Breaking the Glass Ceiling, One Bias at a Time

Human Resources

Although working women are piling up educational credentials and experience, in far too many organizations they are still butting up against a glass ceiling. These invisible barriers to upward mobility can come in various forms: lack of mentoring of women, gender stereotyping, and views that men make more effective leaders. In the U.S., women holding the titles of chairman, CEO, COO, and executive vice president remain at about 7 percent of the population of executives.

While many possible causes of the glass ceiling have been studied, one overlooked area is managers’ perceptions of women’s work and family demands. Researchers Jenny M. Hoobler, Sandy J. Wayne, and Grace Lemmon (U of Illinois at Chicago) designed a study to test two ideas: whether managers view women as having more difficulty than men executing their work roles due to family responsibilities; and whether women, based on this perception, are less suitable for promotion. The study was based on a sample of 126 female subordinates and 52 male and female managers from one midwestern-U.S. division of a Fortune 100 transportation firm.

The result was conclusive: “Even though female employees actually reported slightly less family-work conflict than their male counterparts,” the researchers write in the Academy of Management Journal, “their managers still perceived them as having greater family-work conflict, a perception that had significant implications for women’s organizational advancement.” (These biases held for both male and female managers.) Because of these perceptions, managers rated women lower on job and organizational fit and performance.

“We have uncovered a critical dimension of the social role expectations that play a key role in the upward progress of female workers,” the researchers write. “Furthermore, we feel that such stereotyping is quite significant, with strong ramifications for people and organizations, given that these perceptions affect important managerial decisions.”

If these results are a true reflection of what is going on in organizations, there are a couple of practical implications.

One, to reduce or eliminate the impact of gender on managers’ perceptions of family-work conflict, managers must be made aware of their potential to stereotype. This is not simply a male-female issue. As the investigators note, “Male managers have been said to be gatekeepers of the upper echelons of management, yet we found that female managers held family-work conflict stereotypes about female subordinates as well.”

Two, women who participate in company-sponsored programs that assist employees with managing family-work conflict may be signaling to their managers that they need help balancing home and work domains. Given prevailing stereotypes, this would likely kill their opportunities to be promoted.

Reference:

Hoobler, Jenny M., Sandy J. Wayne, and Grace Lemmon. “Bosses’ perceptions of family-work conflict and women’s promotability: Glass ceiling effects.” Academy of Management Journal 52, No. 5 (2009): 939-957

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