University of Amsterdam: Women’s authority jobs differ both in tasks and quality

The representation of women in workplace authority has generally increased over time. But the move of women into these traditionally men-dominated arenas is still very uneven. Sociologist Dragana Stojmenovska studied the gendered distribution of workplace authority and reveals how women’s authority jobs differ both in tasks and quality. Women in authority have less control over organizational resources than men and face lower levels of job resources and higher levels of job strains. These differences cannot be explained by individual authority-associated characteristics of women and men. Friday 18 March she will defend her PhD thesis at the University of Amsterdam.

Workplace authority can be defined as positions that confer some sort of power to employees, like having supervisory authority or authority over organizational resources. Authority jobs are seen as more resourceful than those without authority since they come with higher earnings and psychological job rewards. ‘Men’s disproportionate representation in these positions therefore represents a source and instance of gender inequality’, states sociologist Dragana Stojmenovska.

With her research Stojmenovska answers two important questions surrounding women’s and men’s representation in workplace authority that were so far unanswered: What do women’s authority jobs look like compared to those of men? What role do cultural beliefs and the gendered path to parenthood play in the attainment of authority positions?

The gender gap is largest in positions with things-oriented tasks
To find what women’s authority jobs look like compared to those of men, Stojmenovska analysed survey and administrative data from about 32,000 employees in the Netherlands. This analysis confirms the hypothesis that the gender gap in authority is larger in positions that involve more authority and with tasks culturally seen as more suitable for men. ‘I found that the gap is largest in positions with things-oriented tasks (control over organizational resources) and smallest in positions that deal with people (that involve control over human resources). The view on men as more suitable for things-oriented tasks and women as more suitable for people-oriented tasks is a well-known gender stereotype that also influences the concentration of women and men in different industries.’

Women in authority report more sexual harassment, intimidation, workplace bullying, and job burnout
Using survey and administrative data on about 100,000 employees Stojmenovska also compared levels of job resources, strains, and burnout of women and men with and without workplace authority. This analysis brings to light that women’s authority jobs also differ from those of men in terms of job quality. ‘I found lower levels of job resources and higher levels of job strains among women especially in authority. Men in authority also have considerably higher levels of earnings and non-economic job resources than women in authority. Women in authority are additionally the most likely of all employees to report experiences of sexual harassment, intimidation, workplace bullying, and job burnout.’ In contrast, men in authority were found to be less likely than men without authority, and the least likely of all employees, to report job burnout.

Motherhood is not an explanation for the gender gap in authority
With longitudinal life course survey data on about 6,000 women and men Stojmenovska traced how transition to parenthood influenced the gender gap in authority. ‘Contrary to the popular belief that motherhood is the cause of women’s underrepresentation in workplace authority, my analysis shows that not only is motherhood not the main explanation, but also not a very important one.’ She finds that the difference in men’s and women’s average chances of having workplace authority is already very large years prior to the birth of their first child. The transition to parenthood does moderately reduce women’s probabilities of having workplace authority, an effect that is entirely explained by a reduction in women’s work hours around the time of birth. ‘The view on authority jobs as incompatible with part-time work thus serves to exclude part-time workers, who are often women.’

The gender authority gap is larger in organizations with larger shares of men
Since characteristics like work experience and educational attainment and the gendered transition to parenthood do not explain the gender gap in authority, Stojmenovska turns the spotlight on work organizations and power struggles in the workplace. Based on survey and administrative data on about 100,000 individuals from 389 organizations she finds considerable organizational variation in the gender authority gap. ‘I find that the gender authority gap is larger in organizations with larger shares of men and organizations where men tend to have higher status relative to women in terms of other culturally or organizationally recognized status distinctions, for example in organizations where men tend to have permanent employment status and women tend to have temporary employment status.’

Destabilizing status hierarchies
With her study Stojmenovska shows that the representation of women in authority positions is not enough for achieving equality, or even reducing gender inequality, ‘at least not in the current context of men’s domination of authority jobs.’ To achieve change, more profound changes in the gender system and prevailing workplace norms are needed, she concludes.’ The ultimate social justice project likely involves destabilizing status hierarchies.’

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