Friday, September 12, 2014

The Work-Family Narrative and How It's Hurting Women

Gender inequality in the higher echelons of the corporate world has made the news a lot lately – from the UK to Nigeria to Ireland, but the discussion at this week’s WAPPP seminar, "The Work-Family Narrative as a Social Defense: Explaining the Persistence of Gender Inequality in Organizations," focused on the discrepancy in American professional service firms. Despite large gains at the associate level of such organizations, where female employees now comprise roughly half of the workforce, women are severely underrepresented in elite positions. According to the 2013 Catalyst Census, only 15% of C-Suite executives in Fortune 500 companies are women.

Robin Ely, a Professor of Business Administration and Senior Associate Dean at Harvard Business School, presented her research and hypothesis on why such inequality persists. She and her coauthors Irene Padavic and Erin Reid conducted interviews with 107 professionals in a mid-size global consulting firm, where 90% of partners were male. Most employees surveyed said they believed that the inequity was due to the fact that women are disproportionally affected by personal obligations, which can hold them back in a corporate environment where 70-hour weeks are common.

This idea isn’t new; it has been circulated in the news media for over a decade since it was first prominently discussed in a 2003 New York Times Magazine article titled, “Why Don’t More Women Get to the Top? They Choose Not To.”

Professor Ely has an alternative hypothesis, however: that this phenomenon is caused by overselling and over delivery (i.e. overpromising) on the part of partners, paired with associates’ compliance in order to stand out as strong employees.

This creates a 24/7 work culture within elite firms that makes it virtually impossible to balance one’s personal and professional lives, for both men and women. Instead of addressing this culture head on, Ely et al argue that employees use a social defense (a collective arrangement used by an organization to protect against threats and conflicts) to fend off the anxiety this conflict causes.

This social defense splits the professional and personal spheres and then projects the latter onto women. By psychologically assigning women to the private sphere (what Ely calls “privatizing women”), organizations perpetuate the idea that women will prioritize their personal life over their professional one, making them less able to take on management work.

Unfortunately, policy changes may not be enough to resolve this pervasive issue. For example, many elite firms have improved their family leave policies, but women still overwhelmingly use these policies compared to men. Ely argues that a shift in culture is needed, paired with dialogue that references the changes and what they mean for the narrative of the organization.

Download the seminar podcast (right click and save)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Corporate Boardrooms: Where are the Women?

By Amanda Clayton, WAPPP Fellow, Postdoctoral Fellow, Free University of Berlin

During the global financial crisis, several public figures asked: would we be here if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters? This question resurfaced in late 2013 when Twitter went public with an all-male corporate board The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof to wryly point out if Twitter added three women, “its board would still have as many men named Peter as women.”

The lack of women in business leadership is shocking. Despite an increase in female MBA students, women currently account for 17% of Fortune 500 board members and just 4% of CEOs.

So why include women in the boardroom? A Transparency International study notes that women tend to be less corrupt than men in business and government. Women are also more risk-adverse according to a UC Santa Barbara study.  Moreover, a Catalyst report shows that women's representation on corporate boards is associated with better financial performance.

Although encouraging, this line of research is unsettling for some gender scholars. Labeling women as more risk-adverse and less corrupt not only sets unreasonable expectations for women, but also can digress into essentialist arguments - similar to espousing men as naturally better leaders.

This issue is not about women saving Wall Street -- it's about fairness. Research presented by Shelley Correll at Stanford University's Clayman Institute for Gender Research explains how largely implicit gender biases still hold women back in the workplace. Similar research reveals that managers hire applicants they feel will be a good “cultural match” (read: white men) and, once hired, these don't leave.

The persistence of this uneven playing field recently caused Harvard Business School to seriously reevaluate its organizational culture. Similarly, ten countries have adopted quotas for women on publicly traded company boards to fast track gender equality.

What are the benefits here? A recent study in Science co-authored by WAPPP faculty affiliate, Rohini Pande, shows that seeing female leaders increases girls' career aspirations and educational attainment. That is, letting women into the boardroom not only remedies current inequalities, it encourages future generations of young women to throw their hats in the ring.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Trying to Explain Rape in Civil Wars

Gang rape has been a vicious element of war since time immemorial. It is slowly starting to receive the attention it deserves by the international community, with campaigns to Stop Rape Now and Stop Rape in Conflict, particularly as its use in the killing fields of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has continued to shock the world.

But when and where has gang rape happened during civil wars? And why, even in the same war, do some factions commit rape while others don’t?

Those are the questions that Professor Dara Kay Cohen of the Harvard Kennedy School has sought to answer in her last years of research. She presented some of those findings at her WAPPP Seminar last week.

As rape has become a weapon of war in places as diverse as Rwanda, Bosnia, the DRC, most people have tried to explain it in three ways. First, that it is due to opportunism and greed: a collapse of norms and access to resources attracts violent people that will commit violent deeds with impunity. Second, that it is due to ethnic hatred: rape is part of humiliating or erasing the next generation of a people based on their race. And third, that it's a symptom of extreme gender inequality: that even in times of peace, women lack rights and opportunities, so rape is a byproduct when other norms break down.

However, Professor Kay Cohen argues that, in fact, gang rape may be a tool of combatant socialization during wartime. Using the cases of Sierra Leone, El Salvador, and East Timor---even analyzing situations where rape did not occur---she suggests that when armed groups recruit foot-soldiers by force, through random abduction or impressment, gang rape is used by the members of the combatant group to create unit cohesion. Because there is no basis for unity amongst the diverse, abducted soldiers, gang rape of the victim population creates a shared experience that builds a twisted form of solidarity. In fact, gang rape during civil conflicts is rarely ordered by commanders. But a “desire to fit in” compels even female abductees to participate in gang rape of their victims.

Though many have referred to rape as a “costless weapon” that evidently also increases unit cohesiveness, it often has multiple costs to the perpetrators---including the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases and reduced battlefield effectiveness.

The difficulty for outside policy-makers trying to respond to or intervene in these horrendous situations is that wars with widespread rape tend to be more difficult to end, and have less durable episodes of peace. However, understanding that it is the composition of a warring faction that drives gang rape in war, can serve as a warning signal to outside observers that rape as a tool of war is imminent---hopefully prompting earlier intervention.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Should women be encouraged to compete?

An article on “The Confidence Gap” between men and women has been making the rounds this week. In it, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman argue that women too often doubt their own abilities as compared to men, leading to an imbalance in women’s representation in most fields. This may have to do with socialization, evolutionary biology, the structure of our social systems, or some combination.

In his seminar on whether “boys and girls respond differently to academic competition,” Prof. Robert Jensen of the University of Pennsylvania explored how this carries over into the realm of competitiveness. He and his co-authors used a real-life experiment in which a math and verbal prep technology suddenly introduced a peer competition in the form of a “leader board.” Prior to the leader board, students would simply answer a series of questions and be told, individually, how well they’d done. After the “leader board”, students were given points for correct answers and the names of the top-three point-earners were displayed for all the participants to see.
Before the points system, girls tended to perform better in both English and math. But after the introduction of the competitive system, girls performed worse than they previously had, and also worse than boys, particularly in math.

Whether it had to do with social stigma of being publicly seen as a “nerd” or just the aversion to and stress associated with competition is unclear. But Professor Jensen concludes that a competitive system simply wasn’t conducive to better learning outcomes for women in this education technology.

So should we reduce competition in how we raise and educate girls? As one seminar participant remarked, “we live in a society of competition in every sphere; to discourage that is to encourage girls to opt-out of success. Instead, perhaps we should raise our daughters and sons the same way so that they can both learn to compete effectively.” Indeed, as Elizabeth Plank writes, instead of telling women to change their personalities, maybe it's time we take a look at the entire system and adjust all of the structures that hold them back.

To this, WAPPP Executive Director Victoria Budson responds that, “Whenever the frame and context for any competition is set in today’s world, it will necessarily be biased---by gendered components, racial components. So we need to understand  what choices are made and how those choices impact outcomes. It’s not that one shouldn’t compete…but to create a new competitive frame.

“When you understand what the mechanisms are and what they produce, you can then guide how institutions create structures. Because whenever we set up structures, we’re really creating pathways toward outcomes that we can predict when we study them effectively. So rather than telling us how we should feel about this, all of these studies are just data that can help us create a world where the majority of our talent is effectively utilized.”

WAPPP Director Iris Bohnet adds that we should do both: “we should enable people to be competitive in the world that we live in, but we also have to change the world to make it easier for everyone, based on whatever preferences they have, to survive and compete in that world.”

Monday, April 14, 2014

Are Women Punished for Seeking Power?

One of the catch-22s of gender relations these days is that women are hemmed by both realistic power structures that do exist, as well as by perceptions of what ‘should’ exist.

Specifically regarding gender stereotypes, many people expect not only that women are more modest in their presentation and interactions, but that they should be more modest.

So what happens when women violate these stereotypes?

That was the question that Professor Victoria Briscoll of Yale University posed in her seminar on “Women and Power: Hard to Earn, Difficult to Signal, and Easy to Lose.” She broke her answer into three parts.

First, women often have to manage people’s impressions of their rise to power. Their intention of seeking power and authority appear inconsistent with people’s perceptions that women should be communal and not dominating. So even female politicians like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Patty Murray, who are essentially in the business of power, often downplay the fact that they are there, insisting that they “never expected to run for office.”

Second, once in power, men and women often communicate differently to continue this impression management. According to a great deal of social psychological research, ‘powerful’ people are often given a license to talk more than people with less power, who signal deference. Moreover, women tend to lead in more democratic, non-hierarchical fashions than men. So in spaces like the US Senate floor, men talk to display power, while women tend to talk to establish and maintain relationships and advocate for communal rather than personal causes. This is often in the effort to avoid backlash.

Finally, women’s power is often more fragile and easily lost than that of men. In the case of expressing anger, women are almost always penalized for this, while angry white men are sometimes rewarded for being assertive. But when women can explain their anger away to an external source, women are rewarded.

So clearly there’s a lot of work for society to do. To get there, do women need to keep on adjusting what they do? How can we get societal expectations to change in the long run?

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Monday, April 7, 2014

Did the plough doom us to millennia of gender inequality?

'Women are supposed to stay at home and raise children.' 'Men are supposed to work and bring home money to provide for the family.'

Throughout the world, we have many ideas of which gender should be responsible for what---perhaps the most fundamental and universal has been employment roles. Why is that?

One theory has to do with the nature of work: the economic structures of "traditional" society were largely manual labor based, almost necessarily ensuring the centrality and dominance of the physically more muscular male in economic production. People have argued that this started with the plough thousands of years go: before the plough, men and women were equal economically in that both could till soil and gather food by hand with equal skill. Accordingly, they were largely equal socially, intellectually, and in terms of power.

But when the plough was invented, it required a great deal of upper body strength to produce more agricultural output. So the gathering work that women did became less economically relevant, and the remaining work was left to the physically stronger sex---by nature's course, this was usually the male. Most consequential economic activity became dependent on the successful physical performance of the male. This was furthered by the thought that women’s interaction with domesticated farm animals would reduce fertility levels.

In his seminar last week on “The Origins of Gender Roles: Women and The Plough,” Alberto Alesina of Harvard University explored the effects of this ancient technological innovation on today’s perception of gender roles. The fact that work was bifurcated along gender lines so long ago, he argues, has meant that these norms and expectations persist even centuries after humans moved beyond agriculture as the primary economic activity.

Controlling for things like ethnicity, politics, and geographic features, Professor Alesina and his colleagues matched up traditional and ancient plough usage with today’s women’s labor market participation and perceptions of gender equality and norms. They found that there is, in fact, a strong correlation between ancient plough usage and gender inequality today. That technology affected not just the realities of work, but also the norms, markets, institutions, and policies that were shaped around them.

Since then, however, we’ve seen some profound changes in economics. Urbanization and industrialization, for example, brought women back into the workforce in a large way and galvanized the women’s and labor rights movements---to say nothing of the service sector. And though today’s inequality may have its roots in ancient technologies, it is still propagated by harmful norms and narratives that we certainly can control.

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Monday, March 31, 2014

Does full time work affect childhood development?

Over the last generation, there have been an increasing number of working parents---a phenomenon that’s enabled more couples to be more financially comfortable, on the whole. But it’s come with the healthily and effectively raise children the way parents would like.

The last few decades have produced research on the effects of full time maternal employment on the behavior and achievement of children---but the conclusions of this research have been mixed, and largely reflected the prevailing ‘wisdom’ of the moment.

Understanding the perceptions of these effects, however, can tell us multitudes about the decisions that women are making today. In her seminar on “Stereotype Accuracy: Do College Women Miss the Mark when Estimating the Impact of Maternal Employment on Children’s Development?,” Professor Wendy Goldberg of UC Irvine discussed how college women frame the issue---and how accurate those stereotypes are.

She and her team found that most women overestimate the negative effects of motherhood on their children---i.e. they’d assume that working mothers would raise children with worse behavioral problems like aggression and depression, and that perform worse academically---and that women underestimate the positive effects: that having a working mother would provide a roll model as well as greater financial opportunities for her children, among others.

Accordingly, many mothers may seek to adjust their work lives accordingly, with part-time work or opting out entirely. The effect of this might be either a greater inclusion of mothers into the workforce, or a gender-segregation by jobs---particularly those who seek to advance after a break for childcare. Moreover, steady work reportedly offers the greatest mental and physical health benefits to women. Stereotypes regarding the negative effects of working mothers must thus be dispelled.

Of course, full time work is not a choice for many women and parents. Not all women have equal access to long-term, full time work, while women of disadvantaged economic backgrounds have even less flexibility. Thus more attention to paid parental leaves and subsidized childcare would help us get to a better place for all mothers, fathers, and children throughout society.

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