Gender bias in the perception of roles
Despite diversity initiatives across many organisations, recent research by Laura Doering at McGill University suggests that gender stereotypes disadvantage women – and men – at work.
Her research demonstrates that gender stereotypes do matter at work; that the authority that managers experience depends strongly on whether they work in a job typically stereo-typed as a male or female role. This suggests that men, as well as women, can be at the receiving end of stereotypes about authority and leadership.
She reports that sociological theory suggests that when we first encounter job roles which are new to us or gender ambiguous, the gender of the first person who we experience occupying that job may lead us to gender stereotype the job itself. That in turn, influences how we think about the job. Doering wanted to test the premise that interacting with just one man or one woman in a new role is enough to generate lasting gender-biases in managers’ authority.
In the study, the team drew on data from a microfinance bank in which clients are typically moved from one loan manager to another. The role of loan manager tends to be gender-ambiguous as many have not experienced this role previously.
The study looked at clients’ missed payments to their first loan managers and then measured how repayment changed when they were switched to a new loan manager. Those clients who were paired initially with female managers, and therefore saw the role as female, missed more payments with the second loan manager.
They found that, despite this role being gender-ambiguous, clients ‘decided’ that the role was male or female based on whether their initial loan manager was male or female – and this in turn impacted the way in which the client behaved towards their second loan manager.
Importantly, they afforded relatively greater authority to the loan manager when they linked the role to men.
The researchers suggest that these loan managers experienced less authority with clients when taking over a role that was seen as a feminine rather than masculine role. Male loan managers were seen in this study to have less authority when they step in to the role if it is seen as ‘feminine’ rather than ‘masculine’ by clients. But when a man is in a male stereotyped role, he experiences a high level of authority with the clients.
It seems that all it takes for us to determine if a role is masculine or feminine is to interact with one person and this study shows how gender bias can disadvantage men as well as women.
What does this mean for organisations?
It shows that gender bias is inherently in our perception of job roles – and employers need to take action knowing this, perhaps making statements of role authority clear and using standard, role performance criteria. It also shows that gender biases can have direct commercial impact on a business.
Whilst this study has not been formally published, it offers an interesting view of the issues of gender stereotyping.
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