Studies Suggest a Different Career Outcome for Women

Alicia Morga-2Contributed by Alicia Morga, creator of and one of FastCompany‘s 2009 Most Powerful Women in Technology

Business writer Kevin Lewis does a daily round up of academic studies for National Affairs. I’m tempted to start one for studies about women in the workplace. Suddenly, the results are popping up everywhere and it’s clear: for women at work, it ain’t easy.

First, it seems, women are challenged even getting the job. That was the outcome of research conducted by Rice University Professor Michelle Hebl and her colleagues, fellow psychology professor Randi Martin and Juan Madera, an assistant professor at the University of Houston. In their study, “Gender and Letters of Recommendation for Academia: Agentive and Communal Differences,” published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, they analyzed 624 letters of recommendation on behalf of 194 applicants for eight junior faculty positions at a university.

They discovered that letters of recommendation for women were more likely to contain words such as “caring,” “sensitive,” and “compassionate,” but letters of recommendation for men were more likely to contain words like “aggressive,” “confident,” and “independent.”

Further, when the researchers concealed the identity of the recommended individual and controlled for academic criteria, those recommendation letters that contained words with feminine associations, like “nurturing” were ranked lower.

Dr. Hebl notes that, “When you use communal terminology, it is linking people to a feminine type, and they are not seen as credible and they don’t get hired. It’s not just men doing this to women, and it’s not just women being hurt, but it hurts women more.”

Challenges for Female Managers

Second, when women do get the job, it seems often men don’t want to work for them. That was the result of a study called “Working For Female Managers: Gender Hierarchy In The Workplace” by Illoong Kwon and Eva M Meyersson Milgrom. The researchers used data about employee decisions to quit or stay from Swedish employers after a merger or acquisition for the company resulted in a change to the gender make-up of the company.

They discovered:

“When the number of top female managers within the same occupation increases, women become, on average, less likely to quit (same gender attraction). But a much larger effect is that men become more likely to quit (opposite gender aversion). In male-dominated occupations where the average female share is less than 10 percent, the increase in the number of female top managers seems to reduce the male workers’ turnover rates. However, in occupations where the female share is between 10 percent and 50 percent, an additional female manager increases male workers’ turnover rates.”

Dr. Meyersson Milgrom speculated in a recent policy publication that this may be the reason why there was a burst of growth in women in top management positions that has now slowed.

Harsh Expectations

Finally, when women are on top, they face increased expectations. Victoria Brescoll, a psychological scientist at Yale University and her colleagues Erica Dawson and Eric Luis Uhlmann, recently published a study entitled, “Hard Won and Easily Lost: The Fragile Status of Leaders in Gender-Stereotype-Incongruent Occupations” in the journal, Psychological Science on the issue.

The researchers had about 200 participants read a scenario where a police chief or a women’s college president made a mistake and asked the participants to judge the position holder. The gender of the position holder varied. The position holder whose gender differed from the gender typically associated with the job was judged more harshly. Additional tests were done with different positions like the CEO of an aerospace engineering firm and a chief judge – with the same results.

Dr. Brescoll calls the resulting effect, “the glass cliff.” If the glass ceiling keeps women from rising higher, the glass cliff indicates the precarious position women find themselves in when they hold jobs normally associated with men, like female police chiefs. Dr. Brescoll adds, “You don’t really know, when you’re a woman in a high status leadership role, how long you’re going to hang onto it. Any mistakes that they make, even very minor ones, could be magnified and seen as even greater mistakes.”

These studies can really get a woman down. What to do?

Become an entrepreneur.

Alicia Morga is an entrepreneur and the creator of a new mobile application, She was formerly the founder and CEO of Consorte Media, a digital media and marketing company focused on the Hispanic market and backed by leading Silicon Valley venture capital funds, The Mayfield Fund and Sutter Hill Ventures. In 2009 she was named one of the Most Influential Women in Technology by Fast Company.