Women at Work

It’s 2017, and women make up less than 20 percent of the United States Congress. In 2016, women who worked full time typically earned 18 percent less than their male counterparts, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. A 2014 poll from the Pew Research Center found that only 8 percent of Americans believe women would do a better job of managing a professional sports team than men; 54 percent say men would be better at this task.

These conundrums are familiar topics for Professor Alice Stuhlmacher, chair of the psychology department in the College of Science and Health, who has been researching gender and leadership for much of her career. In the interview below, she offers insight into the persistence of gender stereotypes and strategies to combat bias.

How is the psychology department contributing to a better understanding of leadership and gender in the workplace?
Psychology, and industrial-organizational psychology in particular, uses science to better understand human behavior and create more fair and productive environments. In terms of gender issues, Professor Jane Halpert has done work on pregnancy discrimination, Associate Professor Douglas Cellar has evaluated sexual harassment training, and Associate Professor Suzanne Bell and Assistant Professor Goran Kuljanin have studied teamwork and team-building across different types of leadership structures and workplaces. Our doctoral students also have studied many gender-related topics, such as work-life integration and perceptions of LGBT leaders.

Your research focuses on negotiation, leadership and gender issues. How are those issues interrelated?
The stereotype of an effective leader is someone who appears confident, dominant and assertive. These traits are very similar to the stereotype of an effective negotiator. In reality, a variety of styles can be effective for leaders and negotiators, but there is a tendency to think of leadership and negotiation as consistent with the stereotypical characteristics of men. So a man, rather than a woman, might come to mind more easily when picturing who has leadership potential. Similarly, in thinking about who is a good negotiator, it is common to picture someone with masculine characteristics who will push for resources for themselves. When women act assertively, they may be disliked and face backlash because they do not fit expectations. We may not notice it, but employees negotiate all the time for opportunities and resources; if men and women are getting different outcomes, this compounds inequity over time.

I have published several meta-analyses (analyses of existing studies), which are great for moving research ahead. My latest meta-analysis found that, depending on the situation, patterns can reverse; for example, women tend to be better at negotiating for someone else than men. Others’ meta-analyses show that women are more democratic and inspirational leaders than men. The work environment can have a big influence on how effective women and leaders can be. Creating a positive environment is critical.

On that note, are there steps employers can take to reduce gender bias?
Yes, and those steps are related to the work environment. It starts with attending to the processes used to select, hire and promote, as well as how opportunities and resources are made available. Research shows that the recommendations below reduce the impact of biases. Employers should:

  • Analyze the job before looking for candidates. What does the job really require? Stereotypical skills may not actually be the most important.
  • Share position openings widely. On the job, supervisors should ensure that opportunities and procedures are transparent, avoiding selective information sharing.
  • Involve a diverse panel in screening applications in the selection process.
  • Avoid unstructured interviews. These are open to biases and do not predict very well who will be a good employee. Ask each candidate the same questions, and use other techniques to validate skills and abilities that people report.
  • Check the panel’s emotional reactions when interviewing candidates and ask if decisions are being influenced by being drawn to people who seem similar to themselves.
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