At this week’s WAPPP seminar, we were delighted to host Michelle Duguid, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. Professor Duguid is a key scholar of power and status-linked social identities in organizations. The impetus for her research agenda began with a project on the social, profession, and philanthropic networks of board of directors. Looking through years and years of proxy statements, she noticed that boards were initially homogeneous and gradually added a few members with some demographic diversity. Once these additions had been made, further diversity stagnated. These observations led to broader questions: how do high-status groups diversify, and what factors dampen further diversification?
As we know, female representation at the highest levels hasn't kept pace with representation at lower levels. What explains this discrepancy? Are men consciously excluding women? Or is implicit bias to blame? One solution t this problem has been to deliberately place a few qualified women at the top to act as “diversification catalysts” – these women are supposed to counter stereotypes about women in the workforce, serve as role models, and advocate for women in the hiring process. If this approach is working, Professor Duguid says, it's at a glacial pace.
It may be that female solos – the sole women in working groups -- actually discriminate against female candidates. In her previous research, Professor Duguid and her collaborators identified value threat as the mechanism underlying female solos’ decisions to select or not select female candidates. Value threat is concern about not being seen as valued member of the work group, which individuals are keen to avoid. When female solos are faced with a female candidate with superior qualifications, they tend to experience value threat. Female solos may feel that their reputation and social standing is under threat, assuming that the group will view this woman as more valuable. Despite this value threat, women who actively exclude other women are not seen in a positive light – they’re derided as insecure, selfish “queen bees” or “mean girls.”
Organizations may look to women who have helped other women in the past to help diversify their organization, under the assumption that if they have helped women in the past, they’ll be less likely to discriminate in the future. However, it’s possible that those who have helped women feel licensed to not select a female candidate over an equally qualified man. If a female solo has helped women in the past, she doesn’t have to worry about the negative identity implications of being a “mean girl” – she can discriminate with impunity. This moral licensing is common in other areas – pro-social behavior in one realm can permit questionable acts in another (individuals who purchase “green” products are less likely to give to charity, for example).
Group context is significant to whether (and how much) individuals experience value threat. In particular, Professor Duguid has found that group status is correlated with value threat. If female solos are evaluating female candidates to join their high-status group, they are much more likely to discriminate. In a high-status group, female solos selected female candidates 30% of the time, compared to 76% for female solos in low-status groups. In low-status groups, individuals are less likely to get the self-image boost or tangible benefits that would come from belonging to a higher status group, and therefore care less about what other group members think. With decreased value threat comes decreased discrimination!
With these findings in hand, Professor Duguid set out to test two main questions: 1) Are female solos in high-status groups who have previously volunteered to help women licensed to discriminate against female candidates? 2) To what extent can context reduce value threat, and are women who experience less value threat less likely to feel licensed to discriminate?
The first study was designed to examine the effects of gender and helping on value threat and candidate preference. Professor Duguid set up a “high-status group,” enlisting the help of the Dean. Study participants were told that they would be a part of the Dean’s focus group on the success of the school’s admissions process in screening for high-quality candidates. In order to qualify for the focus group, they had to score well on a test. Half the group was told that they could volunteer to help a same-sex candidate who would be working on a similar study by providing strategies for the test. The other half, the control group, was not given an option to help. After taking the test, participants were given the names of the other members of their “group,” three participants of the opposite sex. They were then told that they could select who the next group member would be and were given a man and a woman’s name. When female participants volunteered to help, they chose female candidates significantly less than in the no-option condition. Male participants overwhelmingly chose male candidates in both conditions. Female participants reported far more value threat than male participants, which mediated the relationship between gender and candidate choice.
The second study was meant to examine effect of numerical status and helping on individuals’ experience of value threat. In this study, female participants could volunteer to help other women, be assigned to help women, or not be given an option to help. Consistent with the first study, female participants who volunteered to help were far less likely to select female candidates than those in the no-option condition. However, female participants who were assigned to help selected female candidates more than those who volunteered to help. This finding lends credence to the idea that volunteering to help creates a moral licensing effect that permits later discrimination. This study also demonstrated the difference between female solos and female majorities. Female majorities identified far less value threat than female solos, which mediates the relationship between numeric representation and candidate choice.
In the third study, Professor Duguid looked at deliberate helping. Would female solos be motivated to volunteer to help other women in order to later discriminate against female candidate without suffering the negative attributions associated with this behavior? Female participants were asked to pick a candidate in one of three conditions: 1) the female candidate was slightly more qualified than the male (female solos should be strategically motivated to help female candidates in order to license future discrimination); 2) the male candidate was slightly more qualified than the female candidate (we would not expect female solos to be motivated to help women – they could select the male candidate based on merit without fear of seeming discriminatory); 3) the female candidate was overwhelmingly more qualified than the male (female solos would not be motivated to help these candidates to license future discrimination – it would be very strange for them to not select the overwhelmingly qualified candidate). True to the researchers’ predictions, female solos were much more likely to help in the first scenario.
The final study was designed to test whether reducing female solos’ experience of value threat would influence their perceptions of helping other women as a licensing opportunity. If female solos felt more valued, the logic goes, they would be less likely to discriminate. In this study, before selecting a candidate, one group of female solos was asked to list five reasons numeric minorities “would be concerned about not being seen as a valued member of the group.” The second group was asked to list five reasons numeric minorities “would be seen as valued members of the group.” The third group, the control, was asked to list five things about their previous day. In the first condition, female solos were significantly less likely to choose female candidates. However, in the second condition, female solos chose the female candidate approximately 73% of the time. When female solos feel valued, they are far more comfortable bringing another woman into the group.
These findings offer an answer to the question of why diversification at high levels has been so slow. If women don’t feel valued, it would be unrealistic for them to pull someone in who could be competition. However, understanding value threat means that organizations can take positive steps to increase representation and diversity. Professor Duguid recommends substantially increasing the diversity of decision-makers and increasing inclusion to ensure that people feel valued, not just representative of a group.