Consider this combination of factors: a woman employee works in an organization with a gender equality initiative, and she even has a woman manager. Is this the best possible situation? No, it is not. And the explanation has nothing to do with queen bees. Instead, the problem is that women managers are, well, women, and their experience with discrimination has left a trace in how they work and interact with others.
This is, in brief, the finding of research by Vanessa M. Conzon recently published in Administrative Science Quarterly. She studied an organization with a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) business and staffing, which is one more reason why a gender equality initiative should go well, given the high education and liberal values of many employees in STEM organizations. Yet, this organization displayed a paradoxical divide: women managers spoke more clearly in support of a flexible work policy that made space for maternity leave and onsite childcare, but it was the men managers who more often let the women employees use this policy. Why?
Conzon discovered that the underlying reason was that men and women managers differed in the work they had been allowed and expected to do, and the resulting work habits. For men, there were two paths: dive into technological expertise, or dive into client relations. The two could be sequenced, with technology first, or they could be combined. Promotions followed their success in handling these assignments. For women, the most open path was one of handling administration and coordination, often done despite their technical skills and overlooking their potential client-handling skills. Promotions followed their success in supporting coworkers and subordinates.
These gendered career paths shaped how they interacted with subordinates and what they allowed subordinates to do. Men thrived in their technical and client-facing roles regardless of the work schedules of their employees, and they coordinated their employees from afar with email as the main tool. Women required employees’ presence to coordinate and support them, and to some degree even to make sure employees did what they were told to do. Although a manager was still a manager, man or woman, an undercurrent in the firm was that subordinates followed men managers’ instructions more faithfully than women managers’ instructions.
The result was a flexible work policy that had very different consequences for men and women managers. For the men managers, the policy mattered little because employees would still do as they were told roughly when they were supposed to, and it mattered little how they scheduled their work hours or whether they worked at home or in the office. For women managers, employees’ use of the flexible work policy meant that the valuable face time would be reduced and become unpredictable, making the managers’ job harder.
So yes, support for such a policy is good – but to see who will actually make it happen, we should also consider who benefits from the policy, and who is damaged by it.
Conzon, Vanessa M. 2023. The Equality Policy Paradox: Gender Differences in How Managers Implement Gender Equality-Related Policies. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.
This blog is devoted to discussions of how events in the news illustrate organizational research and can be explained by organizational theory. It is only updated when I have time to spare.