Up the women

Lexie Thorpe reports from a symposium at the British Psychological Society's Annual Conference, on 'women in the workplace: from barriers to solutions'.

Despite the influx of women into the workplace over the 20th century, women's career progression is still hindered, and academia is no different. From a roughly equal gender split amongst undergraduates, at every ascending stage of the STEM career ladder the number of women decreases relative to men. Leadership, pay, funding and credibility gaps all remain. As obtaining research funding is instrumental in securing tenured positions, Romy van der Lee (VU University, Amsterdam) argued that closing the funding gap will facilitate closing the leadership gap.

van der Lee and colleague, Naomi Ellemers, studied application data and language use in all early career grant proposals made in the Netherlands between 2010 and 2012. Over 40 per cent of these proposals were written by women. Nonetheless, at every stage in the application procedure, men were more successful than women, and significantly more grants were awarded to men

Analysis of grant committee evaluations revealed that despite there being no gender differences in the rated quality of the written proposal, male applicants were rated as more capable researchers. Notably, the gender difference in success rates was more apparent in disciplines with a more equal gender distribution amongst applicants. 

The pair also analysed the language used in evaluation instructions for the presence of words previously linked to gender stereotypes (such as 'independent' as masculine and 'organised' as feminine stereotypes). Masculine-stereotyped wording occurred almost four times as often as feminine wording, which was only used to refer to secondary evaluation criteria or policies for caring responsibilities. Such wording may favour male applicants, whose stereotypical qualities more naturally match with such language, affecting perceived capability. 

A solution to the bias seems unclear. The subtle connotations of language may be difficult to influence, and neither the number of women on the panel nor the number of female applicants reduced the bias. However, van der Lee plans to evaluate an intervention to raise self-awareness of implicit biases. Preliminary data show that grant evaluators rated the intervention positively, though the self-selecting sample may have been motivated by egalitarian views. Most disheartening is the criticism the pair received on Twitter for their research: their sample size considered simultaneously too large and too small, their analyses too many and too few.

On the leadership gap, Georgina Randsley de Moura (University of Kent) takes the view that barriers to leadership may be based on social stereotypes, whereby being female appears incongruous to leadership. Interestingly, the backlash against female leaders is greater when women adopt a more 'masculine' or autocratic, rather than democratic style, yet autocratic leaders are preferred in conditions of uncertainty. This can lead to the ‘Glass Cliff’ effect considered in Michelle Ryan’s work, whereby women are set up to fail by being appointed as leaders in difficult times.

The first part of Randsley de Moura's research confirmed participants’ preference for hiring hypothetical female leader who was more stereotypically 'masculine' in a time of uncertainty within a fictitious company. However, completing a task that challenged stereotypical thinking, by exposing participants to examples of men and women undertaking counter-stereotypical roles, was found to attenuate this preference of leadership style.

Aside from credibility, women’s aspirations towards leadership may be related to the extent to which women identify as feminists, according to Gosia Goclowska (University of Bath). After completing a task drawing attention to feminine stereotypes, women who highly identified with femininity showed greater confidence in leadership ability only when they also strongly identified as feminists. However, when the same task illustrated counter-stereotypes, greater identification as a woman was related to higher leadership aspirations, regardless of feminist views. This suggests that whilst feminism and dual identification protects against being discouraged by stereotypes, portraying alternatives to these stereotypes may be more encouraging to women who identify with feminism less strongly. 

Nonetheless, achieving gender equality in the workplace requires not just encouraging women’s aspirations, but gaining men’s support. Renata Bongiorno (University of Exeter) investigated male CEO’s motivations for joining the Champions for Change initiative in Australia, which aims to encourage men to promote gender equality at work. Most of the men interviewed supported the moral case for doing so, whilst all supported the business case – the idea that diversity produces better work. However, within the business case, some men endorsed the view that women’s skills are complementary to men’s, which may reinforce stereotypes. Some also testified to women’s outstanding capabilities, which may unfairly raise expectations, creating a constant need for women to prove themselves. When explaining reasons for inequality, men tended to cite a ‘non-inclusive culture,’ but seemed unsure how this manifested, or ways of reforming it. They also tended to endorse ‘fix the women’ strategies for encouraging equality, such as targeted recruitment. So whilst it’s not clear whether such movements are effective or counter-productive for equality, the elusive solution is likely to be as diverse as the women researching it. 

You can read more coverage from the Annual Conference online, and in the June and July print editions.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber