Initiatives aiming at addressing the under-representation of women in certain domains often include flexible or part-time working arrangements. The idea behind this seems to be that women often find it harder – and more important – to achieve a good work-life-balance, while other career goals such as prestige and a high salary are important to men.This of course makes sense, as women still take over a disproportionate amount of childcare and household work, while men are still seen as being the main earner of the family’s income. But times are changing – so is it really still the case that men’s and women’s career goals are that different?
A study that we conducted with academic staff at the University fo Exeter indicates that this isn’t necessarily the case. We asked them to rate the importance of different career goals on a scale from 1 to 7 and as you can see in the figure below, patterns were pretty similar for men and women. So it seems that it isn’t so much that women and men (at least in our sample) have different goals – but it might still be harder for women to achieve some of them.
The situation for women in the workplace has improved significantly over the last decades. Nevertheless, there are still a number of issues that women in the workplace face, especially when being under-represented, for example in leadership positions or male-dominated fields such as surgery. One of these issues is the gender pay gap, the fact that women earn less than men for the same work. Interestingly, this gap becomes wider as one rises up the corporate ladder. But why? We’ve asked ourselves this question and examined gender differences related to the so called “romance of leadership” as a potential explanation.
The “romance of leadership” refers to the fact that company performance is largely seen as a result of personal characteristics of the manager rather than situational factors such as the general economic situation. Thus, managers get rewarded for company success and punished for failure. However, this phenomenon does not apply to women to the degree that it applies to men, presumably because, according to gender stereotypes, men are seen as more agentic (i.e. competent and effective in their actions) than women. In line with these stereotypes it makes sense to think that they influence success and failure more significantly, which is then reflected in pay differences.
Testing these ideas, Clara Kulich, Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam found that romance of leadership processes are indeed likely to play a role. In their study, participants were told about the performance of a company before and after the appointment of a new CEO, who was either male or female. Additionally, company performance was either described as improving or declining. Participants were then asked to allocate a performance-based bonus to the new CEO. In line with the “romance of leadership”, this bonus was higher when company performance improved following the CEO’s appointment. However, this effect was only apparent for male CEOs. Female CEO bonuses did not differ depending on company performance, suggesting that participants did not see them as the source of said performance.
This clearly shows that the gender pay gap is not a result of a lack of ability on the women’s side (and should not be seen as such!) but is rather based in gender stereotypes – which can be and hopefully will be overcome.
“I didn’t have any medics in my family to get the stories so surgery is something you see on TV and they’re always depicting men in surgery and then the women who are struggling to be at the same level as them. And then as a student I’d come to the hospital and I’d have my placements and every time in general surgery I’d see these old school surgeons and the top ones were always male. I hardly saw any females.”
The quote above is taken from our last post on role models in surgery and illustrates an important point: While more and more women are entering medicine in general and surgery in particular, the higher echelons of surgery are still almost exclusively populated with men. This is of course by no means a problem for surgery alone. The same pattern can be observed almost everywhere from the corporate world to politics and there are a number of explanations for this phenomenon. One widely used metaphor is the Glass Ceiling which refers to the fact that women hit an invisible barrier which keeps them from progressing as they advance through the ranks. However, recent research shows that women face additional obstacles even if they manage to break through the Glass Ceiling – they might find themselves on a Glass Cliff.
This term, coined by Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam, describes the fact that women who break through the glass ceiling often find themselves in more precarious leadership positions where failure is more likely in comparison to their male colleagues. Evidence backing up this idea was first found when re-examining the fact that as the number of women on FTSE 100 company boards increased, the performance of these companies decreased. This had previously been interpreted as evidence for the lack of women’s leadership ability, but as it turned out, it was not the number of women that predicted company performance, but rather company performance that predicted the number of women. In other words, more women were appointed to company boards in times of crisis. This pattern was not found for men.
Since first discovered in 2005, the Glass Cliff has been studied in a variety of settings (e.g. politics) using a variety of samples (e.g. business leaders, students) and methods. If you are interested in reading more, here are links to some interesting articles about the Glass Cliff:
The article discussing the findings above (abstract)
Politics and the glass cliff (abstract)
The glass cliff as a result of stereotypes (abstract)
The glass cliff and suitability of men and women for leadership positions (full pdf)
Although the situation for women in medicine has changed quite drastically in the last couple of decades – in fact, women are now the majority of undergraduate students at med schools – women remain largely under-represented in surgery. This is reflected in how we imagine the prototypical surgeon. If I asked your aunt, your next door neighbour and the person who sold you your coffee this morning to imagine a surgeon, their descriptions might all differ slightly, but more likely than not they would all describe a heterosexual, white, middle aged man. Moreover, descriptions of his character would probably include traits such as “macho”, “pompous” and “one track minded”. But what implication does that have?
Well, we examined just that with a sample of trainee surgeons. In a survey study we asked participants to rate how much they perceived traits such as the ones mentioned above to be true for the prototypical surgeon and for themselves. Moreover, we asked them how much they felt that they fit in with surgeons, how much they identified with their occupation and their desire to “opt out” and leave their profession. We found that those who perceived themselves as being quite different from the prototypical surgeon also felt like they did not fit in. This, in turn, was associated with lower identification with their occupation and higher turnover intentions. Not surprisingly, women generally rated themselves as less similar to the prototypical surgeon than men, but nevertheless this pattern emerged for all participants, indicating that lack of similarity to the prototypical representative of a field can be problematic for everybody and is not just a gender issue, but an issue of minorities in general.
For those who would like to read more on the topic:
Peters, K. O., Ryan, M. K., Haslam, S. A. & Fernandes, H. (2012). To belong or not to belong: Evidence that women’s occupational disidentification is promoted by lack of fit with masculine occupational prototypes.Journal of Personnel Psychology , 11(3), 148–158.