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Is 'follow your passion' good career advice? This new study says no.

Researchers found that this popular advice may limit women’s career choices and unintentionally exacerbate the gender gap.
Image: A group of colleagues having a meeting in an office
A new study found that when both students and adults were asked to follow their passions, the picked industries that were more stereotypically in line with their gender. Tinpixels / Getty Images

Young people are often advised to “follow their passion” when they’re looking to start a new career. But a new study suggests that this popular advice may limit career choices and exacerbate the gender gap, particularly for women in STEM.

The research, published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that when both students and adults of all genders were asked to follow their passions, the picked industries that were more stereotypically in line with their gender. For example, women often chose jobs in the arts or healthcare. Meanwhile, men chose careers in science or business.

Then, when participants were asked to pick jobs based on earning potential and job security, the gender differences in job choice decreased. Women were more likely to choose well-paid jobs in male-dominated STEM fields, including computer science and engineering.

“We’re not saying that people need to be miserable in the pursuit of money,” said Maggie McGrath, editor of ForbesWomen on Wednesday’s “Morning Joe,” as part of Know Your Value’s continuing focus on equal opportunity and efforts to achieve gender equality. “But we do know that career choice is one of the largest drivers of the gender pay gap. So what these researchers are recommending is that women and girls are exposed to things like computer science and accounting from a young age so they know they have an interest and can pursue those fields later on. “

McGrath was joined by Huma Abedin, vice chair of the Forbes and Know Your Value’s 30/50 Summit and a longtime aide to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Abedin, who has had a successful career in politics (an industry that is overwhelmingly male) gave her advice to young women who are considering a career in a traditionally male-dominated field.

“Try things that scare you, that you may not be good at,” said Abedin. “…When I started in politics, I used to whisper, and I didn’t know I wanted to be in politics. Nobody around me was in politics, men or women. But if you consider doing something that maybe makes you uncomfortable or that you’re scared of doing, the whispering will lead to talking, and that will lead to leading.”

“Morning Joe” co-host and Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski noted that for many women practicality leads the day and that often women choose jobs that will pay the bills and put food on the table. “For me, the follow your passion advice has a lot to do with our ‘50 Over 50’ list, the long career runway [women have],” said Brzezinski. “This advice can apply to women who are mid-career or who are looking to make a pivot.

Abedin agreed. “The reality is people pursue careers that aren’t necessarily, you know, making you feel financially secure,” she said. “The number of my friends who are also in their late 40s, who feel financially secure—It’s shocking, and I put myself in that bucket. And so…you’re never ‘too old’ to try something new, to learn something new, it might be scary but it’s at least worth trying. You don’t want to look back with regret.”