Are men in ‘female’ jobs facing an ‘authority penalty’?

Customers perceive male managers as less authoritative in jobs associated with women, according to new research.

Commanding respect and authority is harder for male managers in roles traditionally associated with women, which is one of the many roadblocks on the way to a gender-equal workplace.

According to Professor Laura Doering of the Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University, when men fill male-stereotyped roles, they experience high levels of authority. In customer-facing roles, these individuals are better received. In female-stereotyped roles, male managers experience significantly lower levels of authority.

By comparison, women experience similar levels of authority in male- and female-stereotyped roles.

Professor Doering, together with Professor Sarah Thébaud of UC Santa Barbara, evaluated the repayments of clients at a microfinance bank to reach these conclusions. They began by evaluating missed payments when clients were paired with male or female managers.

“Overall, clients were more likely to miss payments with female managers than male managers. This finding is consistent with previous research showing that people tend to afford more authority to male managers,” Doering says.

The researchers then examined clients’ repayments when they were arbitrarily switched to managers of the same or a different gender. Customers who initially linked the role of loan manager to women were more likely to miss payments to their second (male) manager.

“The gender of a client’s first loan manager could lead them to stereotype the job as either masculine or feminine, which helps us to understand the way they behave with their second manager,” Doering explains. “We found that clients who were originally paired with female managers continued to miss more payments even after being transferred to a second manager, regardless of that manager’s gender. This suggests that once individuals associate a job with a particular gender, it can influence how they behave towards the next person who fills the role.”

The researchers also found that male managers experience different levels of authority when they fill male- or female-typed roles. Men enjoyed high levels of authority when filling a role previously filled by another man, but low levels of authority when filling a role previously occupied by a woman. For female managers, the gender-type of the role had little effect on their authority.

“This finding suggests that men may experience an authority penalty when they work in jobs associated with women, and may also help explain why men have resisted entering female-typed jobs.”

The authors suggest two actions that employers can take to combat this kind of gender bias. First, high-level managers could make public endorsements to bolster the authority and capabilities of individuals who are working in roles that are likely to be discounted on the basis of gender stereotypes. Second, employers might use more standardised criteria for the performance of both managers and the people who work for them—a strategy which has been shown to mitigate bias.

Women in ‘male’ jobs: what’s the score?

Changing perceptions about women’s abilities in the workplace is still a stubborn challenge to address, says Here East Innovation Centre CEO, Claire Cockerton.

“Though we may not realise it, many of us carry preconceived ideas and unconscious biases about women in business,” she adds. Recent research reveals that nearly half of UK C-level executives believe the reason for the pay gap is natural prejudice, and according to Cockerton, the fact that nearly half recognise this does mean it can be addressed.

“This elevates an issue which everyone should play a part in rectifying, both female and male, those who have been advocating for equal pay for years, and those who once might not have thought it their place. Men play a vital role in ensuring that change happens; unfortunately, this is an issue that today, too few men address,” she adds.

The Women in the Workplace 2016 study, for instance, highlighted a growing cultural challenge with the lack of conviction and engagement from senior board-level male staff on gender issues.

“It goes without saying that organisations should have a clear compensation philosophy; one that has mandatory salary transparency across genders in businesses and that is based on third-party salary data, ensuring each individual is paid fairly according to the market rate for their skills and experience. But beyond the policy change which delivers better equality to businesses, we also now need the champions of the philosophy and strong enactors of a fair and equally-accommodating corporate culture,” says Cockerton.

“We need strong male and female voices; and those who find themselves in leadership positions in companies need to take the requisite responsibility for tipping the scale – which means we need to see a lot more male leaders at the table driving forward diversity and gender equality.”

The pay gap and biases

Chris Rowley, Professor of Human Resource Management at Cass Business School believes that gender biases are as intrinsic as other biases that impede progress for various factions of society. “Recently, Prime Minister Teresa May spoke of her ambition to create a country ‘that works for everyone’. But clearly there are lots of people for whom Britain does not work: those on poor pay, zero-hours contracts, those in the ‘gig economy’ and female workers,” he says.

Referring to the gender pay gap, Rowley believes that while the Equal Pay Act has been in effect for over four years and successive government’s initiatives have tried to deal with the underlying issues of unequal pay, a lot of these changes aim at easing the responsibilities of working mothers.

Initiatives such as flexible working, improving part-time worker rights, more affordable childcare and shared parental leave, are all in response to concerns childcare responsibilities impact female careers. The gender pay gap reporting requirement forces larger employers to analyse and publish pay gaps – as transparency is a great driver of equality, but even so, these initiatives do little to address gender biases in the workplace.

“The recent research on gender pay gaps is a ‘curate’s egg’,” he adds. The IFS shows a decline in the gender wage gap among the lowest-educated. However, the pay gap widens after having children. For part-time workers there was a cumulative negative impact and for the more academically qualified there was no change from 20 years ago, as women with degrees still earned 20 per cent less, and those with A-levels 25 per cent less, than similarly qualified men.

“Likewise, the CMI and ONS show the good news of smaller pay gaps at younger ages, but widest at the top of the corporate ladder. While this could indicate a new, more equal cohort rising through the workplace and organisational hierarchy, therefore, eroding gender pay gaps over time. It could also reflect the fact that that careers and pay diverge when women have children. Another reason for the pay gap is the continued gender imbalance in senior posts and promotions. This reflects our own research, which shows career barriers are due to poor ‘signalling’ of success for female directors and structural issues.”

According to Rowley’s research, this signalling comes in the form of:

  • networks and nomination process bias
  • role model and mentor shortages
  • work–family balance
  • legal ambiguity and policies
  • cognitive behaviour

“All of this is worrying. Research shows gender diversity actually delivers better financial results, organisational cultures and decision making. The benefits of part-time working should be recognised, measured and rewarded better by management, in terms of pay and supporting career paths and patterns that are not the typical ‘linear’ ones.”

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.