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.

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