Women No Better Than Men at Fostering Equality

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR August 31, 2012

Academic research presented during the August 2012 annual meeting of the Academy of Management suggests that “female managers do not reduce gender inequality for their subordinates,” a finding that differs somewhat from earlier research.

Though some assume—and research often agrees—that women will benefit in tangible ways when they have female bosses, Mabel Abraham, a doctoral student at MIT, has learned that female bosses have not had a significant impact on wages and job titles for female subordinates in the environment she studied—a large U.S. bank.

In “Women in Charge: The Impact of Female Managers on Gender Inequality,” Abraham tackled the issue by analyzing the staffing and wage patterns associated with actual reporting relationships in a situation where managers are given explicit control over wages, hiring and promotions. She noted that this is a departure from other research which tends to examine aggregate data at the industry or organizational level.

Data were obtained from 68 retail branches of a large U.S. bank whose branch managers—44 percent female—oversaw a staff dominated by women. Abraham found little difference at each job level between male and female employees, regardless of whether the branch manager happened to be male or female.

In fact, wage and position inequities, such as women earning only about 83 percent as much as men and holding more positions at the lower end of the pay scale, existed to the same extent regardless of the manager’s gender.

“The gender distribution of subordinates for those reporting to female managers mirrors the distribution for those reporting to male managers,” Abraham noted in the research paper. “Essentially, jobs are equally segregated by gender regardless of whether the manager is male or female.”

Sources consulted for this article—male and female—had mixed reactions to the findings. Some had noticed differences between men and women in past work experiences while others had not.

For example, Susan L. Colantuono, CEO and founder of Leading Women, a management consultancy, sent an email to SHRM Online noting that “The results vary from other research which indicates that having women in senior positions and on corporate boards reduces wage inequities and also creates a larger pipeline of women for management positions.”

“Earlier research indicates that women do advocate on behalf of other women,” Colantuono wrote. “Where there are discrepancies, the power of the position might be at play more than the level of control.”

“In my experience, female leaders advocate for their subordinates at about the same level as their male peers,” China Gorman, CEO of CMG Group wrote SHRM Online in an e-mail interview.

She noted, however, that in her experience, “female leaders seem to spend more time focusing on the development and performance management of their people.”

Male HR professionals commenting off the record agreed.

Pay and Promotion Disparities

“Historic research has reported that women negotiate less often for higher pay and promotions,” Colantuono added. “Some recent research, though, indicates that women MBAs negotiate as often as men for both, but are less successful than men in achieving both.”

A male HR professional commented off the record saying “women tend to be more accepting and not willing to rock the boat in terms of pay and promotions.”

Yet some argue that it depends on the person and the situation.

“I don’t believe women and men negotiate for higher pay and promotions for themselves similarly to men or to the same extent as men,” Gorman observed. “While I certainly have been aggressive in my own negotiations, I’m quite aware that there were times in my career that men in peer level positions were paid more highly than I was. I took it as a challenge to ensure that my results required preferential bonus treatment,” she noted.

After receiving a promotion early in her leadership career, Gorman broached this issue by telling a male boss that he seemed to be the only senior in the company promoting women. His reply, according to Gorman, was that he would always hire a female over a male if she was even remotely qualified because “she’ll work twice as hard and produce three times the results for half the money.”

Women More Supportive of Flexible Work

Abraham’s research revealed only one substantial difference between male and female managers: female bosses proved considerably more amenable than men to flexible work arrangements. As the research paper noted, “Employees reporting to female managers are approximately 2.25 times as likely to work part-time as are those reporting to male employees, providing preliminary evidence consistent with existing theory that women offer greater support for flexible work arrangements.”

“It makes absolute sense that women managers—many of whom have been successful juggling multiple demands of work and life outside of work—have a greater understanding of the benefits of flexible work arrangements to the employee and to the company,” noted Colantuono.

Gorman observed, “I think that being open to flexible work arrangements has more to do with function than gender. At least that’s been my experience.”

However, Abraham found that “for those employees reporting to female managers, the proportion of women working part-time does not significantly differ from the proportion of men working part time. ... This suggests that women are more tolerant and supportive of flexible work arrangements, but are not necessarily helping other women.”

Other Observations About Gender Equality

“In addition to establishing that female managers possess the power to affect the gendered outcomes of their subordinates, it is also important to determine whether they are motivated to do so,” Abraham observed in the report. She pointed to research by other scholars suggesting that when women fear others will not perceive them as valuable members of the organization, they are less apt to support other women within the organization.

“Not advocating for female employees in terms of wages and job allocation may be a response to female managers’ perceived external appraisals,” Abraham wrote. She suggested that additional research is needed.

“Over the 30-year span of my career, I’ve had 18 bosses: 14 men and 4 women,” Gorman wrote. “I’ve had good bosses, mean bosses, so-so bosses, crazy bosses, scared bosses, ineffective bosses and great bosses. I can’t say that there were commonalities that could be drawn by gender.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.​


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