Perceived Macho Cultures Influence the Career Choices of Women MBAs

Group of businesspeople having a meeting.By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

A recent study suggests that women’s career choices are influenced by industry stereotypes – which could be the reason that women are less likely to enter fields like finance or consulting, which carry the perception of being male dominated.

The study is presented in the journal Organization Science. The researchers, Roxana Barbulescu, McGill University, and Matthew Bidwell, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, found that female MBAs are deterred from applying for jobs that they perceive as culturally unwelcoming. Women MBAs also believe they are less likely to receive an offer for finance or consulting jobs – but in reality, this was not the case. Companies in these industries were just as likely to offer jobs to the women who applied as they were to the men.

It is troubling that even highly educated, highly competitive women are avoiding these high paying jobs because they don’t identify with them culturally. And it’s equally troubling that these women anticipate they won’t get hired because of a perceived cultural gender gap.

Cultural Implications

Barbulescu and Bidwell suggest that companies should use this data to examine their cultures. Why do women perceive them as unwelcoming? This could impact not only recruitment, but also employee retention and performance. Bidwell told the online magazine Knowledge@Wharton, “Our research shows how hard it is to bring about change.”

He continued:

“If you tell employers to stop discriminating, it doesn’t mean you will end up with greater access for women to better, higher-paying jobs. Instead, it’s about changing perceptions of culture. You can imagine that if you have a job that is seen as highly macho and aggressive, and you recruit those kinds of people – mainly men – then these perceptions and stereotypes become self-fulfilling. It’s a much more insidious way in which jobs become gendered.”

That’s why getting more women into male dominated industries is about so much more than flooding the pipeline with women at the entry level – it requires considered and careful work to build an inclusive culture at every step of the ladder. Bidwell explains:

“But it’s not just a question of sticking more women in the company brochures, or having more women be part of the company’s on-campus recruiting,” he adds. “It’s a question of trying to change the culture, job perceptions and kinds of behavior that people exhibit. My sense is that everybody talks about this, but I’m not sure how serious managers are about the tradeoffs they would have to make in order to attract and retain more women — such as reorganizing basic work processes to allow for more reasonable work hours, or changing the norms about acceptable behavior. That’s a much harder conversation to have.”

Companies need to do more than just say they want to hire more women. They have to make sure they create an environment where women feel they can succeed as their authentic selves, rather than by acting like someone else.

Work Life Challenges

The researchers were surprised to see that women MBAs were less likely to apply for consulting jobs. But women generally avoided jobs that they considered to be less conducive to work life balance all around, the study says.

The researchers write, “…men are much more likely to apply for jobs in fields with poor anticipated work–life balance than are women (at the job level, we also found a significant correlation between work–life balance and the ratio of female to male applicants).”

As Bidwell explained to Knowledge@Wharton, this, in particular, explains why women were less likely to apply for consulting jobs (which had been a surprise to the researchers).

“The hours are not that much worse than investment banking jobs, but the expectation is that you will be staying in a hotel four nights a week. And that doesn’t change. With investment banking, you might work very hard, but you usually sleep in your own bed, and the hours tend to trail off as you get more seniority.”

The study shows that women are perceiving actions more loudly than words when it comes to firms’ efforts to attract female job candidates. They are considering what it would actually be like for them to work there – and when they see people working at all hours of the day in a macho, unwelcoming atmosphere, they are looking elsewhere.

1 Response

  1. TK

    Great article. My experience in the consulting industry appears to be consistent with the researchers experiences (although my experiences are strictly anecdotal). I have found the cultures very macho, talk about work-life balance almost exclusively lip service, and most of the women I have observed tend to take one of two approaches to coping with the culture (either take on macho behaviors or use their female-ness to influence the more powerful men through behaviors such as flirting).

    I read a great book recently that addresses leadership and culture, and specifically mentions the need for management consulting to remake their cultures, by Logan et al. (2008) called Tribal Leadership. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in this topic of discussion.