Gender at Work

A Social Psychological Perspective

by Melanie C. Steffens (Author) Ma. Àngels Viladot (Author)
©2015 Textbook X, 312 Pages
Series: Language as Social Action, Volume 18


While many women receive equal education, such equality is nowhere in sight when it comes to women’s and men’s career success: men still earn significantly more than women and are more likely to be promoted. In this book, the authors offer a state of the art review of applied social-psychological research on gender at work, shedding light on all the different ways that work-related perceptions, attributions, outcomes, and the like differ for women and men. Focusing on domains (e.g., engineering) and positions (e.g., leadership) that are marked by women’s underrepresentation, the first part of the book looks at gender at work in terms of stereotypes, attitudes, and social roles, including parenthood, while the second part takes a social identity and communication perspective, exploring the situations in which men and women interact at work. Many chapters focus on applied questions, such as career choice, effects of role models, and sexual harassment at work. Theories and findings are applied to these topics, with conclusions and recommendations drawn throughout the book.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the authors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Part I: Stereotypes, Attitudes, and Social Roles
  • Chapter 1. Gender Stereotypes
  • Chapter 2. Implicit Cognition
  • Chapter 3. Effects of Stereotypes on Judging Others
  • Chapter 4. Effects of Stereotypes on One’s Own Behavior
  • Chapter 5. Gender Attitudes
  • Chapter 6. Gender Differences
  • Chapter 7. Social Role Theory
  • Chapter 8. Maintaining Social Hierarchies
  • Chapter 9. Career Choice
  • Chapter 10. The Role of Organizational Cultures
  • Chapter 11. Role Models
  • Chapter 12. Parenthood and Work-related Impressions
  • Chapter 13. Conclusions
  • Part II: Social Identities, Communication, and Gender
  • Chapter 14. Social Identity Perspective
  • Chapter 15. Identity Management Strategies
  • Chapter 16. Discrimination and Self-discrimination of Women at Work
  • Chapter 17. Conservatives Versus Liberals
  • Chapter 18. Interactions Between Gender and Power: Sexual Harassment
  • Chapter 19. Communication Accommodation Theory and Intergender Boundaries
  • Chapter 20. Intergroup Contact, Gender, and Leadership
  • Chapter 21. Leadership and Gender Identity in Organizations
  • Chapter 22. Conclusions
  • Epilogue
  • References
  • Index
  • Author index
  • Series index


In numbers greater than ever before, women today are working in business and industry, law and medicine, academics and government, no longer only as support staff for male executives but as managers and executives in their own right. With some regularity, newspaper articles and television programs profile women who have “made it,” doing extraordinarily well in fields that were previously lacking any high-level female representation. Yet while the increases in women’s professional attainments are measurable, they are only partial. The 2014 Forbes’ list of “The world’s most powerful people” was proclaimed notable because for the first time, two women were listed among the top 10 (German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen). But at the same time, only 7 women were included in the next 90 rungs on the ladder of those deemed powerful. Glass ceilings, glass cliffs (Ryan & Haslam, 2005), and labyrinths (Eagly & Carli, 2007) remain, posing challenges to women who want to attain equity in their careers and their lives.

In the words of Virginia Valian (1997), “Why so slow?” Why, after four to five decades of discussion and debate, assessment and appraisal, do the statistics still show that gender equity is far from a reality in organizations throughout the world? So often, the first answers to this question focus on women themselves. What are they doing wrong? What could they do differently? ← VII | VIII → Why don’t they do what men do? In her best-selling book on women in business, for example, Sheryl Sandberg (2013) advised women to “lean in” and tried, using personal anecdotes as well as social science data, to encourage women to develop their “will to lead.”

But as social psychologists Melanie Steffens and Ma. Àngels Viladot well know, a full explanation of women’s progress, or the lack thereof, requires an understanding of the cognitive biases and the interpersonal processes that operate in any organizational setting. The first choice of a social psychologist is typically to look to the situation for factors that influence behavior—in this case, the behavior of women and men in the organization and behavior toward women and men in these settings. And that is exactly what social scientists have been doing for nearly half a century.

In the early 1970s, investigators began to show that the simple act of attaching a woman’s name versus a man’s name to a work product will lead to different evaluations, typically enhancing the evaluation of a man relative to that of a woman. Similarly, my colleagues and I showed that explanations for a successful outcome also varied, attributed by observers to skill if done by a man and to luck if done by a woman. This finding, which has been replicated with depressing regularity over the years (though with “extra effort” sometimes accorded to women rather than simply “dumb luck”), has become so commonplace as to emerge in the popular press as general knowledge, needing no scientific stamp of validity. Hundreds of other significant findings have emerged in subsequent decades to identify the conditions and factors that encourage and perpetuate unequal opportunity and uneven progress toward equity in the workplace. Researchers in these fields are not typically content, however, to simply document the contributing factors. Rather than viewing these conditions as invariant and inalterable, the social psychological perspective assumes that situations can change and, when they do, behavior will change as well. Thus, the intellectual agenda is to articulate the conditions that are likely to lead to one outcome over another and to show how change is possible.

It is this belief in the possibility of change that underlies the efforts that Melanie Steffens and Ma. Àngels Viladot have undertaken here. As representatives of an army of social scientists who have been studying gender for nearly half a century, Steffens and Viladot have culled the literature in social psychology, communication, and other related fields to present an up-to-date summary of just what we do know about gender as it influences activities in the work setting. When are outcomes for women and men most likely to ← VIII | IX → be different? How does discrimination operate and when is it most likely to occur? How do these processes operate within the individual, among people, and between groups defined on the basis of their gender composition? These are the kinds of questions that Steffens and Viladot address in this volume.

The book is not merely a summary of the science, however. Throughout the book, Steffens and Viladot provide thoughtful evaluation and integration of the relevant evidence, offering interpretations and drawing conclusions. More importantly, and perhaps more uniquely, their intended audience is not limited to their academic compatriots. A major goal of Gender at Work is to encourage change in the workplace by giving nonacademic readers a clearer understanding of how gender operates and how constraining and discriminatory situations might be changed. Thus, in addition to summary, Steffens and Viladot also offer some advice to those who may want to create more equitable working climates for women and men alike.

It is the authors’ hope, and my hope as well, that this book will be widely read and taken to head and heart. For those readers who are in a position to enact change in organizations, the information and insights that this book provides can help to increase the opportunities available to all workers and to more rapidly progress toward a truly equitable work setting.

Kay Deaux

New York← IX | X →


What is the current state of affairs?

Women’s roles in many societies have changed dramatically over the last hundred years. In little more than a century, women have gained the rights to obtaining an education, to voting, to running for public office via election, and choosing to work without their father’s or husband’s consent. In short, gender equality in the eyes of the law has mostly been obtained. In hindsight, some of the dates at which equal rights for women were acquired appear out of sync. As one example from the realm of sports, the Austrian soccer association prohibited women’s teams in 1957 and did not officially recognize them until 1982 (from Wikipedia). Of course, there are also many countries in the world today where women still do not possess the same rights as men.

In many countries, women have caught up with men in education (United Nations Development Program Human Development Report, 2014). In fact, they now even outnumber male students in some countries (e.g., U.S. Department of Education, 2000). Equal education, it should seem, is an ideal precondition for gaining equality at work. Alas, such equality is nowhere in sight. The United Nations’ Gender Inequality Index reflects inequality in men’s and women’s achievement in health, empowerment, and ← 1 | 2 → the labor market. As one figure reported there, the share of women’s seats in government is below 50% in all major countries and a low 21% on average in the world. Women also still trail behind men with respect to participation in the labor force. Women’s participation has increased from 43% to 59% between 1970 and 2004 in the United States, whereas participation among men decreased from 80% to 73% (U.S. Department of Labor, 2005).

The difference between women’s and men’s career success is all the more visible when it comes to more prestigious, higher paying jobs. Men still earn significantly more than women (Blau & Kahn, 2000; Kulich, Trojanowski, Ryan, Haslam, & Renneboog, 2011) and are more likely to be promoted (Blau & DeVaro, 2007), even when factors as important as experience or qualifications are similar (Hoyt, 2010). This bias, far from being a problem unique to executive positions, seems to operate at all levels of the organizational hierarchy (Eagly & Carli, 2004, 2007). Although women in the United States account for about half of the labor force, less than 15% of executive management positions in the Fortune 500 list in 2013 were held by women, a number that has remained flat in the last decade (Mulligan-Ferry, Bartkiewicz, Soares, Singh, & Winkleman, 2014). In Germany, an increase in women taking over leadership positions was reported, from 10% in 1996 to 21% in 2004 (German Federal Office of Statistics, 2006). But in top management and in boards of directors, percentages are only around 10% (see van Quaquebeke & Schmerling, 2010).

In academia, women also have less access to careers and lower chances to achieve the highest positions. The recent “She Figures Report 2012—Gender in Research and Innovation” from the European Commission provides the following evidence. In 2010, the proportion of female students (55%) and graduates (59%) exceeded that of male students, but men outnumbered women among PhD students and graduates (the proportion of female students was 49% and that of PhD graduates was 46%). Furthermore, women represented only 44% of lower level academic staff, 37% of intermediate level and 20% of highest level staff. The underrepresentation of women is even more striking in the fields of science and engineering. The proportion of women increased from just 31% of the student population at the first level to 38% of PhD students and 35% of PhD graduates, but it stood at 32% of lower level positions, 23% and just 11% at intermediate and highest level positions, respectively.

Women also earn considerably less money than men. In no country in the world do women earn more than about 80% of what men earn (for a review, see Lips, 2013). This is even the case after important predictors of ← 2 | 3 → income, such as education and specialization, are taken into account. For example, women in medicine, engineering, and management earn substantially less than their male colleagues with equal qualifications. Female faculty earn more than $3,000 less per year than their male colleagues after adjusting for discipline, rank, and years of service, both in female- and male-dominated disciplines.

Why this book?

Given women’s equal or even better education, the question of course is this: Why? Why does women’s education pay off less than men’s, on average? Why do men with better final grades later earn more, but this relation is absent for women (e.g., Evers & Sieverding, 2014)? When all factors that should explain career success are taken into account, why are women still less successful than men (Abele, 2000)? The answers to these questions are not simple or straightforward. In fact, our senses may be bombarded with daily answers from TV, newsprint, popular books, and many other sources.

Strikingly, “authors who write about the engaging gender questions of the day often fail to ground their answers in psychological research. Why?” (Eagly & Wood, 2013, p. 340). Similarly, the debate surrounding the small number of women in science has been described as “often superficial and unsupported by scientific evidence. Why was this the case?” (Williams & Ceci, 2007, p. 9). In our view, the answers social-psychological research provides are often not easily accessible to a more general audience of nonpsychologists because the findings of original research studies are scattered over many specialized scientific journals; the texts are typically not available to the public (for free). Even if they are, the writing may appear inaccessible to nonexperts. With this book, we hope to make that research more accessible to an academic audience interested in this issue. We believe the presented research is of great interest to a large audience, and a book that reviews the evidence in an accessible way can have a big impact on people’s thinking and decision making in this central area of sustained injustice.

Social-psychological research, broadly defined, provides many excellent answers to questions concerning gender at work. Many of the work contexts we are interested in for these purposes are domains (e.g., engineering) and positions (e.g., leadership elite) that are marked by women’s underrepresentation. Instead of speculating about women’s and men’s different career motivations, ← 3 | 4 → we turn to the scientific evidence. Instead of wondering whether women are still discriminated, we look at the host of studies testing this. Instead of believing that gender differences in ability explain differences in men’s and women’s career trajectories, we review the evidence in this domain. In short, there is hardly any question that one needs to speculate about. Answers have already been provided by research from social psychology and related fields including, but not limited to, cognitive psychology, economics, and sociology. Admittedly, each of the thousands of studies that have been conducted typically looks only at one small aspect. Studies provide scientifically grounded responses concerning one of the pieces in the puzzle at a time. So what is still needed is an integration and weighting of the evidence—something we undertake throughout the book and particularly toward the end of each section where we draw conclusions.

Does gender play a role at work at all?

In principle, there is no reason why the relationship between a supervisor and a subordinate, or between colleagues at work, or between a buyer and a seller, should have anything to do with their genders. If you go to the market to buy fruit and cheese, it should be completely irrelevant whether it is a man or a woman you buy them from or even whether the person’s gender is indeterminable. These relationships are task-centered because they are focused on the products and services that are developed or sold. However, there is consensus among researchers that gender roles spill over to the workplace (see Eagly & Karau, 2002). This means that male supervisors can be perceived differently from female supervisors, and male and female employees doing similar things may be perceived differently. In turn, they may be treated differently, including rewards and punishments. To illustrate, take the following recent quotation about a German minister (taken from the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, 32, 2014, p. 55): “If she seeks dialogue, she is interpreted to be a weak leader. If she does not, she is accused of ruling too much.” Would a male minister be the object of the same criticism? We can only speculate about the answer. As another illustration, take the following reflections on dress codes for in Europe female top politicians: “... they are asked to modify their outfit in order to adapt to male discretion. If they do not, they are sanctioned for dressing in a too striking way.... But if they appear very masculine they are also sanctioned. So women face a dilemma on how to dress” (Gallego, 2014, ← 4 | 5 → El País, p. 85). Often, someone’s gender does not have a big influence on what that person does and how he or she behaves in a certain job. We will see in this book that behavior is often tied to social roles: Ministers need to make informed decisions, and so they do, whether they are male or female, dressed colorfully or in a black suit. But how is their behavior interpreted? What do we think about it? There is a thin line between being perceived as “a weak leader” and “ruling too much,” dressing “not discrete enough” or “too masculine.” People’s perceptions concerning this may differ depending, among other things, on the actor’s gender. Of course, this is primarily a social-psychological perspective: How do people’s interpretations of others’ behavior depend on the social groups they belong to? Therefore, we as social psychologists set out to provide comprehensive responses in the text that follows.

In fact, gender plays such a big role at work that many talk about gender segregation (see Pratto, Stallworth, Sidanius, & Siers, 1997): There are women’s jobs such as hairdresser and nurse and men’s jobs such as carpenter and scientist. Also within the same firms, men and women typically split up, for example, into bosses and secretaries. Even within the same professions, men and women may end up in different specializations, such as male managers who are responsible for the products and female managers who are responsible for personnel. It is hard to imagine where gender does not play a role at work. The aim of this book is to shed light on all the different ways that work-related perceptions, attributions, outcomes, and the like differ for women and men. Do gender stereotypes lead to discrimination of women? Do men and women behave differently because of these stereotypes? How do communication processes at work differ between women and men? Do traditional social roles of mothers and fathers influence careers in different ways? These are examples of the many questions that we turn to in the text that follows.


X, 312
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (February)
pregnancy working women equality career
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. X, 312 pp.

Biographical notes

Melanie C. Steffens (Author) Ma. Àngels Viladot (Author)

Melanie C. Steffens (PhD, University of Trier) is Professor of Social and Economic Psychology at the University of Koblenz-Landau. She is an editor of the journal Experimental Psychology and has published over 60 peer-reviewed journal articles. Ma. Àngels Viladot (PhD, University of Barcelona) is a consultant professor and tutor at the Open University of Catalonia. She is the author of over 50 articles and 12 books.


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