Much of the research on gender inequality in senior management positions focuses on the private sector and why women don’t ascend to these positions. What are we missing by not considering the public sector or the characteristics of women who do reach the upper echelons? This week’s WAPPP seminar feature Amy E. Smith, Associate Professor of Public Policy and Public Affairs at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at University of Massachusetts Boston. Professor Smith presented findings from her research collaboration’s work on Climbing the Ladder: Gender and Careers in Public Service.
Background and Motivation
Social equality and representation are important values in the public sector. We believe both that public sector jobs should be equally accessible to everyone and that those who work in the public sector should look like the people they serve across a variety of demographic characteristics. If bureaucrats reflect the diversity of the populations they serve, the logic goes, a variety of interests will be represented in the decision-making process. Representation also has symbolic power – citizens are more likely to feel that they have been heard, are more likely to cooperate with government, and are more likely to feel that the government is accessible if government officials look like them.
However, there is still a significant lack of gender diversity in leadership positions. There have been a number of reasons posited for this discrepancy, including male advantages in accessing, accumulating, and invoking human and social capital, divergences between our gender stereotypes and conceptions of what leaders should be, and familial expectations and work-life conflict. However, as noted, these mechanisms explain why women don’t make it to senior leadership roles, rather than illuminating what helps women achieve these positions. We have limited information about career paths into public sector leadership for both men and women. Once we have this information, we may be better able to design workplace policies to promote gender equality.
Professor Smith’s research focuses on two key questions: what do career paths look like for those who have achieved high-level leadership positions in public sector organizations? And how do men and women who are in these positions express their qualifications?
This research focuses on U.S. federal regulatory organizations, like the FDA and SEC, partially because these organizations have broad power and because there are a significant proportion of women in high-ranking positions. At the time of this study, 36% of senior leadership roles in these organizations were filled by women, compared to 18% of Congressional seats, and 15% of corporate boards. Professor Smith and her collaborators selected the 12 major federal regulatory agencies and identified all top-level leaders for the period from 1983 to 2013, a sample of 89 individuals. Of these 89, they were able to collect career path data for 83 individuals, 61 men and 22 women. The researchers established complete career histories for each person from the time they graduated from college to 2013. For each year, the researchers coded whether the individual worked for a federal agency, a private sector organization, and law firm, or “other,” including nonprofit organizations or other levels of government.
Descriptively, the women in the sample tended to spend less time in each organization, worked at fewer organizations overall, had fewer children, tended to work in newer and larger regulatory organizations, and tended to work for organizations that were responsible for implementing more legislation and engaging in more rulemaking.
Professor Smith and her colleagues looked at career patterns using a sequence analysis of the career histories to generate clusters with similar characteristics. Women in the sample clustered into three career patterns. The first group, which Professor Smith calls “public servants,” was characterized by work in federal agencies and the “other” category of nonprofit and government work. The second group was the “sector hoppers,” characterized by movement back and forth between private sector organizations and federal regulatory agencies. The third group, the attorneys, all worked in law firms at some point in their careers.
For men in the sample, Professor Smith identified four career paths. The “movers,” the largest group, showed a pattern of moving between organizational types. The “sector hoppers,” by contrast, moved only between private sector and federal regulatory organizations. The third group, the “public sector attorneys,” worked predominantly in federal agencies, as compared to the “private sector attorneys” who tended to practice in law firms. The key takeaway from the career pattern analysis is that men, more so than women, seem to develop their career paths by moving across sectors and organizations.
The second key research question asks: how do men and women establish and express legitimacy for leadership positions? Many of the characteristics we associate with leaders are incompatible with our stereotypes about women – where leaders are decisive and aggressive, we expect women to be kind and collaborative. As such, women may engage in extra efforts to signal an appropriate leadership identity. Professor Smith and her collaborators collected the Senate confirmation hearing transcripts for 67 of the 83 individuals in the sample and examined both their self-narratives – the stories each individual told about themselves and their qualifications – as well as their interactions with committee members. While coding the transcripts is still a work in progress, Professor Smith has identified three key mechanisms for claiming legitimacy: proving, selling, and challenging.
When nominees read their personal statements in front of the committee, they are engaging in proving: by narrating their experiences and talking about their personal histories, nominees create a unique identity and position themselves as leaders. Female nominees in the examined transcripts tended to be backward-looking in their proving, discussing their past experiences and establishing themselves as public servants. By contrast, male nominees tend to be a bit more forward-looking in their proving. It may be that male nominees were already considered qualified, and therefore felt more comfortable discussing their future plans for the organization rather than discussing their past experiences.
Selling is characterized by a third party talking about the nominee, largely through introductions and endorsements. Selling behaviors directed toward female nominees tended to list and repeat the nominee’s past experience to lend her credibility and gain approval from the committee. Interestingly, for male nominees there was very little selling. Male nominees’ prior qualifications appear to be almost assumed, whereas female nominees’ qualifications must be reiterated to truly sink in.
Finally, challenging provides the greatest opportunity to observe nominees’ interactions with committee members. Questions directed at female nominees focused repeatedly on technical expertise and management challenges associated with leading the agency. Male nominees generally did not get these sorts of questions, as if, Professor Smith emphasized, these competencies appear to be assumed. Instead, male nominees were often asked forward-looking questions about how to handle emerging issues, and many were asked non-questions.
Considering the two research questions together, we see that both men and women are accumulating social and human capital, but that women tend to accumulate social capital through strong ties and dense networks and human capital that is narrow and specialized, as evidenced by the “public servant” career pattern. Men tended to show more weak ties, sparse networks, and more varied human capital. While both men and women engage in narrative identity work to express their qualifications, women face a gendered twist. Their senior leadership roles and the experiences that got them there violate gendered expectations of what a leader looks like. However, these women’s expression of their qualifications seems to fall back in line with female stereotypes, as they look backwards and repeat their relevant experiences to prove their legitimacy.
Directions for Future Research
These early results are an exciting starting point for more research in this area. Now that we know something about career patterns and claiming legitimacy, qualitative follow-up work may illuminate why career patterns differ based on gender and what other factors have influenced pivotal career choices.