Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

Women's and Men's Career Referents: How Gender Composition and Comparison Level Shape Career Expectations


This study examines how women’s and men’s career referents, the people they see as having similar careers, affect career expectations. We raise two questions. First, what is the relative effect of the gender composition and comparison level of career referents on such expectations? Second, what happens to career expectations when women and men identify career referents at the same comparison level? Current research suggests that women have lower career expectations than men because they compare themselves with women who hold lower-level positions than the career referents identified by men. Thus, if women and men identify with similar level career referents, their career expectations should be equal. However, this chain of reasoning has not been tested. Using data collected from a large organization, we identify both the specific individuals women and men perceive as having similar careers and these referents’ career levels, defined as their hierarchical level in the firm. The results show that the level of career referents is more important than their gender composition in explaining individuals’ career expectations. In contrast to extant explanations, the results show that even when women identify career referents at the same levels as men, they still exhibit significantly lower career expectations. Drawing on social comparison theory, we speculate this occurs because men’s expectations are bolstered by extreme upward comparisons, whereas women’s expectations are dampened, perhaps because they see high achieving others as representing a less probable goal.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View