Male scientist researching on biological cell on computer screen in laboratory.

Promoting passion in career decisions can hamper workplace diversity efforts.Credit: Getty

Erin Cech started her academic life 22 years ago in electrical engineering, but found that the extra sociology classes she took as an undergraduate were more meaningful and relevant, so she swapped subjects. Now a sociologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, she argues in her 2021 book The Trouble With Passion that choosing a profession you love can risk exploitation by employers and inequality in the workplace and, ironically, undermine productivity.

What were your original academic interests?

My inspiration for studying electrical engineering was my grandmother, who had gone blind by the time my mum was in her teens. She was amazing, she lived by herself in a 100-year-old house. I wanted to help make assistive technologies better than the ones she had access to. I did well in engineering, but kept asking my professors questions about things like access, usability and inequality. They not only didn’t know the answers, but didn’t always think the questions were relevant and pushed me to pursue other fields, particularly sociology.

I started taking sociology classes and realized that the discipline contained the tools, both methodological and theoretical, that I needed to be able to understand processes of inequality in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and in the wider world. I really began to understand the power of those tools for thinking about the inequality issues that I felt so compelled to address.

Was there a ‘eureka’ moment?

Yes. It was during an ethics class in my electrical-engineering curriculum. I was giving a presentation on how organizations need to think about and address inequality in the workforce. Halfway through, a fellow student raised his hand and said, “Why are you talking about this? Poor people are only poor because they’re lazy and stupid.”

Erin A. Cech portrait.

Erin Cech researches cultural aspects of inequality.Credit: Moni Valentini

It wasn’t so much the comment that got me, but the reaction of everybody else in the room, which was to laugh along. And the teacher didn’t push back on the idea that the labour force was a meritocracy. That led to this realization that there was something about the culture of STEM that helped to perpetuate these kinds of perspective on the world that felt very pressing and troubling. That was a moment that made me think, I want to be able to study these patterns of inequality more deeply.

What is your passion now?

I specialize in the cultural mechanisms of inequality. I’m especially interested in beliefs and practices that broadly seem positive or benign but can be really powerful forces driving inequality, because they sit under the radar of expectations for equal treatment. Self-expression is one example: we tend to think of self-expressive choices and actions as widely beneficial, yet my research reveals that, because ‘selves’ are gendered, classed and racialized constructs, these choices can help to perpetuate things such as occupational gender and race segregation.

How did the research into your book come about?

It started as something entirely different, about how women and men make decisions about their majors at university and about what they want to do after graduation. As I was doing the research, I came up with idea of the passion principle. It became blatantly obvious — I couldn’t ignore it. The narratives just became so loud and compelling that I realized I needed to write this as the centrepiece of a book.

What is the passion principle, in a nutshell?

It is the cultural idea that the best way for people to make career decisions is to focus on their sense of identity, fulfilment and what they find meaningful, often without considering factors such as job security and salary.

I looked at how potential employers evaluate applications and found that they are not only more likely to be interested in hiring an applicant who expresses passion for the work than someone who doesn’t, but also more likely to hire that person because they think they will put in more effort without an increase in compensation. So there’s an understanding of the potential labour that could be extracted from the passionate person. I suspect that if employers don’t see their employees expressing passion, there’s often the assumption that that person isn’t as competent or skilled as somebody else.

How does this relate to scientists and researchers?

At the individual level, the promotion of passion in career decision making amplifies segregation in STEM fields. If we tell people to go and pursue the thing they’re passionate about, they often follow paths that end up reproducing the same entrenched patterns of gender, race or class segregation. These paths are not the product of innate senses of interest, but rather how people are socialized over the course of their lives.

Is the passion principle a fallacy, then?

There’s no systematic evidence in the social-science literature that says that people who are passionate about their work are producing better products than people who aren’t.

In fact, there could be a penalty for being passionate about work. We know that people who have time for rest and recuperation in their lives away from their job are more productive and more creative when they do their work. If someone is so passionate about their work that they don’t have, or don’t have time for, outside interests, the lack of time and space for creative or rejuvenating activities can actually undermine productivity and creativity.

Why do we follow our passion?

The reason that people pursue their passion is because the labour market demands such intensive commitments to work. Among professionals, especially STEM professionals, there’s the expectation to work 50, 60, 70 hours a week routinely, and the idea of going into a workplace where you don’t love your work is really daunting. If someone loves their job, at least it wouldn’t feel such like drudgery. And so, the desire to follow passion is an individual-level solution to the structural problems of overwork and the demand for overwork.

Aren’t there downsides to not being passionate about your work? What about people who do boring, repetitive work who want passion?

For professional, service and blue-collar workers alike, whether people like their jobs has a great deal to do with how others treat them at work. I would argue that being treated with dignity at work is more important than having a passion for long-term satisfaction and enjoyment, and one that spans education level and career type.

So should we be cooling our passion?

The passion principle is an OK thing to pursue if you are taking a holistic approach to understanding your relationship to paid employment. It is a good idea to be reflective about the kinds of sacrifice that are made and be honest with yourself about what you want.

Of course, passion has its benefits. Being in a job aligned with one’s passion is related to increased engagement and job satisfaction. Yet, there are other ways to find job satisfaction and engagement. Enjoying the company of colleagues is one; being inspired by the organization is another. I’m not advocating that everyone should myopically pursue financial security or the highest salary they can get, even if they hate the work; rather, the book raises concerns about the risk both for individual workers and for the workforce overall, when passion becomes the central focus of career decision making and too much is sacrificed in pursuit of passion.

What is your advice to scientists who feel work passion but don’t want the negative effects?

Diversify your ‘meaning-making portfolio’. Make room in your schedule for fulfilling tasks or activities that really drive you, that are exciting and interesting outside work. That’s so important, because the labour force is inherently unstable. If people put all their identity eggs in one basket, in their passion — their employment — then their job suddenly goes away, or they’re reassigned to something they’re not passionate about, that can feel like a loss of the core part of their identity. Nurturing spaces of identity outside work is especially important for graduate students and early-career STEM professionals, because the academic labour market, in particular, is uncertain.

Who will find the book useful?

I hope it’s useful and important for the research community, but also for other constituencies — undergraduate and graduate students, people in the policy space and people in organizational leadership positions. It might be helpful for those deciding what they want to do after university, for example, or who mentor or structure the experiences of people in that position, such as parents, secondary-school teachers or university administrators.

Are you still following your passion?

I’ve had to adapt how I pursue it. It has been important to recognize my own privilege and the privilege of other faculty members around me that we got lucky in pursuing our passion and have jobs that are relatively stable and well-paying, but many other people aren’t as lucky.

I’ve also had to make room in my schedule for other things I’m passionate about — playing my violin, doing a bit of dot-mandala painting and enjoying nature outside, hiking with my wife.