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business school research

A job that starts out as gender ambigious takes on one gender or the other based on who fills the role first.Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Globe's latest report on research from business schools.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau drew applause when he summed up the importance of having a gender-balanced cabinet (a first for Canada) with the instantly viral quip, "Because it's 2015."

By that yardstick, 2017 must hold even more promise for women in the workplace, especially those employed in previously male-dominated industries.

But gender stereotypes are stubborn, and old notions of "men's work" versus "women's work" continue to hold considerable sway when it comes to who gets hired for a job, how much they get paid and how their performance is evaluated.

Firefighters are male and nurses are female – we accept that as a widely held belief.

Researcher Laura Doering, assistant professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, and colleague Sarah Thébaud of the University of Santa Barbara are interested in understanding how gendered jobs came to be that way, and what consequences there are for the people in those positions.

The answers – along with some surprising discoveries – are included in a paper they've published in the American Sociological Review.

The researchers went outside the lab to test a highly influential theory about how jobs become associated with one gender or another. According to the theory, when a job is new, it is considered gender ambiguous. That changes following our first interactions with whoever is in the role.

"For example, if we first encounter a man in a new or gender-balanced job, we begin to associate the job with masculine stereotypes," says Dr. Doering, who previously spent a year at McGill University's Desautels School of Management.

The same holds true if our first encounter is with a woman in the new role.

Using data from a microfinance bank in Central America, the study found that clients quickly treat previously gender-ambiguous roles as if they were male or female, and gave more authority to male managers over women in the same role. (For instance, clients dealing with male managers were more likely to pay off a loan, while those working with a woman were significantly more likely to miss payments.)

But, to their surprise, the researchers found that the bias not only persisted over time but also negatively affected men as well as women.

"We found that interacting with just one male manager or female manager changed how clients treated their next manager. If clients were first paired with a woman, they gave the next manager less authority – regardless of whether that subsequent manager was a man or a woman," says Dr. Doering in an e-mail.

The lesson? "We tend to think of gender bias as undermining women's authority and strengthening men's authority," she adds. But that's not always true.

There are steps employers can take to mitigate bias among managers. One way is to emphasize workers' value in front of clients, or anyone who might need to comply with their instructions.

A hospital administrator, for instance, may tout the importance of nurses (traditionally a woman's job) at a staff meeting by encouraging physicians and other staff to follow nurses' suggestions and respect their professional abilities.

"Such endorsements from high-status individuals can nudge clients and other employees toward more equitable treatment of workers in female-typed roles," says Dr. Doering.

Employers can also use standardized evaluation tools to combat gender bias. According to research, bias is more likely to creep in when evaluations are subjective and when expectations are not clearly defined. Employers should instead use agreed-upon metrics for what constitutes good performance, with standardized tools applied to both managers and the people they direct.

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