Research Roundup: How Women Experience the Workplace Today

Research Roundup: How Women Experience the Workplace Today

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What will it take to make gender equity in the workplace a reality? It’s a complicated question, with no easy answers — but research from a wide array of academic disciplines aims to expand our understanding of the unique challenges and opportunities women face today. In this research roundup, we share highlights from several new and forthcoming studies that explore the many facets of gender at work.

In 2021, the gender gap in U.S. workforce participation hit an all-time low. But of course, substantial gender disparities persist in pay, leadership representation, access to resources, and many other key metrics. How can we make sense of all these different dimensions of gender equity in the workplace?

To begin to better understand these nuanced issues, it’s helpful to look to the broad body of research from a wide variety of academic disciplines that aims to improve our understanding of the unique challenges women face at work. Specifically, new and forthcoming research explores what happens when women are promoted into top management positions, the factors that continue to hinder female employees, and other critical questions for the modern workplace. Read on for a sampling of some of the most interesting and insightful recent research findings on these and other topics.

What happens after women make it to the top?

Much has been written about the importance of investing in more equitable promotion and development practices to improve gender representation in the higher ranks of organizations. But what changes once women actually make it to the top of the org chart? Several new research papers have explored different aspects of this question.

Firms use less gender-stereotyped language: One team of researchers conducted a machine learning analysis of 43,000 company documents and found that firms use less gender-stereotyped language after hiring women into senior leadership positions. This suggests that when companies hire female leaders, it can have a substantial, positive impact on the culture of the entire organization.

Women in top management teams earn less: On the other hand, another study leveraged 20 years of salary data from 1,500 companies to explore the impact of female leadership on pay equity, and found potentially less-encouraging results: Women (but not men) in top management teams earned less if they worked for a female CEO than if they worked for a male CEO. 

Female leaders face more retaliation for moral objections: Other research looked at the impact of female leadership on an organization’s ability to address unethical behavior among its employees. Researchers conducted a series of four studies, including an analysis of survey data from more than 33,000 U.S. federal government employees, and found that women in leadership positions were more likely than men to face retaliation for making moral objections to problematic behavior or activities. They argue that organizations should address this disparity by proactively (and equitably) addressing retaliatory behavior, and by encouraging all employees to speak up when they witness ethical issues at work.

Firms in crisis are more likely to appoint female leaders: In addition, an analysis of 26,000 executive appointments over 16 years found new evidence in support of the idea of a “Glass Cliff” (that is, the phenomenon whereby women are promoted into top leadership positions in which they may be unlikely to succeed). The study found that firms in a crisis were 50% more likely to appoint a female executive than those not in crisis. Although these appointments may have been well-intentioned, this data suggests that women may be more likely to be promoted into roles in which success is less likely, ultimately setting these leaders up to fail.

What holds female candidates and employees back from advancement?

To be sure, we’ve made substantial progress in improving gender equity at work — but research continues to shed light on the wide array of impactful (and sometimes quite subtle) barriers that still hold female employees and job candidates back. Specifically, several recent studies have looked at various factors that drive inequity in recruiting and professional development.

Firms invest less in women when regulations mandate more parental leave: One interesting study looked at how policies designed to better support women in the workplace can sometimes backfire: An analysis of 13,000 people across 19 countries found that in regions where regulations mandated that paid parental leave and childcare be more widely available, employers invested less in developing their female employees.

Female candidates who use less feminine language are less likely to be hired: Another study found that although women may feel inclined to downplay their femininity when applying to jobs in male-dominated fields, female candidates who used less feminine language in their cover letters were actually less likely to be hired. The researchers found that this is because attempting to appear less feminine can clash with hiring managers’ (potentially subconscious) gender stereotypes, leading them to evaluate these candidates less positively.

Gender disparities persist in many career negotiations: In addition, while gender differences in employees’ willingness to negotiate salary have been well-documented, a recent analysis found that there are other kinds of negotiations that can also have a similarly substantial impact on people’s career trajectories. Specifically, a review of more than 450 accounts of male and female employees’ career negotiations illustrated the importance of negotiations around issues such as workloads, work-life balance, and role definition. The authors suggest that while women may be more likely to experience resistance to requests for salary increases, these other areas may prove more fruitful in boosting women’s long-term career prospects.

What hidden stresses continue to disproportionately impact women at work?

In an increasingly uncertain world, we all have more than enough reasons to be stressed out. But are there sources of workplace stress that continue to have a disproportionate impact on female employees? A handful of recent studies looked at various pressures and stresses that are more likely to affect women — often in surprising and nuanced ways.

Women are more likely to experience a “status-leveling burden”: For example, a series of in-depth interviews with 45 surgeons shed light on a phenomenon the authors call the “status-leveling burden.” They find that women in higher-status, male-dominated roles are likely to feel more pressure than their male counterparts to present themselves as equal to female colleagues lower in the organizational hierarchy (in this case, nurses). This pressure can pose a challenge to women in high-ranking, traditionally male-dominated roles, as they attempt to navigate their own career growth while maintaining positive relationships with their colleagues up and down the org chart.

Women are less likely to ask for deadline extensions: Another paper found that women are less likely than men to ask for deadline extensions (even when deadlines are explicitly adjustable). As a result, female employees are more likely to experience stress related to deadlines, undermining both their wellbeing and performance. Based on these findings, the authors argue that mangers and organizations should implement formal policies to facilitate extension requests, rather than relying on individual employees to guess when it might be acceptable to ask for more time.

Women are more likely to take on menial tasks: Finally, researchers interviewed more than 100 professionals in the advertising industry over a 16-month period, and they found that female employees often end up doing menial or administrative tasks that are well outside their job descriptions in order to keep their male colleagues happy. The authors describe how women often take on roles such as mother, wife, babysitter, or cheerleader in order to reduce conflict and boost cooperation with their male counterparts. This not only means extra work for women, potentially reducing their ability to focus on more-valuable tasks, but it can also erode other people’s perceptions of these employees’ status (despite holding seemingly high-level job titles).

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Of course, this is just a small sampling of the wide array of research that examines the many facets of gender at work. As we celebrate the progress that’s been made and continue working to address ongoing areas for improvement, it’s important to remember that these issues (and how we think about them) aren’t static. Rather, what we know about the hurdles and opportunities women face continues to evolve and improve as more data, analysis, and lived experiences come to light — and we all have a shared responsibility to continue to ask questions, learn, and develop our own understandings of these critical, complex issues.

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