When Leaning In Doesn’t Pay Off

New York Times — Why do women not have as many leadership roles in the workplace as men do? Some have pointed to internal barriers, suggesting that the problem is partly attributable to something about women themselves — they are not “ambitious enough” at work (while pursuing meaningful family goals), or are deeply committed to work but too hesitant to climb leadership ladders in organizations. Others cite structural or institutional barriers, like bias, discrimination or inadequate work-family flexibility. Sheryl Sandberg, in her now famous phrase, would have women “lean in,” to be more assertive at work and not let biases keep them from pushing forward. By leaning in, women would obtain more authority.

But what happens when women demonstrate the will to lead — as measured by the actual level of authority they’ve achieved at work? By authority, we mean supervising others, influencing their pay and being able to hire or fire.

To understand the claims embedded in the “lean in” hypothesis, we need to know why, when or how women decide to pursue positions of authority in the workplace. But another vital question is whether the presumed perks of achieving authority enrich women’s working lives in the same ways they do for men, both objectively (monetary rewards) and subjectively (psychosocial rewards like perceived influence and autonomy). We focused on the latter issue.

Part of our analyses, first reported in a paper we published in the spring issue of the journal Sociological Perspectives, confirmed two patterns that others have found: First, women tend to have less job authority compared with men. Second, having job authority is associated less strongly with higher earnings for women compared with men. However, we sought to push the issue by further dissecting these patterns: How do women in positions of greater authority perceive the rewards of their job — that is, how do they experience their own level of job autonomy, job influence and the personal meaningfulness of their work? And are these perceptions different compared with men who have similar job authority?

Several findings from our analysis, which used a 2011 survey of the Canadian work force, stood out. First, among women and men holding jobs with high levels of authority, men tended to be more likely than women to perceive that they had influence (“a lot of say on the job”) and autonomy (“the freedom to decide what gets done at work”). These patterns were observed even after accounting for other potentially influential factors like income, occupation, work hours, work stress and marital and parental status.

Second, men tended to experience a stronger link between feeling influential at work and describing work as intrinsically highly rewarding (“the work I do on my job is meaningful to me”).

Third, greater job authority yielded high intrinsic rewards among both women and men who felt influential at work. However, even when men didn’t feel very influential, having more job authority was still associated with intrinsic rewards. By contrast, among women, a job with supposed authority was only intrinsically rewarding when it was coupled with their own perception of having real influence at work.

Collectively, these findings tell us something about the experience of the work and its connection with gender inequality. Men tend to perceive more intrinsic rewards either from feeling influential or from having authority. For women, by contrast, both conditions seem to be necessary to get this reward. This matters. For women, just having authority may not be enough (as it seems to be for many men). And so even when women do occupy the “corner suite,” so to speak, they aren’t guaranteed the personal and professional rewards men garner.

As men gain positions of job authority, conventional expectations, the acceptance and support of their co-workers, and the sense of fulfilling work often buoy them. Leaning in for men, then, is a cultural expectation. It’s what they are “supposed to do” — and they are usually respected and rewarded for it. Men identify with work, and in turn, cultural expectations judge them by the work that they do. This may be one reason men tend to reap more rewards from what scholars have called “symbolic power” (having objective job authority but feeling less influential). However, in the context of broader societal norms about family roles, women may tend to encounter stigma for prioritizing work — so for them, job authority that feels symbolic might not be experienced as rewarding.

To be clear, our research does not suggest that women with authority are inaccurately underestimating its benefits or misperceiving their work conditions. Rather, the psychosocial rewards gap parallels another well-documented pattern: Just as women with job authority tend to receive lower salaries and smaller bonuses than men of equal rank, so, too, do they tend to reap fewer of the less tangible, yet deeply meaningful, rewards of power. This could have many wider workplace implications, including an impact on retention rates. Women who sacrifice and lean in yet do not feel the subjective rewards of their positional authority may ultimately be less inclined to stay in those positions.

A final thought about the psychosocial rewards gap draws upon what some have called tokenism. Some women with authority might be viewed by co-workers as having gained authority because of factors other than their abilities, which might make it harder to express influence and feel good about doing so. Perceived tokenism may therefore be another reason for the psychosocial rewards gap, especially among women who have achieved higher positions of authority but don’t feel as influential, autonomous or intrinsically rewarded for it.

In her book, Ms. Sandberg asserts that “since more men aim for leadership roles, it is not surprising that they obtain them, especially given all the obstacles that women have to overcome.”

The psychosocial rewards gap, however, suggests that attaining leadership roles is only part of the story. It’s critical to be aware of the social and structural complexities that make the leadership experience so different for working men and women.

Scott Schieman is a professor, Markus Schafer is an assistant professor and Mitchell McIvor is a doctoral candidate, all in the sociology department at the University of Toronto.

Posted on August 10, 2012
New York Times | When Leaning In Doesn’t Pay Off

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