Psychological and Sociological Perspectives on Women's Paid and Unpaid Work Choices

ABSTRACT - Working women are not a homogeneous group. The decision to work is related to situational, experiential, psychological, societal and opportunity factors. These factors interact in different ways for working class vs. middle class women and for wives vs. women who are the sole support for themselves and their families.


Ruth B. Ekstrom (1981) ,"Psychological and Sociological Perspectives on Women's Paid and Unpaid Work Choices", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08, eds. Kent B. Monroe, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 580-584.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 8, 1981      Pages 580-584


Ruth B. Ekstrom, Educational Testing Service


Working women are not a homogeneous group. The decision to work is related to situational, experiential, psychological, societal and opportunity factors. These factors interact in different ways for working class vs. middle class women and for wives vs. women who are the sole support for themselves and their families.


Today more women than ever before are working for pay outside of the home. Data for 1979 show that 51% of all females age 16 and over are in the labor force (the comparable figure for males is 77%). There has been a 10% increase in women's labor force participation rate in the past decade. As Hafstrom and Dunsing (1978) have pointed out, this affects not only the level of consumption but also the types of goods and services purchased. Therefore it is important to understand the factors that enter into women's employment decisions.


I hypothesize that there are five major factors which determine women's decisions about paid work (see model in Figure 1). Three of these factors are personal, specific to the woman herself. These include: (1) situational characteristics, such as age, race, social class, marital status, and number and age of children; (2) experiential characteristics, such as education, parental role models, sex role socialization, and previous paid work; and (3) psychological characteristics, such as ability, attitudes, expectations, interests, needs, and sex role conflicts. Each of these three personal factors can affect the employment decision directly. In addition, the situational and experiential factors affect the decision indirectly by modifying the psychological variables.

There are two other factors which affect the employment decision but which are external to the woman herself: (4) societal factors, such as sex discrimination, sex role stereotyping, mass media influences, and social/peer group influences; and (5) opportunity factors, such as the types of jobs available, the supply of these jobs and the demand for workers to fill them, and, finally, chance--that is happening to hear about a job or being in the right place at the right time. The opportunity factor affects the employment decision directly while the societal factor affects it indirectly through the opportunity, experiential, and psychological factors.



A detailed discussion of the opportunity and societal factors is outside of the main scope of this paper but I would like to comment on them briefly. When the society at large accepts certain sex stereotypes (such as women lack mechanical aptitude) it not only limits the job opportunities available to women but it also affects women's feelings about themselves and leads them to believe that it is unfeminine or inappropriate to do certain kinds of work. This, in turn, leads woman to narrow their job search to sex stereotyped occupations or, if they enter nontraditional occupations, to fear success and have sex role conflicts. Perceived support from both male and female peers is an important component of the societal factor and affects career aspirations (Angrier and Almquist 1975; Parsons, Frieze and Ruble 1978). The availability of societal support through institutions, such as day care centers, women's groups, and other community institutions is also important in career decisions (Nye and Hoffman 1963).

It is important to point out that women's work choices are often not a single decision but a group of decisions. Many of the research studies have divided women into different experience groups or patterns of paid work. One common differentiation is between career-oriented and homemaking-oriented women; this may involve determining if the women are currently working and if they plan to work in the future. Thus, one can conceptualize women as falling into four groups: (1) those currently working who plan to continue; (2) those currently working who plan to leave the labor force; (3) those not currently working who plan to re-enter the labor force; and (4) those not currently working who plan to remain homemakers. Another common differentiation is between women who are homemakers, those in traditionally female occupations, and those in occupations that are nontraditional for women (pioneers). Still another differentiation is between women who are "career-oriented," as defined by intention to pursue a specific profession or occupation (or a group of hierarchically related occupations) and those who are "work-oriented" but not career oriented, as defined by intention to be in the labor force for much of their adult life but without a commitment to a specific occupation.


Working women are not a homogeneous group. Situational characteristics of women are clearly related to differences in labor force participation.

Age cohort data on women's work is shown in Table 1. As can be seen, labor force participation increased between 1960 and 1978 in every age group except for women over age 65. The 1960 and 1970 pattern shows that women decreased their labor force participation during the childbearing and childrearing years; this is no longer evident in the 1978 data.

One of the fastest growing groups of working women is mothers with children under the age of 14. In 1979, 41% of women with children under age 3 were in the labor force, as were 52% of women with children ages 3 through 5, and 62% of women with children ages 6 through 13.

Another rapidly increasing group in the labor force is women age 20-24. This is related to the trend toward later marriage. In 1970 approximately one-third of women in this age group were single; today approximately half are single.



Another rapidly growing group of working women, sometimes called displaced homemakers, are the middle-aged women who have been widowed or divorced. The data shows that the labor force participation rate is higher for divorced women (74%) and for single women (63%) than for married women (49%).

There are also racial differences in labor force participation. About half (51%) of all White women work for pay outside the home. This figure is slightly higher for Black women (53%) and slightly lower for Hispanic women (47%).

Most women make the decision to work for the same reason as men do--they need to provide for themselves and their families. Of all women in the work force in March 1978, 25% were self-supporting single individuals and 19% were self-supporting widows or divorced individuals; 18% were married to men whose 1977 income was below $10,000, 15% were married to men whose income was between $10,000 and $14,999, and 23% were married to men whose income was $15,000 or more.

The research on situational factors affecting women's employment reinforces these data. Miyahira (1976) found that women are most likely to work if they are single, if they have no children, and if financial need exists; they are least likely to work if they have children under age 6, if there is adequate income, and if the husband disapproves of the wife's working. Heckman (1978) found that the major variable leading a married woman to seek employment was the unemployment of her spouse; the major variable keeping women working in the home was the presence of children. Tang (1976) found that husband's positive attitude about wife's working, husband's low income, and few or no children were the major situational variables affecting women's employment.

Mobility, on first consideration, would appear to increase the probability of employment since migration can be to areas where the opportunity factors are better. This is true for single women. However, married women may lose job opportunities when they move. Data from a national longitudinal study (Parnes et al. 1975) found that migration led to the improvement of earnings for the family unit as a whole but earnings of the wife deteriorated as a result of the move.

There has been very little research on working class women for whom paid employment is more often a necessity than a choice. Studies by Walshok (1976) suggest that this group, which does not have the resources for the "elaborative" aspects of homemaking (such as, interior decorating or gourmet cooking), or a tradition of participating in unpaid work in voluntary organizations, may find paid work a major source of personal satisfaction as well as providing additional income for family well-being. For the married middle class woman with adequate income paid employment is a choice; it is in this population that differences in the experiential and psychological factors have their greatest effect.

Stroud (1977) identified four patterns of work experience: (1) the career to homemaking pattern in which the woman leaves the work force after the birth of her children; (2) an unstable, intermittent pattern of labor force participation; (3) double-track women with high family orientation but who are in the labor force; and (4) work-committed women, with high career involvement who may or may not have families. She found that socioeconomic status significantly predicted career decisions in all groups. Family and personal characteristics were significantly related to work commitment for women who had attended college but there was no relationship between these variables and work commitment for women who had not attended college. College educated women with double-track or intermittent careers were unhappy in their marriages and in their role as homemakers.


Education and other forms of Job training have a large influence on employment decisions. As Mott and his colleagues (1978) have shown in their longitudinal study of the educational and labor market experience of young women that "women capable of earning higher salaries are more likely to maintain their work ties. Conversely, women with the least economic bargaining power--the less educated and the less skilled--are least likely to find and maintain employment at a reasonable wage level." The higher a woman's educational level and the greater the amount of occupational training, the more likely the woman is to be committed to a career rather than being home or work oriented.

The nature of women's unpaid work experience, especially their experience as homemakers, may lead them to seek paid employment. Early studies of homemakers (Weiss and Samuelson 1958) found them happy and content. More recently Ferree (1976) found that full time homemakers, compared to employed working-class women, are more dissatisfied with the way they spend their time (26% vs. 14%), feel that they have not had a fair opportunity in life (47% vs. 38%), and want their daughters to be different from them (35% vs. 22%). Ferree concludes that housework does not lead to a sense of competence, social connectedness, or self-determination to the same extent as does paid employment, Iglehart (1979) found a significant decrease in positive feelings about housework between 1957 and 1976. She also found a significant increase in the proportion of full-time housewives who plan to work at some time in the future. A study by Segre (1978) suggests that the happiest homemakers may be those who perceive that they have a choice between remaining at home and entering the work force; she also found that women who were part-time returnees to the work force were happier than either homemakers or full-time workers because they felt they had exercised a choice of position.

Several studies have indicated that there is a "chicken and egg" problem in studying the relationship between work experience and psychological variables, such as attitudes. For example, Macke, Hudis and Larrick (1978) found not only that attitudes affect the decision to work but also that work experience has a strong effect on attitudes. These authors believe that early sex role attitudes influence initial employment decisions and that the nature of this paid work experience affects later sex role attitudes and work decisions.

The early sex role socialization experience of young women affects their adult work decisions. Nickerson and Pitochelli (1978) describe how feminine sex role socialization often involves learning to be passive and dependent, what Lipman-Blumen (1972) calls "learned dependency." In later life this can lead to reduced feelings of control and reduced self-confidence when entering the labor force.

It has been generally acknowledged that parental role models, especially the mother, play a major part in the development of career aspirations in young women (Angrist and Almquist 1975, Nye and Hoffman 1963, O'Leary 1974). In general, daughters whose mothers worked during their childhood have higher career aspirations than daughters whose mothers were not in the labor force. More recent analyses have suggested that this relationship is somewhat more complex. Data from a national longitudinal study of working women (Mott 1978) shows that women who grew up in two parent families were more likely to work if they had a mother who worked during their childhood. This finding did not hold for women who grew up in single parent households. This suggests that when a mother makes the choice to work, she provides a positive model for her daughter but when the work decision is forced on the mother by circumstances, such as poverty or widowhood, it may be perceived by the daughter as a negative model. Parsons, Frieze and Ruble (1978) found that both mothers with careers and homemakers who were dissatisfied with their lives had daughters with high career aspirations but mothers who were satisfied with their role as housewives had daughters with lower aspirations.


Much of the literature on the psychological factors affecting women's careers is based on research with college educated women. It seems likely that it is in this group, with a high investment in education and high income husbands, that ambivalence about paid work may be the greatest. However, it is unwise and unrealistic to over-generalize from college educated women to women in general.

Women often express conflicting feelings about their wish to enter the labor force and the fears they hold about the consequences their employment may have in their marriage and for their children. As the number of roles increases (from worker to wife and worker to mother and wife and worker), a woman feels increasing role conflicts. Home pressures appear to be the most important contributors to role conflicts (Hall and Gordon 1973). The absence of a supportive male, as is the case with displaced homemakers and other women who are self-supporting, increases the perception of role conflict and is a factor limiting interest in higher-level careers and inhibiting the movement of working women into positions of greater responsibility (Jerdee and Rosen 1976). O'Leary (1974) has suggested that at the point in the life cycle where women face multiple responsibilities, employing organizations should focus on helping women cope with role conflicts rather than on how to motivate them to achieve in the occupation.

Three psychological factors that inhibit women's occupational aspirations have been identified by DiSabatino (1976). These are sex role conflicts, poor self-esteem, and fear of failure.

The psychological literature shows that, in general, females have a poorer self-concept than males and that females of lower socioeconomic status may have poorer self-concept than middle class females. Thus, women are likely to have more doubts than men about their ability to compete in the work force successfully.

Mendelsohn (1979) compared the personality and characteristics of career-oriented and homemaking-oriented college educated women. He separated these women into four groups: (1) those currently working who plan to continue working until retirement; (2) those currently working who plan to leave the labor force; (3) those not currently working who plan to re-enter the labor force; and (4) those not currently working who plan to remain homemakers. For all groups except the nonworking women who plan to remain at home, the opportunity to use skills was rated as the most important reason for working; this difference reached statistical significance between women now working who plan to continue and women not now working who do not plan to work. This finding and my own research with re-entry en (Ekstrom, Baler, Davis and Gruenberg, In press) shows that although homemakers have many skills they view themselves as having fewer skills than women in the labor force. The other significant difference between Mendelsohn's four groups was that women now working who plan to continue rate need for money more highly than women who are not now working but who plan to return to work.

Fear of success is a concept originated by Horner (1972). She has shown that women perceive a conflict between societal expectations for women to be noncompetitive and dependent and the competent, achievement-oriented behavior needed for success in many occupations. These findings have not been consistently replicated. Some researchers think that fear of success comes into play only when women are employed in occupations that are predominantly male.

Women choosing nontraditional careers tend to be more independent, more committed to their careers, and to hold more nontraditional sex role attitudes than are women who choose traditional occupations (Farmer 1979).

Walshok (1976) has identified the work values important to women in nontraditional blue collar occupations. These women are, first of all, concerned with the economic rewards of work, not only as a means of obtaining money needed for support and as fair compensation for contributions made, but also as a means of becoming self-sufficient and independent and of achieving an enhanced sense of self-worth. They also view paid work as a way of escaping the boredom of the home, of obtaining outside communication and friendship, of obtaining recognition and a sense of achievement, and of being challenged by the opportunity to learn new things and prove oneself capable.

The women in the Walshok study were, as a group, quite liberal in their sex role attitudes. For example, 93% felt that it was all right for women to compete with men for jobs; 93% also felt that most jobs can be done as well by women as by men. They showed little problem with sex role conflicts; 86% felt that a woman could have a career and still keep her femininity. These women also felt that husbands should take an active role in the family; 93% expected husbands to help in the kitchen and in doing other housework; 87% expected husbands to share actively in raising children. In contrast to this group, women who are homemakers have more traditional attitudes about sex roles (Segre, 1978).

A number of researchers have used Eyde's Work Values Scale to identify differences in the values held by working women and homemakers. Wolkon (1972) found that college educated women who were homemakers and who were in traditional occupations ranked independence as their highest value but women who were pioneering in nontraditional occupations ranked economic rewards as their highest value. In general, there were larger value differences between the traditional and pioneer working women than between the traditional working women and homemakers.


In summary, the vast majority of women make the decision about whether or not to enter the work force on the basis of need and other situational factors, such as marital status, presence of children, and husband's attitudes about women and work. Opportunity factors not only affect the decision to work but also play a large part in the job choice of women with limited education and/or job training. College educated women appear to have higher expectations for their careers but feel greater sex role conflicts in their decision to enter the labor force. Women who elect the unpaid work of homemaker may do so because of traditional sex role attitudes, because they perceive high conflict between femininity and success, or because they feel they lack the skills needed in paid work. Married women in paid work, whether by choice or necessity, report problems arising out of their multiple roles as worker, wife and mother.


Angrist, S. S. and Almquist, E. M. (1975), Careers and Contingencies, New York: Dunellen.

DiSabatino, Marie (1976), "Psychological Factors Inhibiting Women's Occupational Aspirations and Vocational Choices: Implications for Counseling," Vocational Guidance Quarterly, 25, 43-48.

Ekstrom, Ruth B., Beier, Juliet J., Davis, E. Leta, and Gruenberg, C. Brooke (In press), "The Career and Educational Counseling Implications of Women's Life Experience Learning," Personnel and Guidance Journal.

Farmer, Helen (1979), Counseling Programs and Services for Women in Non-Traditional Occupations, Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University.

Ferree, Myra N. (1976), "Working-Class Jobs: Housework and Paid Work as Sources of Satisfaction," Social Problems, 23, 431-441.

Hafstrom, Jeanne L. and Dunsing, Marilyn M. (1978), "Socioeconomic and Social-Psychological Influences on Reasons Wives Work," Journal of Consumer Research, 5, 169-175.

Hall, Douglas T. and Gordon, Francine E. (1973), "The Career Choices of Married Women: Effects on Conflict, Role Behavior, and Satisfaction," Journal of Applied Psychology, 58, 42-48.

Heckman, James J. (1978), "A Partial Study of Recent Research on the Labor Supply of Women," American Economic Review, 68, 200-207.

Horner, Matina S. (1972), "Toward an Understanding of Achievement-Related Conflicts in Women," Journal of Social Issues, 28, 157-173.

Iglehart, Alfreda P. (1979), Married Women and Work, Lexington, Massachusetts: Lexington Books.

Jerdee, Thomas H. and Rosen, Benson (1976), "Factors Influencing the Career Commitment of Women," Paper presented at the Symposium "Women Managers, How Are They Different?" American Psychological Association, Washington, D.C.

Lipman-Blumen, Jean (1972), "How Ideology Shapes Women's Lives," Scientific American, 226, 34-42.

Macke, Anne S., Hudis, Paula M. and Larrick, Don (1978), "Sex-Role Attitudes and Employment Among Women: Dynamic Models of Continuity and Change," In Women's Changing Roles at Home and on the Job, Washington, D.C.: National Commission for Manpower Policy.

Mendelsohn, Robert A. A. (1979), The Personality and Attitudinal Characteristics of Career-Oriented and Homemaking-Oriented Women, Detroit: Wayne State University.

Miyahira, Sarah D. (1976), "College Women's Career Orientation as Related to Work Values and Background Factors," Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Ohio State University.

Mott, Frank L. and others (1978), Years for Decision: A Longitudinal Study of the Educational and Labor Market Experience of Young Women, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor.

Nickerson, Eileen T. and Pitochelli, Elaine T. (1978), "Learned Helplessness and Depression in Married Women: Marriage as a Depressing Life Style for Women," Paper presented at the Symposium "Wife, Mother, Employee: Role Combination and Conflict," Washington, D.C.: Eastern Psychological Association.

Nye, F. Ivan and Hoffman, Lois W. (1963), The Employed Mother in America, Chicago: Rand McNally, 1963.

O'Leary, Virginia E. (1974), "Some Attitudinal Barriers to Occupational Aspirations in Women," Psychological Bulletin, 81, 809-826.

Parnes, Herbert S. and others (1975), Dual Careers: A Longitudinal Analysis of the Labor Market Experience of Women, Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University.

Parsons, Jacquelynne E., Frieze, Irene H., and Ruble, Diane H. (1978), "Intrapsychic Factors Influencing Career Aspirations in College Women," Sex Roles, 4, 337-347.

Segre, Jessica (1978), "Self-Concept and Depression: Mothers Returning to Work or Remaining at Home," Paper presented at the Symposium "Wife, Mother, Employee: Role Combination and Conflict," Washington, D.C.: Eastern Psychological Association.

Stroud, Janice G. (1977), "Careers of Middle-Aged Women in Work and Family: Personal and Social Concomitants and Antecedents," Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California at Berkeley.

Tang, Dena B. E. (1976), "Labor Force Participation of College-Educated American Women: The influence of Early Work Commitment and Later Situational Factors," Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Purdue University.

Walshok, Mary L. (1976), "Occupational Values and Family Roles: Women in Blue-Collar and Service Occupations," The Urban and Social Change Review, 11, 12-20.

Weiss, Robert S. and Samuelson, Nancy M. (1958), "Social Roles of American Women: Their Contribution to a Sense of Usefulness and Importance," Marriage and Family Living, 4, 358-366.

Wolkon, Kenneth A. (1972), "Pioneer vs. Traditional: Two District Vocational Patterns of College Alumnae," Journal of Vocational Behavior, 2, 275-282.



Ruth B. Ekstrom, Educational Testing Service


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08 | 1981

Share Proceeding

Featured papers

See More


Decisional Conflict Predicts Myopia

Paul Edgar Stillman, Ohio State University, USA
Melissa Ferguson, Cornell University, USA

Read More


I5. Take That Mirror Away From me! Clothing Consumption by the Elderly and the Self-identity of the Young

Daniela Ferreira, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro

Read More


Deny the Voice Inside: Are Accessible Attitudes Always Beneficial?

Aaron Jeffrey Barnes, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA
Sharon Shavitt, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA

Read More

Engage with Us

Becoming an Association for Consumer Research member is simple. Membership in ACR is relatively inexpensive, but brings significant benefits to its members.