Summary

Social identity threat occurs when individuals feel devalued based on their belonging to a social group. Through a daily diary study with 96 engineers, researchers found that women engineers regularly experience social identity threat at work through having negative conversations with men engineers (i.e., conversations that make women engineers feel incompetent or not accepted). In turn, women engineers experience mental exhaustion. The same result did not occur for men when they had negative conversations with women colleagues, nor did it occur between men or between women. Thus, workplaces should implement policy that fosters men to have positive interactions with women colleagues, creating safer spaces for them.

Women engineers experience mental exhaustion due to social identity threat at work.

Research

According to the psychology literature, social identity threat occurs when individuals feel they are devalued or negatively stereotyped based on their social group. This study aimed to measure professional women’s experiences of social identity threat, as well as the outcomes for women. The authors hypothesized that women engineers experience social identity threat through conversations with men colleagues, specifically if the conversations make them feel incompetent or not accepted. They also predicted that this social identity threat leads to women’s psychological burnout and mental exhaustion.

The authors conducted 10 daily diary surveys with 52 women and 44 men engineers over the course of two weeks. Each day, participants were asked to recall face-to-face conversations they had at work, identify the type of conversation, identify the gender of the conversation partner, and rate the positivity of their own reaction to the conversation (e.g. whether they felt respected and whether their competence was acknowledged). They also answered questions about whether they perceived social identity threat (e.g. “Today at work, I felt very aware of my gender”) and about their daily burnout (e.g. “Today, I felt emotionally drained at work”).

Findings

When women engineers had work conversations with men colleagues that made them feel a lack of belonging and feelings of incompetence (i.e., negative conversations), women experienced social identity threat. That is, they felt that they were being devalued based on their gender. The result did not occur for men when they had negative conversations with women, nor did it occur for negative conversations between women or between men. This latter result may be because conversations between people of the same gender, even negative ones, are unlikely to be interpreted as related to gender.

The authors also discovered that experiencing social identity threat at work resulted in psychological burnout for women, but not for men. The authors suggest that even when professional women have succeeded academically, they still feel regular devaluation in the workplace. If speaking with men colleagues made women feel unaccepted and incompetent, women were more likely to experience mental exhaustion.

If speaking with men colleagues made women feel unaccepted and incompetent, women were more likely to experience mental exhaustion.

Implications

  • Managers, especially in professions dominated by men, should prioritize policy and training on positive work interactions–When women engineers have conversations with men engineers that leave them feeling incompetent and unaccepted, they experience psychological burnout. This may be a factor in women’s high attrition from STEM professions. Employers should prioritize policy on inclusive and positive workplace interactions in order to create safer