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Gender at Work

A Social Psychological Perspective


Melanie C. Steffens and Ma. Àngels Viladot

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.
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Chapter 7. Social Role Theory


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Social role theory (Eagly, 1987) offers a social structural account on the contents of gender stereotypes (for a more recent version, see Eagly & Wood, 2012). In other words, current social structures in a given society contribute to gender stereotypes. Specifically, the theory postulates that gender stereotypes are rooted in different social roles assigned to women and men. Traditionally, women are more frequently encountered in the role of the homemaker or in occupations similar to the domestic role (such as kindergarten teacher or nurse; see also Cejka & Eagly, 1999), whereas men typically take over the role of the breadwinner and are more often located at higher levels within the occupational hierarchy. As demonstrated by Eagly and Steffen (1984), the attributes that are perceived as typical for the role of the homemaker correspond to warmth, whereas the attributes that are perceived as typical for the role of the breadwinner correspond to assertiveness and competence.

This distribution has several consequences. First, because they are often observed in these roles, women have become associated with warmth and men with assertiveness and task competence. Second, according to social role theory, women and men adjust to their gender-typical roles by acquiring the specific skills linked to successful role performance and by adapting their social behavior to role requirements (Eagly, Wood, & Diekman, 2000). In other ← 93 | 94 → words, both observers and actors are inclined to infer traits from behavior observed in given social roles: Once a person...

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