Thursday, September 25, 2014

Are Two a Crowd?

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has discussed how she was often confused with Sandra Day O’Connor when they sat on the Court together, despite not looking alike and holding significantly different ideological views. It’s important to note that this mistake was not made by passersby being interviewed on late night television but by the lawyers arguing before the Court itself.

This is one of many examples that Professor Denise Lewin Loyd employed at this week’s WAPPP seminar, "Are two heads always better than one? Stereotyping of minority duos in work groups," to explain the unique problems that individuals who are part of the minority on boards, task forces or committees often face. Loyd, an Associate Professor of Business Administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, argues that in many cases, being part of a minority duo on a larger team is even worse than being the only minority.

Past research indicates that single minorities within a group are often subject to “token pressure,” whether in the form of increased visibility, stereotyping or pressure to assimilate. Loyd conducted a study of 228 students on the issue, which concluded that this token pressure leads to discomfort, demonstrating that it’s a negative experience for the minority groups in question.

Though we might assume that token pressure would decrease when another minority member is added to the group, there is evidence to the contrary. Research featured in the Harvard Business Review even suggests that the presence of two women on a board may be seen as a subgroup and that those individuals have to give extra care to not look like they're conspiring.

Professor Loyd tested this hypothesis via an experiment she conducted with colleagues Mary Kern of Baruch College, CUNY and Judith White at Dartmouth. Using avatars, Loyd et al collected responses from 170 male participants to see how they viewed women in different settings in which they were the minority. Participants were asked to read a narrative involving a female employee who was part of a team where she was (1) the only woman, (2) one of two women or (3) one of three women on a team of seven, ten or 14. The decision-making and production tasks assigned were relatively agnostic so as to control for the fact that certain tasks may be perceived as more masculine or feminine.

Loyd et al found that women were viewed as significantly less potent and marginally warmer as part of a duo than while acting solo. While there are some limited situations where warmth is advantageous, being perceived as less potent is a clear negative. As part of a trio, women were not seen as less potent but were perceived as marginally warmer than as a duo. A second study involving female-minority groups performing a complex task revealed that men gave female duos worse performance evaluations, despite no significant difference in completion time and quality.

This research suggests that there is something uniquely negative about being part of a minority duo in a larger group. The phenomenon could be partly explained by the claim that minority duos make the category to which they belong more salient to the greater group. This could be a concern for women, who while still significantly underrepresented on corporate boards and in public office, are slowly gaining ground.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

How ‘No’ Can Get Women to the Top

For the past decade and a half, scholars have examined why American women are in very few corporate managerial positions compared to their male counterparts, despite representing 30% of elite MBA programs. The disparity is usually explained in several ways: (1) women have different job preferences, (2) women and men have performance differences when it comes to managerial tasks (i.e. women aren’t as good at these jobs), and (3) women face discrimination in the workplace, which prevents them from getting to the top. Recently, however, some researchers have begun to explain the problem with a bit more nuance.

Lise Vesterlund, an Economics Professor at the University of Pittsburgh, discussed an alternative theory based on research she conducted with coauthors Linda Babcock and Laurie Weingart, both professors at Carnegie Mellon University. In this week’s seminar, Breaking the Glass Ceiling with “No”: Gender Differences in Declining Requests for Non-Promotable Tasks, Professor Vesterlund looked at the assignment of undesirable tasks to better understand the issue.

She based her research on the premise that employees who accept more non-promotable tasks are promoted less often. A survey she conducted among MBA students indicated that women were more likely than men to accept such tasks, largely due to fear of the professional consequences of saying "no." As an economics professor, Vesterlund wanted to look at both the potential demand and supply side causes of this gap. The demand side is whether women are asked to perform non-promotable tasks more often than men, while the supply side is women’s response to such requests.

In a study involving freshmen and sophomores at Carnegie Mellon, Vesterlund et al placed students in random, anonymous groups of three, where they were tasked with hitting a button to make an “investment” that benefitted every member of the group, but gave the least to the individual who actually hit the button. This action represented a non-promotable, undesirable task in a corporate setting that needed to be completed despite no one wanting to do it. In a second part of the study, students had to ask another member of their group to hit the button for them.

The results revealed that both the demand and supply sides of this issue were to blame. While the vast majority of students pressed the button in the last possible seconds of each round – revealing that they were likely motivated by desperate self-interest and not altruism – women pressed the button significantly more often than men. In the second part of the study, Vesterlund also found that both men and women were more likely to ask a woman in their group to hit the button. In response to this, female participants complied 75% of the times that they were asked, while male participants’ decisions were split 50/50.

Vesterlund argued that since beliefs about women’s propensity to accept non-promotable tasks are central to this problem, women saying “no” more often might actually make a significant difference. She also suggested that some simple institutional changes, such as random assignment to event planning, committees, and other undesirable tasks, could allow women to take on more promotable assignments.

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?

Photo Source