By Bronwyn Neal
No one can sing it better than the queen herself, but do Beyonce’s catchy lyrics stand a chance when it comes to real-life scenarios?
I like to think that, as women, we stick by, stand up, and support one another in the male-dominated world that we live in. Whether women succeed by holding executive positions in fields where women are greatly underrepresented or by becoming the icons of pop, we like to say that women leaders have paved the way for future women to follow.
However, research shows this is not usually the case.
In 1922, the first woman was appointed to the U.S. Senate, yet more than 90 years later women still only account for 17% of senators. Similarly, in 1972, the first woman was promoted to CEO of a Fortune 500 company; today, still only 24 (out of these 500 CEOs) are women.
So why are other women not following the trailblazers who have cracked the glass within male-dominated fields?
Researchers Kaiser and Spalding set out to answer this question. Ninety-five white female undergraduate students participated in an experiment they designed. Before their lab session, participants completed a test in order to determine how strongly they identified as a woman—we’ll just call it an identification test. The researchers then began their quest to discover why women, at times, help fellow women advance in male-dominated field, and at other times, favor men, therefore hurting the advancement of women.
The answer they came up with: it depends.
Researchers split the participants into two groups. Half of them were led to believe that they had been chosen to be a “lab manager” over two other competitors. More importantly, each “lab manager” received an oversized t-shirt to subtly emphasize that the manager position was meant for a man, and they were asked to sign a roster filled with 90% male names (to again make it apparent that they had been largely outnumbered by their male counterparts).
Each participant was asked to conduct a test that would help select an assistant manager, which involved giving away clues that could be helpful or unhelpful.
The other half acted as a control group and were given a scenario where they were not underrepresented and the role of “lab manager” was eliminated. Participants were asked to complete the same clue task under the notion that they were simply helping two other participants complete their next task, instead of trying to search for an assistant manager as the first group did.
But what did the researchers find?
They found that when women were underrepresented as “lab managers” and did not strongly identify as a women, female participants would most likely impede the advancement of women in that field. Likewise, women lab managers with strong identification did help women advance. When women were not underrepresented lab managers, however, their identification of being a woman had no bearing on whether or not she would favor a man or woman co-worker.
Why does this happen?
Women throughout history make it to the top but do not seem to bring women to follow in their footsteps. This may be because they are too busy focusing on their own careers (which systemic sexism makes much more difficult) to focus their attention on careers of other women or, like our participants in the study described above, many are simply not aware that their favoritism towards men impedes the advancement of women in the fields where women are not heavily represented.
Now that you have been made aware of one’s identification impeding or advancing women, will you help them run the world?