How gender bias negatively affects women and men

team of successful business people having a meeting in executive

by Laura Doering and Sarah Thébaud

Sociologists have long argued that we don’t just gender-stereotype individual men and women. We gender-stereotype jobs as well. For instance, we tend to think of firefighters as masculine and preschool teachers as feminine.

This kind of stereotyping has important implications for all kinds of labor market outcomes. It shapes applicant pools, hiring decisions, pay, and performance evaluations, among other things.

But how quickly do jobs get gender stereotyped in the first place? And to what extent do such stereotypes affect the authority that men and women experience? Our research reveals that when we attach gender stereotypes to jobs, both women and men can experience disadvantage.

In our recently published study, we looked at how clients responded to managers in a job that was not already gender-stereotyped because it was relatively new and gender-balanced in its composition: a commercial microfinance loan manager.

Since this job had no clear gender association, we reasoned that clients would treat the role as masculine or feminine based on the first person with whom they interacted. That is, if a client was first paired with a male manager, that client would come to treat the role as if it were a “man’s job.” And if a client was first paired with a woman, he or she would treat the role as if it were a “woman’s job.”

We found that clients quickly came to associate this position with one gender or another. We focused on clients who started with one manager and were arbitrarily reassigned to a second manager. Clients initially paired with female managers showed significantly less authority to their second managers—regardless of the second managers’ gender.

The speed of this process is noteworthy: all it took was interacting with one person for clients to treat managers in “female-typed” roles with less authority and managers in “male-typed” roles with more authority.

We also found that male managers experienced a nontrivial disadvantage when the job was perceived as a “woman’s job” rather than a “man’s job.” When men stepped in to work with clients who had initially worked with a male loan manager, clients were highly compliant with their directives. But when men were paired with clients who had initially worked with female loan managers, clients afforded them significantly less authority.

This finding runs contrary to the dominant narrative around gender bias. Gender bias doesn’t merely disadvantage women. It also disadvantages men when they work in roles that are associated with women and femininity. This finding is important because it raises one possible reason why some men resist pursuing female-dominated occupations: not only are these jobs paid less, on average, but the men who pursue gender atypical paths may also experience a loss in social status at work.

Notably, we found that these gendered patterns were especially pronounced among clients who had been actively disciplined by their managers. This suggests that people are especially likely to gender-label jobs when they’ve experienced social interactions that activate gender stereotypes. In our study setting, these interactions involved displays of authority, which activated the stereotype that men are—or should be—more authoritative than women.

What can employers do?  

Employers can take two concrete steps to mitigate bias and ensure that both male and female managers experience the authority they deserve.

First, employers can use public endorsements to enhance managers’ authority. For example, a hospital administrator might tout the importance of nurses (a female-typed role) at a staff meeting and encourage physicians and other staff members to follow nurses’ suggestions and respect their professional abilities. Such endorsements from leaders could nudge clients and other employees towards more equitable treatment of individuals in female-typed roles.

Second, employers can use standardized evaluation tools to combat gender bias. Research shows that bias is more likely to creep in when evaluations are subjective and expectations are not clearly defined. Instead of evaluating employees’ performance based on general impressions of their accomplishments, employers should use agreed-upon criteria for what constitutes good performance. Such standardized and transparent tools should be applied to both managers and the people they direct.

What can the rest of us do?

Ideally, we want to live in a world where we perform the work that is best suited to our abilities, regardless of gender. To move closer to this ideal, employers, managers and the rest of us can work hard to ensure that we treat all individuals with the authority they deserve. If we—both men and women—find ourselves giving less authority to someone in a role we associate with women, we should step back and take an honest look at our behavior.

The more we see women and men in gender atypical roles, the less we will think of those roles as being stereotypically male or female. And as our economy shifts towards a higher demand for more service and high-tech jobs, workers may find themselves needing to cross gender lines more often. This may be especially true for men, given that “pink collar” healthcare jobs—like home health aides and nurse practitioners—are fast-growing, whereas male-dominated blue collar jobs, like those in manufacturing, are in decline.

By working to eliminate authority penalties based on gender, we not only create happier workers, we also support a robust and changing economy.

Laura Doering is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Management at the University of Toronto. Sarah Thébaud is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California-Santa Barbara.




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