The Effects of Talking About Gender Discrimination

Gender discrimination in the workplace is a controversial topic and some argue that talking about it might over-emphasize the problem and prevent women from entering fields in which they are under-represented. In fact, since starting this blog, we have received some comments along these lines on our posts ourselves, for example when talking about the glass cliff. These concerns are certainly not unjustified. However, knowing about gender discrimination might also help girls and women as it shows them that negative feedback that they might have received may not be due to their lack of skill or talent, but due to gender discrimination. So talking about gender discrimination seems to be a double-edged sword. But what does the literature have to say about this matter?

Weisgram and Bigler were intrigued by this debate and investigated how providing girls with information about gender discrimination in science influences their attitudes towards and interest in a career in science. Two groups of middle school aged girls took part in a one hour session with the aim of sparking their interest in computer science. After this, one of the groups also attended a session on historic and contemporary gender discrimination in scientific fields. The effects of the one hour session in itself proved to be rather disappointing. The girls were neither more interested in a scientific career nor did they feel more confident in their scientific abilities. What is more, after the intervention they had stronger beliefs that men were better at science than women. Interestingly, this was quite different for those girls who had been taught about gender discrimination: They felt more confident about their scientific abilities and had a higher opinion on science in general. However, their interest in science did not change.

Nevertheless, although the positive effects were limited, this study suggests that making barriers and obstacles that women face explicit does not have the suspected negative effects.

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.