Click for Academy of Management home page

Academy of Management

Bosses' political beliefs can play havoc with women's careers, two studies find

August 4, 2016

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz, (718) 398-7642,


While political ideology is a major factor in a nation’s public life, as voters are likely realizing all too well this election year, it is not something people expect to influence how they fare day to day on the job. Yet, new research being reported at a major scholarly meeting this month suggests that it makes an important difference to many women whether their bosses are liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican.


Two papers being presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management (Anaheim, Aug. 5-9) examine the hiring, pay, and advancement of female attorneys in big law firms and find they depend to a considerable extent on the political persuasions of the firms' partners. Both papers find women to be significantly better off – and for there to be significantly more equality between the genders – when bosses are liberals than when they are conservatives.


For example, a study by Forrest Briscoe and Aparna Joshi of Penn State University, focusing on one of the largest U.S. law firms, finds that, when partners bestow performance-based annual bonuses on associates, the amount awarded by political liberals is about the same for males and females but that male bonuses considerably exceed those awarded to females when bosses are politically conservative. The professors view their study as relevant to a wide swath of professional and managerial jobs.


Meanwhile, a second study, by Seth Carnahan of the University of Michigan and Brad N. Greenwood of Temple University, based on data from 200 large American law firms, finds that a predominance of liberal partners translates into significantly better hiring and promotion prospects for women than is the case when partners are predominantly conservatives. In both studies, the political complexion of bosses and firms is discerned through the amount of money partners donate to the two major U.S. political parties, information available from public records.


How do individual bosses' "seemingly gender-neutral ideological preferences creep or seep into everyday... decisions about male and female workers," Profs. Briscoe and Joshi ask.


 “To be clear, we do not make the claim that conservative values are misogynistic or that liberal values are inherently feminist in their orientation,” they write. Yet, given the high degree of uncertainty involved in assessing professional or managerial performance, "liberal supervisors, guided by a value system that rejects inequality and embraces change...may tilt toward attributing the performance outcomes of a male worker in part to workplace norms and practices that have traditionally favored men, giving the benefit of the doubt to a female worker who has had to overcome system barriers to perform at equal levels...In contrast...the conservative may focus on the more immediate indicators of differential commitment or performance (e.g., working at the office over the weekend) without considering whether or not they inherently favor men, [and] be more accepting of differences in outcomes between men and women that preserve the status quo."


With conservative bosses, unequal male and female bonuses


Analyzing data from over a six-year period in a firm with over 1,000 attorneys, Briscoe and Joshi monitored the earnings and progress of associates (about 36% of them female), who were typically hired right out of law school and who worked under the supervision of partners, 10% of whom were female. In all, the professors’ dataset consisted of 359 distinct workers tied to 119 distinct partners who supervised them. Associates in a given annual cohort earned the same base salary, so that higher and lower earnings within a cohort depended on the size of bonuses, which the partners who supervised the associates were responsible for determining.


The study finds the average bonus for male associates to be well above the mean for their cohorts and the average for female associates well below it. Probing further by taking into account differences between male and female associates that may legitimately affect bonuses, such as annual billable hours, the researchers determined the interaction between female workers and liberal supervisors to be positive and statistically significant. In the words of the study, "gender earnings gap is more pronounced...for conservative supervisors and...disappears at high levels of supervisor liberalism." In contrast, whether a supervisor was male or female was not statistically significant.


Interestingly, too, the professors find that this ideology-related gap only increases with associates’ seniority, turning out to be more than seven times greater after five or six years than it is in year one and two. Why should this be? The authors suggest two reasons – first, the complexity of work grows with greater seniority, "increasing the scope for discretion and any attendant bias originating with the supervisor”; and, second, as seniority increases and with it the likelihood that associates will join the firms' inner circle as partners, conservative supervisors may simply “not see senior women as fit for leadership and high-status roles in the organization, surmising that the [traditional] male-dominated leadership ranks are a reflection of higher motivation and leadership skills among men.”



Gaps in hiring and promotion


Analyzing hiring and promotions at the 200 largest U.S. law firms from 2007 through 2012 (and partners’ political contributions over the 10 previous years), Profs. Carnhan and Greenwood broach three principal questions – whether the political complexion of partners affects the chances of female law-school graduates of being hired; whether it affects their chances of being promoted; and whether the political ideology of male partners bears a stronger relationship than that of female partners with both outcomes. 


They find that in liberal law offices (those that make more than two thirds of their political contributions to Democrats), 48% of law-school graduates hired were female compared to 44% in offices that made less than one third of donations to Democrats. Further, with an array of relevant factors controlled for, the gap between male-female hiring was 19% greater in conservative law offices than in liberal ones, with men enjoying the advantage.


Even more dramatic was the gap in promoting associates to partner status. The gender gap (again to men's advantage) was almost three quarters greater if the partners in a woman's practice area (for example, criminal law or corporate law) were conservative than it was if they were liberal. That result seems to resonate with the finding by Briscoe and Joshi on the negative impact of seniority on female bonuses.


Carnahan and Greenwood also find that these effects are driven primarily by the ideology of male partners rather than female partners. "Not only might female managers have less power to assert their preferences," they write, "but female managers likely have strong reasons other than political ideology to support female subordinates [including] direct exposure to gender discrimination in their personal lives. Male managers, by contrast, lack these influences, thereby increasing the importance of ideology in determining their beliefs and attitudes toward gender inequality."


What to do?


"Of course, it would be misguided," Penn State's Briscoe and Joshi write, "to suggest that organizations hire and promote only liberal managers. Nor does it appear that increasing the numerical representation of female supervisors would reduce the supervisor ideological effect, based on our analysis indicating that the ideology effect exists regardless of supervisor gender."  


They then offer two suggestions.


One is "to identify those supervisors who show the lowest gender gap in subordinate worker evaluations, and reward them for this behavioral outcome....Variations on this policy might also seek to reward supervisors who allocate resources, projects, and on-the-job learning opportunities among male and female workers in an equitable manner. The recent diffusion of workplace-analytics software tracking workflow and performance details should make such policies easier to implement with little additional cost."


A second suggestion looks to the influence clients might have. "Since clients are a major source of revenue for professional firms, client advocacy for gender equality is an important way to incentivize gender integration...Professional associations in the high-technology industry (e.g., National Council for Women in I.T.), for instance, have successfully pressured high tech firms to adopt more transparent performance management and rewards systems and may offer exemplars in this regard…Clients advocating gender equality could require evidence that supervisors working on their most valuable projects are staffing them with equal numbers of female workers and that worker pay outcomes are equitable."


The two studies are among the thousands of research reports presented at the 2,100 sessions of the Academy of Management annual meeting, in Anaheim, California, from August 5th through 9th. Founded in 1936, the Academy of Management is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has more than 20,000 members in 125 countries. This year's annual meeting will draw some 11,000 scholars and practitioners for sessions on a host of subjects relating to business strategy, organizational behavior, corporate governance, careers, human resources, technology development, and other management-related topics. 

Academy of Management
Member Services
Academy of Management
Online Opportunities
Academy of Management