in stores

(2) Read fashion magazines

(3) Read newspaper advertisements

(4) Watch television and movies

(5) Wear what your friends are wearing

(6) Wear what your work associates are wearing

(7) Ask family members

(8) Wear what your superiors at work are wearing

Responses were arrayed on a four-point rating scale ranging from 'Very Important' (4) to 'Not Important' (1). Based on mean values computed for each occupational status group, these scores were transformed to rankings, which are given in Table 7. The Kendall rank order correlation coefficient, tau, was used to compute the correspondence between information source rankings for pairs of occupational status groups.





The calculated values of Kendall's tau ranged from .37 to .70, all of which were significant at the p < .01 level. Thus, contrary to expectations, there is significant correspondence between the rank-order importance of various apparel information sources among occupational status groups. This finding is readily apparent from visual inspection of the ranked information sources provided in Table 7. The highest correlation was between Working Women and Career Women (. 70); the next highest was between Working Women and Homemakers (.59); and the lowest was between Career Women and Homemakers (.37).

Rankings of the three most important apparel information sources - shopping in stores, reading fashion magazines and reading newspaper advertisements - is invariant across status groups. There were some inter-group differences, however. Wearing what coworkers or superiors wear are somewhat more important information sources for Career Women. Homemakers placed relatively more importance on watching television and movies as sources of apparel information, than did either Working Women or Career Women, perhaps because Homemakers have more time available for this type of information-seeking. However, despite these dissimilarities, the overriding pattern is one of congruence among the women's occupational status groups as regards apparel information source importance.

Further, it is of strategic importance for retailers to note that the dominant source of apparel information for all three groups of women was shopping in retail stores. This, of course, is the "source" which is most directly under the control of the retailer. The fact that all three types of women studied are turning to the store as their most important source regarding apparel information provides a substantial degree of strategic maneuverability to retailers who take advantage of this role.


This research explored the congruence between externally and internally ascribed occupational status for women, and the relationship that internally ascribed status has on various aspects of women's retail patronage. It was found that, for the respondents studied, there was very great consistency between internal and external occupational status ascriptions.

With regard to the relationship between internal status ascription and retail patronage, the following conclusions were reached: First, Career Women shop at specialty scores more than do Working Women or Homemakers. Second, Career Women and Working Woman tended to shop more in the evenings and on weekends than did Homemakers. Third, Career Women, Working Women and Homemakers displayed substantially different factor structures for retail relevant attributes. Finally, rankings of importance for apparel information sources were found to be largely congruent among the three occupational status groups.


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