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Male 'identity threat' can disadvantage women in high-status professions

Apr 10 2014

In 1980, women held about 25 percent of management positions in the U.S.—a figure that increased to nearly 40 percent by 2012. As women become more visible in these high-status occupations, gender bias will lessen for all women—right? For example, women will be seen as more competent and more deserving of high salaries.

Not necessarily, says Tamar Kricheli-Katz, Professor of Law and Sociology at Tel Aviv University and former Clayman Institute Graduate Dissertation Fellow. Her research shows that as women move into high-status occupations, high-status men may experience "identity threat." And these men may respond by evaluating women more negatively than before.

A male versus female or “us vs. them” belief system can make male managers, consciously or not, feel threatened by women’s growing presence in high-status positions, according to Kricheli-Katz. This sense of “threat” causes women to be paid less, hired less, and evaluated poorly.

When a high-status field becomes predominantly female

Kricheli-Katz wanted to understand what happens when high status fields become predominantly female—how does this change affect the hiring, pay, and perceived competence of all women? She designed an Internet experiment with over 600 participants, including men and women, managers and non-managers.

In the experiment, participants first read about the history of management consulting, a high-status field. Half the group read materials stating that most management consultants were men. The other half read different materials, stating that most management consultants were women.

Next, Kricheli-Katz had participants evaluate application materials from a female applicant for a high-status job in a different field--a marketing executive position in a high-tech company. Kricheli-Katz's goal was to test how women’s predominance in one high-status field (management consulting) influenced perceptions of women’s competence elsewhere (high-tech marketing executive).

Male managers perceive women as less competent

One theory Kricheli-Katz tested was the “revaluation theory.” The idea here is that if people think certain jobs are prestigious then they attribute high status to the people who work in these jobs. If this were so, then more women in high-status positions should mean a status boost for all women. In general, managers would be likely to hire more women, pay them higher salaries, and perceive them as more competent. Kricheli-Katz’s study however, finds little support for the revaluation theory.

Instead, Kricheli-Katz finds the opposite. When male managers are told that a high-status occupation is hiring more women, these men tend to evaluate women as less competent, leading them to offer women lower salaries.

These findings support what social psychologists call “identity threat theory,” which suggests that women’s growing presence in high-status fields creates a perception of “threat” for high-status men. Feeling threatened leads these men to respond by derogating high-status women.

Other scholars have had similar findings around identity threat—privileged social groups protect their members’ social and economic interests by creating social and legal barriers when they are threatened. For example, a study of workers in private North Carolina companies found that women and minorities received lower pay than equally-qualified and equally-productive white men. Women and minorities were systematically placed in lower paying positions with lower promotion opportunities, as advantaged employees closed ranks against them.

Interestingly, Kricheli-Katz found that men not employed in high-status occupations did not experience identity threat in response to her experiment. These men were not affected by the information that a high-status occupation was becoming predominantly female.

What about women managers?

Kricheli-Katz also had different results for women managers. Indeed, the news that management consulting was becoming predominantly female led women managers to evaluate female applicants as more competent than otherwise.

Put differently, women managers behaved in line with the “revaluation theory." They attributed characteristics associated with high-status occupations to women working in these positions. If they believed that management consulting was dominated by women, they tended to evaluate all women as more competent.

Diffusing the “threat”

How can we diffuse the perceived threat of women’s entry into high-status jobs? Kricheli-Katz suggests two central approaches.  First, feminization of high-status occupations can lead to greater gender equality if women’s power and authority in the labor force overrides the effects of men’s identity threat. Remember, for example, the way that women managers responded in Kricheli-Katz's experiment.

Second, men’s identity threats could be removed or reduced—an approach that proves more elusive.

One possibility is to examine subgroups of men who do not experience identity threat. Among male managers, Kricheli-Katz found that college-educated men and men with higher salaries were more likely than other men to hire women. Why? Are these populations more accustomed to interacting with high-status women? Do they experience less identity threat more generally? Future research may shed important light into the hidden mechanisms of identity threat and point to ways we might equalize men’s and women’s treatment in the labor market.

Today, as women increasingly enter managerial positions, overt gender discrimination often seems a thing of the past. However, Kricheli-Katz’s study challenges us to carefully examine the hidden processes of gendered hiring and evaluation practices in our current labor market. After all, organizations and researchers know that gender diversity in management is connected to increased organizational performance.



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