- Top of page
- Study 1
- Study 2
- Study 3
- General Discussion
Drawing from social identity theory, this research examines scarce gender representation as a contextual condition that inhibits same-gender supervisors' support. Survey results in Study 1 found that when women were proportionally underrepresented, they reported feeling less supported by female supervisors than male supervisors. Study 2 showed that women who perceived they were gender tokens in their organization were less likely to support an outstanding female subordinate than an identical male. Study 3 experimentally tested social mobility as a mechanism for the effects of tokenism on same-gender supervisor support. Results suggest that social mobility and group composition jointly affect ratings of same-gender targets. Perceptions of gender-based social mobility appear to be one mechanism through which tokenism influences same-gender relations at work.
Now, more than ever, women are advancing into a greater number of leadership roles (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009; Eagly & Carli, 2007). Despite the rising tide of equality for women in the workplace, obstacles still hinder their ascent. Interestingly, some of the forces impeding women's advancement are unintuitive and paradoxical. Anecdotal evidence (Dellasega, 2005; Heim, Murphy, & Golant, 2001), along with some emerging empirical work (Parks-Stamm, Heilman, & Hearns, 2008; Rosette, Tost, Hernandez, & Sitkin, 2007), has suggested that one surprising challenge facing women in the workplace is other successful women.
The notion that successful women would somehow hinder their successors seems both counterintuitive and counterproductive to the advancement of the female gender in the context of work. Not only does research show that people generally tend to favor others in their same demographic group (Brewer, 2007; Dienesch & Liden, 1986; Kraiger & Ford, 1985; Tsui & O'Reilly, 1989; Turban & Jones, 1988), it stands to reason that historically disadvantaged minority groups would be supportive of their in-group members as they struggle against the obstacles imposed on them by society (i.e., majority groups). However, anecdotal evidence, like that described in a New York Times article, points out that women can be “their own worst enemies at work” (Klaus, 2009, p. BU2). Why might a woman fail to favor her fellow females, actually withholding support from other women? Moreover, why, as popular culture and anecdotal evidence suggest, would this phenomenon occur among women, but not among men? The purpose of this paper is to explore scarce gender representation as a contextual condition under which this phenomenon emerges among women.
- Top of page
- Study 1
- Study 2
- Study 3
- General Discussion
The present research sought to examine the influence of proportional gender representation on support that supervisors provide to same-gender subordinates. The results of the first two studies suggest that when women hold token status, they will be less likely to support their female subordinates than their male subordinates. That is, when working in environments in which women were scarce, women tended to show less support to subordinates of the same gender than when they worked in more gender-balanced contexts. The results of Study 3 point to a specific mechanism—social mobility—through which representation affects same-gender relations in organizational settings. Therefore, this research contributes to an understanding of relationships among and between genders at work and organizational demography.
First, the situational influence of gender composition is clearly important in gender relations in the workplace. More specifically, organizational demography seems to be a critical factor in the emergence of differences in same-gender supervisor support. At first glance, as in Studies 1 and 2, it seems that lower proportional representation combined with the historically lower status of women in the workplace to create a social environment in which token females are doubly removed from the dominant male group (Yoder & Sinnett, 1985). However, the similar patterns found for both men and women in Study 3 point to perceived opportunities for advancement, rather than gender status as an explanation for the negative in-group relations that emerge.
Gender underrepresentation and ambiguous or limited status-advancement opportunities seem to create a particularly potent social context for same-gender relations. The appearance of asymmetrical effects on same-gender relations for women versus men (Studies 1 and 2) may be explained by the historically fewer opportunities for advancement for women (compared to men). Although underrepresentation of one's gender does not necessarily correspond with the number of opportunities for advancement into higher level positions, perhaps token females are less likely to support same-gender subordinates (as in Study 2) because they believe that the general underrepresentation of females serves as a signal that there are fewer opportunities for women to advance. In other words, women may enact individualistic social mobility strategies and be less positive toward same-gender subordinates because they interpret their opportunities through the lens of their historically lower gender status.
In both of our samples of working adults, it appears that the majority of women and men did not perceive that they were gender tokens. This finding might provide an encouraging illustration of gender equality and the general advancement of women since the publication of Kanter's (1977) foundational work on the experiences of female tokens, or it could be indicative of continued gender segregation of work (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009; Valian, 1998).
We also found support for the suggestion of Yoder and colleagues (Yoder, 1991; Yoder & Kahn, 1993) that tokenism can go beyond the numbers. In Study 2, instead of simply using numerical proportions as in Study 1, we used a subjective assessment of perceived tokenism in order to replicate our findings from Study 1. Moreover, by investigating the effects of tokenism on both social support and professional evaluations, Study 3 provides support for the importance of perceptions of opportunities for advancement, rather than sheer proportional representation for meaningful work outcomes. Our results provide one more piece to the puzzle in attempting to explain the relationship between organizational demography and meaningful work outcomes.
Second, our findings point to an individualistic social identity enhancement strategy (i.e., social mobility) as another important influence on same-gender relations at work. They also illustrate the critical influence of gender status on reactions to tokenism. Presumably, men are unaccustomed to being in an underrepresented minority, given their historically higher status gender group and majority representation employment contexts. If men experienced proportional (under)representation in the same way that women appeared to in Studies 1 and 2, we would expect token male supervisors to withhold support from their male subordinates, thereby distancing themselves from their in-group in an attempt to indirectly improve the esteem they derive from their social identity. In fact, Study 3's results seem to suggest this type of pattern with men.
Such results point to the critical influence of perceived opportunities for advancement on reversals of in-group favoritism. In other words, as opportunities for advancement seem less likely and proportional representation decreases, people tend to utilize individualistic social identity enhancement strategies at the expense of their in-group (professionally denigrating members of their same gender). Women may have fundamentally different interpretations and attributions regarding an identical social context, given that women have historically experienced prejudice and discrimination (and limited opportunities for advancement) on the basis of their gender, particularly at work (Branscombe et al., 1999; Simon & Brown, 1987). They may believe, whereas men may not, that scarce proportional representation is evidence of gender-biased context where opportunities for advancement may be limited (as history would predict) on the basis of gender.
As such, we used Study 3 to directly assess how perceived likelihood of advancement would affect whether tokens create (psychological) distance from members of their same gender (by withholding support) in order to position themselves as an exception to their in-group and improve their social identity. As Studies 1 and 2 suggest, when women are in a token situation, they may want to make sure they are not seen as just another member of the disadvantaged group, thus dissociating from their in-group by reporting they would be less likely to support other females. By specifically manipulating likelihood of advancement in Study 3, we found support for the detrimental effects of tokenism on same-gender relations.
Third, and unexpectedly, tokenism effects seemed to emerge for both men and women, such that token-gender supervisors were less positive toward same-gender subordinates when perceived opportunities for advancement were scarce. It seems that the experience of a token may depend more on the perceived opportunities for advancement than on the status (e.g., gender) of the token. In light of these findings, the results of Studies 1 and 2 (reversals of in-group favoritism among women) could also be explained by the mechanism of social mobility, rather than the double deviance of token women (low-status gender and scarce proportional representation). In other words, when women (who typically encounter fewer opportunities for advancement) are also tokens (lower status group proportionally), they tend to seek individual advancement at the expense of their in-group (withholding social support, as in Studies 1 and 2; or professionally denigrating other women, as in Study 3).
Fourth, our results have implications for minority supervisors and their supportiveness toward other minorities. Our findings support the key role of perceived opportunities for advancement, suggesting that negative in-group relations may also be experienced by token minorities. Similar to the pattern suggested for women, the historically limited opportunities for advancement among minority group members may affect minorities' interpretations of proportional underrepresentation, such that they see proportional underrepresentation as a signal for limited opportunities for advancement of their in-group. This has implications, not only for gender relations, but also for intra-relations of racial–ethnic groups that experience a similar combination of proportional underrepresentation and historically low-status group membership (e.g., Sackett et al., 1991; Yoder et al., 1996), which, together, seem to be interpreted as signaling fewer opportunities for advancement. In other words, tokenism may lead members of any historically disadvantaged social group to become “their own worst enemies” since low-status social group membership could be interpreted as an illustration of fewer opportunities for advancement.
Furthermore, it seems likely that those who are simultaneously members of two historically disadvantaged social identity groups (e.g., Black women) could (a) suffer doubly negative in-group relations; or (b) benefit from a protective factor of one social identity category (e.g., race) over another (e.g., gender). Some research by Yoder and colleagues (e.g., Yoder & Aniakudo, 1997) has suggested that Black women suffer more negative intragroup relations (e.g., get support from other Black women) as members of both a gender token and a racial token than would, say, White women who are only gender tokens. However, other research has indicated that Asians, Blacks, and Hispanics evidence a more collectivist–cooperative orientation (as opposed to individualistic orientation; Cox, Lobel, & McLeod, 1991) and that those who are highly tied to their in-group are more likely to employ strategies to improve the treatment of their group (Branscombe & Ellemers, 1998). It may be that women who become successful leaders in spite of a combination of gender and racial barriers (e.g., Asian women, Black women) could be more inclined to support similar others to follow in their path. Future research should specifically examine the effects of tokenism on social mobility processes and within-group support, and evaluations of racial–ethnic minority women and other employees whose group memberships represent some combination of lower-status identity groups.
The notion that successful women would somehow hinder their successors is in stark contrast to the well documented phenomenon of in-group favoritism, whereby people generally tend to favor others in their same demographic group (Dienesch & Liden, 1986; Kraiger & Ford, 1985; Tsui & O'Reilly, 1989; Turban & Jones, 1988). The most troubling practical implication of these findings is that in settings where historically lower status females must struggle for representation (and, ultimately, for success), female leaders may not provide their female subordinates as much support as their male counterparts. In male-dominated organizations and industries, women already face substantial challenges, prejudices, and gender barriers without having to struggle against the biases of female leaders (Goldenhar, Swanson, Hurrell, Ruder, & Deddens, 1998; Kanter, 1977). Importantly, when women hold biased evaluations of other women, this is usually not recognized as a form of gender discrimination (Baron, Burgess, & Kao, 1991; also see Petty, Fleming, & White, 1999), but is taken at face value instead. It is critical that awareness and, hopefully, remedies are advanced in organizations in light of these findings in order to promote the continued professional advancement of traditionally underrepresented groups.
The finding that supervisor support was impacted by representation is particularly problematic for several reasons. First, people's perceptions of supervisor support have an important influence on meaningful work-related outcomes (e.g., stress, job satisfaction, turnover, productivity, performance; Baruch-Feldman et al., 2002; Viswesvaran, et al., 1999). Second, in contrast to “official” managerial duties, supervisor support may be viewed as somewhat discretionary. Research (Barreto et al., 2004) has revealed that women suffer most when they encounter gender sexism by other women, as their difficulty in recognizing this as a form of gender discrimination impairs the use of adequate coping responses. Third, subtle displays of in-group distancing, such as withholding supervisor support, may not only be difficult to define and substantiate in terms of legal recourse, but may also be particularly destructive to one's psychological well-being (Cortina, 2008). Finally, it may be the case that withholding supervisor support gives way to even more damaging supervisor behaviors, such as social undermining and workplace bullying of same-gender subordinates (Duffy, Ganster, & Pago, 2002).
Moreover, our Study 3 findings portray a certain context (skewed gender representation and few opportunities to advance) that may create increased susceptibility to gender-based favoritism or conflict. Perhaps more troubling is that reversals of in-group favoritism also emerge on professional evaluations, rather than simply discretionary behaviors (e.g., supervisor support). A more encouraging implication of these findings, however, is that reversals of in-group favoritism may be avoided to the extent that opportunities for advancement are made apparent. The results of Study 3 illustrate that plentiful advancement opportunities seem to alleviate some of the negative consequences of group minority status.
Limitations and Future Research Directions
Like any research endeavor, the current investigation is not without its limitations. The realism of the experimental manipulation and sampling methods are potential limitations that should be addressed by further research. Although our hypothesized effects were supported across complementary samples in field, quasi-experimental, and experimental settings, it would be instructive to investigate the processes involved in supervisor–subordinate dynamics in ongoing work relationships. Whereas people may be more likely to rely on stereotypes in experimental settings, there may be a heightened threat in the workplace where individuals must maintain interpersonal relations with each other.
Also, interpersonal consequences are more meaningful in real-world work situations where one's performance appraisal, promotion opportunities, and even compensation depend on other people's—for example, supervisors'—support and professional opinions. According to a recent critique of laboratory studies of intergroup dynamics (Landy, 2008), one of the primary differences between real-world workplaces and those constructed in the laboratory is that participants in lab studies typically have no history or expected future relationships. The presence of actual relationships could change the dynamics that occur when people interact. Future research should investigate intact dyads of ongoing supervisor–subordinate relationships.
Future research should include multilevel approaches that allow for consideration of unique organizational factors (e.g., climate, job type, industry) in order to clarify our findings. Although research has suggested that males employed in traditionally female jobs (e.g., nurses) do not experience the negative effects of being tokens to the same extent as do women in traditionally male jobs (Fairhurst & Snavely, 1983), additional factors surrounding gender tokenism deserve further attention (e.g., occupational deviance, job prestige). Furthermore, investigations of the influence of multiple in-group identities (e.g., Black women) should be pursued. There is a relative lack of research on the intersectionality of multiple (minority) group identities, especially as it pertains to the experience of tokenism at work (for exceptions, see Yoder, 1991).
In Study 3, we found that, regardless of work experience, token representation at the peer level produced lower ratings of same-gender targets when there were fewer opportunities for advancement. This may suggest that lower level women are threatened by talented same-gender individuals who are ranked closely in the hierarchy. However, further research is needed to determine whether, for example, lower ranking female managers feel more threatened by closely ranked female colleagues than, perhaps, well established female leaders. No research has explicitly examined the top–down direction of same-gender relations in conjunction with degree of hierarchical rank difference within a token environment.
In her study of a large law firm, Ely (1994) found that the presence of token high-status women negatively impacted peer relationships among lower status females in that organization, but did not investigate higher ranking females' reactions to lower ranking females, nor degree of difference between high and low ranking. Moreover, Parks-Stamm et al. (2008) found that (lower ranking) women penalized highly successful female leaders in order to minimize self-evaluative threat and salvage their own self-views regarding competence. However, they did not examine the impact of rank difference, nor did they investigate the opposite comparison of higher ranking females' reactions to lower ranked females. Duguid (2011) found that competitive threat and collective threat shaped female tokens' negative responses to allowing other women into a high-prestige work group, but those “threatening” women were peers with no measure of the impact of rank similarity (or difference) on these same-gender interactions.
Finally, the literature on the queen-bee phenomenon (Staines, Tavris, & Jayaratne, 1974) suggests that token females denigrate same-gender subordinates because they believe there is limited space for females in the work environment, and other females are in competition for limited spaces for females within the male in-group (Mathison, 1986). While directionality is implied, research on the impact of the degree of difference between high-status and subordinate ranking women is lacking in the queen-bee literature. Further research is needed to explicitly test the impact of the degree of rank difference on same-gender relations in token environments. Also, tenure within those higher ranks could be an important factor that may impact same-gender support in gender token environments.
It may be the case that a woman who has securely held a leadership position for many years would be more likely to support an up-and-coming woman than would a new female manager. Research has suggested that in later career stages, individuals who have successfully overcome stereotypes and related obstacles may be more resilient to stereotypical biases and more likely to try to improve the treatment of their social identity group in the workplace (Block, Koch, Liberman, Merriweather, & Roberson, 2011). Moreover, new perspectives of positive leadership also suggest that effective real-world leaders may be more focused on the good of the whole, rather than on personal gain (e.g., May, Chan, Hodges, & Avolio, 2003). Additional examinations of the impact of leadership tenure on same-gender support would improve our understanding of same-gender relations in token environments.
Specific individual differences and interpersonal processes should also be investigated in order to shed light on the potential mechanisms underlying the lack of same-gender supervisor support, especially among women. In particular, perceptions of subordinates as threats to the self or the ego and supervisors' responses to such threats may be a promising avenue of research (Parks-Stamm et al., 2008). Future studies should investigate the role of self-esteem/ego threat in relation to gender-based status as well as status within an organizational hierarchy. It may also be that threats to mobility (possibility for advancement) are related to perceived threats to self-esteem/ego.
Moreover, future research should examine the impact of the difficulty of the leadership journey on same-gender support within token contexts. It may be the case that women who have paved the way for females to overcome gender barriers and become successful leaders are resentful of emerging female leaders who “have it easy” and can just climb the corporate ladder without having to blaze the trail. A study of female faculty members' attitudes toward same-gender doctoral students (Ellemers et al., 2004) found that bias against female doctoral students was limited to the older generation; that is, to female faculty with an age above the median (47 years). These women (who were born between 1921 and 1949) decided to pursue their own academic careers at a time when this was still exceptional for women. The authors suggest that the younger generation of female faculty were perhaps less biased toward female graduate students because, in the modern academic environment, “It no longer seems necessary to distance oneself from other gender group members in order to prove one can be successful at work” (p. 334). Additional research on the perceived severity of gender or racial barriers along a leadership journey would contribute to our understanding of individual leaders' support of same-gender or same-race subordinates.
In our studies, the reduced likelihood of same-gender supervisor support among tokens is evidenced in self-reported perceptions and likelihood of support behaviors, but these could very well be only one aspect of the potential negative outcomes for tokens at work. Consistent with the findings of Study 3, reversals of in-group favoritism may also emerge on professional evaluations that have large symbolic and material consequences. The reduced support and apparent professional denigration between women in particular could be a symptom of a more disturbing phenomenon whereby successful professionals subtly hinder, or even sabotage, the professional advancement of same-gender subordinates.
The results of the present studies suggest that when they are proportionally scarce in a workplace setting, managers may withhold support from same-gender subordinates in order to psychologically distance themselves from their in-group and improve their own individual social identity. This phenomenon may be driven, at least in part, by perceptions of social mobility whereby fewer perceived opportunities for members of one's gender result in decreased support for same-gender subordinates. These findings highlight the impact of gender demography in organizations on same-gender relations. Most notably, though, these findings fly in the face of popular wisdom regarding in-group favoritism. Our results point to a new avenue for research in organizational demography: the role of social mobility perceptions in inter- and intra-group relations. Only with a greater understanding of these phenomena can we make significant strides in ensuring the equitable treatment of all employees.