The Gender Pay Gap and the Romance of Leadership

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.