How do occupations become gender stereotyped? This study provides empirical evidence that the gender of the initial person filling an otherwise gender-neutral role, has lasting consequences for how that role is subsequently perceived. By examining the role of loan manager in a microfinance bank, the study finds that when a woman initially fills the role of loan manager for a given borrower, that borrower subsequently regards that role as a “lower-status” position, regardless of whether they deal with male or female loan managers in the future. This study thus demonstrates how quickly beliefs about gender can be inscribed into occupational roles, and furthermore, the negative consequences this phenomenon has for women’s authority in the workplace.
There is a general consensus in managerial and sociological research that certain occupations are gendered. For example, public relations, nursing, and teaching are considered “female-gendered” occupations, whereas stock trading, engineering, and construction are considered “male-gendered” occupations. In addition, research suggests that women are perceived as less authoritative than men in work contexts.
The present study brings these two lines of inquiry (gendered occupations and authority) together in order to ask how the gendering of occupational roles affects women’s authority on the job.
Using a unique dataset of loan histories from a Central American microfinance bank, the authors focus on the ‘gender-neutral” occupational role of loan manager. This role is initially gender-neutral because on average, men and women fill it equally, and although financial institutions tend to be gender-typed as male, microfinance institutions have a legacy of providing social services to the poor, a stereotypically feminine task.
In the study, the authors track the gender of the initial loan manager that a given borrower is assigned to. However, because it is common for borrowers to be transferred to other loan managers (for example, to balance out caseloads, or because the initial manager resigns), the authors also track the gender of subsequent managers that a borrower is assigned to. This is done in order to assess whether the likelihood of defaulting on a loan varies by the gender of the loan manager. In addition to tracking gender, a host of other relevant factors are accounted for, such as the borrowers’ household income, debt, and previous borrowing experience.
Tracing these conditions allow the authors to examine how the job of loan manager becomes gendered, and how this affects the perceived authority of men and women occupying this role.
Findings: The nexus between gender and authority
First, borrowers are less compliant overall with female loan managers than with male managers. Specifically, borrowers have a 13.6 percent probability of missing a payment when initially paired with a male loan manager, and an 18.5 percent probability when paired with a woman.
Second, this behaviour persists over time, resulting in a gendered perception of the loan manager role. Borrowers are more likely to default on payments with subsequent managers, regardless of their gender, when their initial manager was female. For example, those who were initially paired with a female loan manager have a 24.7 percent probability of defaulting on monthly payments. By contrast, borrowers initially paired with a male loan manager have an 18.8 percent probability of default. This means that men who step into roles that were initially filled by women also experience a decrease in their workplace authority.
That said, it is when subsequent loan managers are female that the greatest rates of noncompliance are found: borrowers originally paired with male managers have a greater probability (22.1 percent) of defaulting when they are subsequently assigned to female loan managers than with male managers (15.5 percent).This has implications for the authority conferred on loan managers stepping into roles previously held by men versus women.
Men stepping into male-typed roles experience the highest rates of compliance, however, men stepping into female-typed roles, and women stepping into male or female-typed roles, all experience lower rates of compliance.
In sum, those borrowers initially assigned to men go on to treat subsequent male loan managers with more authority. On the other hand, those who were initially assigned a female loan manager are less compliant and more likely to default on loan payments.
- Performance – The authority conferred upon men and women in the workplace (and lack thereof) is often caused by reasons beyond their control. This has negative repercussions for their performance (for example, in the present study it is harder for loan managers stepping into female-typed roles to get borrowers to comply with the terms of their loan). Management should factor in gender biases when reviewing employees’ performance.
- Occupational bias – In addition to attending to the role of gender bias, management should be aware of biases associated with occupational roles that are gender-typed female, as even men in such roles may face negative repercussions in their performance.