Skip to main content

Jacob Wackerhausen/Getty Images/iStockphoto

A new study challenges a long-standing assumption that if women ran things there would be a lot more gender equality in workplaces.

Most studies to date have concluded women would be more egalitarian in making decisions about employees, but the research has been based on simulations, said study author Mabel Abraham, a doctoral student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

These prior studies relied on assumptions that managers have control over employee wages, hiring, and promotions, which in many cases may not be true, Ms. Abraham noted.

Her study analyzed staffing and wage patterns in actual reporting relationships in a major U.S. bank, where managers had control over all three and 44 per cent of managers were women.

The average wage of women employees of the bank was about 83 per cent of the average wage of men – whether or not their boss was a woman.

Women tended to occupy positions at the low end of the pay scale, while men were disproportionately clustered at the upper end. The actual pay of men and women in equivalent jobs was the same.

Women made up 82 per cent of the tellers and 83 per cent of the representatives, but 73 per cent of the officers, 44 per cent of relationship managers and 38 per cent of the executive teams.

"There is an apparent glass ceiling where there are proportionately fewer women in the highest-level positions than in the lower-level positions," regardless of whether the manager is male or female, Ms. Abraham said.

"In addition to establishing that female managers possess the power to affect the gendered outcomes of their subordinates, it is also important to determine whether they are motivated to do so," Ms. Abraham concluded.

The study was presented this week at the Academy of Management's annual meeting in Boston.

Ms. Abraham discovered one substantial difference between male and female managers with special significance for women employees: Female bosses proved considerably more amenable than men to flexible work arrangements.

Employees – both men and women – reporting to female managers were more than twice as likely to work part-time as those reporting to male employees.

This isn't necessarily a sign that gender inequality would diminish if women were in charge, Ms. Abraham noted. "For those employees reporting to female managers, the proportion of women working part-time does not significantly differ from the proportion of men working part-time. … This suggests that women are more tolerant and supportive of flexible work arrangements, but are not necessarily specifically helping other women."

While Ms. Abraham didn't ask female managers why they don't do more to help female subordinates get promoted and earn more, she did speculate that women managers may fear criticism from their superiors for being too vocal in their advocacy for women.

Interact with The Globe