Many argue that promoting women to leadership positions in male-dominated occupational fields is an effective way to combat gender stereotypes. However, the present study finds that efforts to promote women into managerial roles in the field of engineering have unintended consequences. Because managers are less involved with the technical side of engineering, the increasing number of women in managerial positions may validate pervasive stereotypes about women being less technically competent. In male-dominated fields where women experience rapid mobility into managerial roles, the study suggests that an inverted role hierarchy, where technical skills are more highly valued than managerial skills even though the ladder role has more seniority, may disadvantage such women.
Research suggests that increasing women’s representation in leadership roles can reduce bias in the hiring and recruitment of other women across occupational pipelines. Additionally, seeing women in traditionally male-typed roles may motivate other women to pursue leadership roles. However, the present study finds that there may also be negative consequences associated with women’s advancement into leadership roles.
The context for the study is the field of engineering. While engineering is a highly segregated and male-typed occupation, female engineers have made important inroads and are increasingly found in managerial roles in numbers disproportionate to their overall representation in the field. Interviews with 61 engineers (35 women and 26 men) found that women’s advancement in the field has several unintended consequences.
Female respondents reported that when working in a leadership role, their technical knowledge was not called into question and they were less likely to have to prove themselves. In this context, the managerial path enabled them to enact a set of skills about which they could feel confident.
However, being in a role that was removed from the technical skills that are strongly associated with engineering, led them to feel conflicted about their identity as an engineer.
Related to this, the interviews suggest that women’s stronger affiliation to the role of manager reinforces negative stereotypes about female engineers. That is, having more women in managerial roles validates the widespread stereotype that women in engineering are less technically proficient than their male counterparts, and more suited to roles that involve caring for others and fostering relationships.
Another consequence was greater tension surrounding work-life balance. Managerial positions were associated with more work hours and less flexibility in one’s schedule. This is particularly problematic for female managers since women continue to take on more household labour and childcare.
The author of this study argues that these unintended consequences – mixed identification with engineering, validation of stereotypes about female engineers, and work-life balance tensions – point to an inverted role hierarchy in engineering, where the technical skills associated with the role of engineer are more valued than the skills associated with the role of manager, even though managerial roles rank higher in the job hierarchy.
- Gender Bias – Promoting women into managerial roles may reinforce gender biases if such roles are thought to align with abilities that are stereotypically attributed to women, such as having “people skills.” In male-dominated fields where technical competence is prized, management should make an effort to assign technical tasks to women in order to mitigate the implicit sorting of women into gender-typed roles that may carry less occupational prestige.
- Training – At the same time, organizational efforts should be made to combat the very gender stereotypes that motivate the emergence of inverted role hierarchies in the first place. This could be accomplished through sensitivity training, or prioritizing the value of technical and non-technical tasks alike in performance reviews.