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, firstname.lastname@example.org
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
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.
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
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
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
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.