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Research Shows Assigning More Female Managers Is Not Enough to Tackle Gender Wage Inequality

Our new research examines the issue of gender inequality among managers.

Greg Brave / Shutterstock
Greg Brave / Shutterstock

A recent paper in European Sociological Review showed that women do not earn more when they work in an organization with a high proportion of female mangers, nor when they have a female manager themselves.

The past decades have seen a steady increase in women’s representation in all levels of management. Much scientific research has been conducted on why women occupy management positions less often than men, but now that the number of female managers is increasing, the question arises as to what the implications of this trend might be. Managers play key roles in organizations and decide on the hiring, wages, promotions, and training of employees. As such, a change in the demographics of managers might have implications for inequalities between employees. Many studies have sought for explanations for wage inequality between women and men, but only few have concentrated on the influence of women’s representation in management.

Are female managers agents of change?

There are several reasons as to why female managers might be “change agents” who decrease gender wage inequality in organizations. First, mechanisms of homosocial reproduction have been used to explain why men seem to benefit from having a male manager. Essentially, the argument is that people prefer others who are like them, which results in managers befriending, mentoring and promoting people directly underneath them who are of the same sex. Second, female managers might be more able and willing to sympathize with and support other women because they share experiences of sex-based discrimination or the struggles of establishing a work-life balance. In addition, there are some indications that female managers are more in favor of policies aimed at tackling sex-based discrimination. Lastly, female managers might challenge stereotypes of what a typical leader (i.e. manager) looks like. Other research has, for example, shown that sex roles are less stereotypical in firms with a higher proportion of female managers. So, more women might advance to leadership positions, which are overall better paid, when more female managers are present in an organization.

Or are they cogs in the machine?

Female managers could also be “cogs in the machine” because, first of all, female managers are often found in lower levels of management, where they have too little power to substantially affect the earnings of their employees. Also, female managers could simply have the same stereotypes about female employees as male managers: Women, especially mothers, are less devoted and capable employees. Lastly, queen bee theory asserts that only women who accept the existing hierarchy in the organization are promoted into managers, and that female managers have to “prove” that they earn their position by, among others, not showing female solidarity.  

Our study

To solve this puzzle, researchers investigated whether female managers influence the gender wage gap in organizations. Specifically, they looked at whether the earnings of female and male employees were affected by the share of female managers in the organization, and by the sex of their own manager. They analyzed data from nine European countries and six sectors (manufacturing, transportation, healthcare, higher education, financial services and telecommunication) on over 7,500 employees working in 669 departments in 231 organizations.

The researchers first established an average gender wage gap of about 7 percent, which comes down to $118 (or 104€) per month with a 40-hour workweek. This gap is adjusted for working hours, but not for sector, country, or any organizational or individual characteristics. Also, they found that the gender gap in earnings varied considerably between departments and organizations, but it did not seem to be influenced by the sex composition of the organization’s management, nor by the sex of employees’ direct manager. The authors therefore draw the conclusion that female managers are, to some extent, cogs in the machine that do not benefit (but are also not detrimental to) gender wage equality.

Where do female managers contribute to gender equality?

According to the lead author Margriet van Hek, there are many questions that still need to be answered: “An important follow-up question is whether female managers benefit female employees in other ways, such as being more understanding of work-family conflicts. The most important question, however, is whether female managers lack the motivation or lack the power to tackle organizational gender inequality.” Other studies have indicated that masculine organizational cultures “create” queen bees: female managers that do not support workplace equality initiatives, because doing so hurts their climb up the organizational ladder. If this is true, female managers will only foster change if the organizational climate allows them to do so. “Many organizational variables influence gender wage inequality; it is very likely that female managers can only establish change under certain circumstances. It is our job to find out what these circumstances are,” Margriet van Hek says.

Van Hek, M., & Van der Lippe, T. (2019). Are Female Managers Agents of Change or Cogs in the Machine? An Assessment with Three-Level Manager–Employee Linked Data. European Sociological Review.

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