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Do women managers foster increased gender equality at work? New research casts doubt on the prevailing assumption that they do

August 1, 2012

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz, (212) 233-6170,

Do women's careers benefit when they have female bosses? The natural assumption would seem to be that they do, and, in fact, most scholarship on this question has tended to concur.
Yet, now,  research that probes the issue more directly than previous studies have done calls this conclusion into question. A paper being presented at this week's annual meeting of theAcademy of Management (Boston, Aug. 5-7) finds, "in contrast to past studies...that female managers do not reduce gender inequality for their subordinates." This was found to be true both in terms of the amounts earned and the jobs held by hundreds of women employees included in the study.
What accounts for this departure from previous research? Earlier investigations, explains the author of the new study, Mabel Abraham, a doctoral student at MIT, "take an indirect approach in their analysis." Thus, they "do not examine actual manager-subordinate reporting relationships but rather simulate these relationships using aggregate level data at either the industry or organization level." This can be problematic, Ms. Abraham contends, since these studies rely on the assumption that managers have control over such essential employee outcomes as wages, hiring, and promotions, something that may or may not be true.
In contrast, the new study analyzes staffing and wage patterns in actual reporting relationships where managers are explicitly given control over all three.
Data were obtained from 68 retail branches of a large U.S. bank, whose branch managers, 44% female, oversaw a staff about three fourths of whom were women. An analysis of wages of the five job positions in each branch -- tellers and representatives at the low end of the wage scale, officers in the middle, and executives and relationship managers at the high end -- reveals little difference at each job level between men and women employees, whether the branch manager happened to be male or female.
Yet, overall, women employees of the bank on average earned only about 83% as much as men did. And what drove this inequality was that women tended to occupy positions at the low end of the pay scale, while men were disproportionately clustered at the upper end. Thus while women made up 82% of the tellers and 83% of the representatives, they constituted a lesser 73% of the officers and only 38% of the executives and 44% of the relationship managers.
In other words, as the study puts it, "There is an apparent glass ceiling where there are proportionately fewer women in the highest-level positions (e.g. relationship manager and executive) than in the lower-level positions."
And, surprisingly, this pattern prevailed whether a branch manager was male or female. In the words of the study, "The gender distribution of subordinates for those reporting to female managers mirrors the distribution for those reporting to male managers...Essentially, jobs are equally segregated by gender regardless of whether the manager is male or female."
Ms. Abraham does uncover one substantial difference between male and female managers with special significance for women employees: women bosses proved considerably more amenable than men to flexible work arrangements. In the words of the study "employees reporting to female managers are approximately 2.25 times as likely to work part-time as are those reporting to male employees, providing preliminary evidence consistent with existing theory that women offer greater support for flexible work arrangements."


Ironically, even here male-female managerial differences, while clearly of benefit to women, were not a factor in lessening gender inequality, since "for those employees reporting to female managers, the proportion of women working part-time does not significantly differ from the proportion of men working part time...This suggests that women are more tolerant and supportive of flexible work arrangements, but are not necessarily helping other women."


What to make of the fact that female bosses have so little impact on gender inequality? While not shedding light on that question, the study does note that "in addition to establishing that female managers possess the power to affect the gendered outcomes of their subordinates, it is also important to determine whether they are motivated to do so." In that connection, Ms. Abraham cites recent research by other scholars which suggests that "because women fear that others will not perceive them as valuable members of the organization, they will be less apt to support other women within the organization. Not advocating for female employees in terms of wages and job allocation may be a response to female managers' perceived external appraisals."


The paper, entitled "Women in Charge: The Impact of Female Managers on Gender Inequality," isamong several thousand research presentations at the Academy of Management annual meeting, being held in Boston from August 5th through 7th.  Founded in 1936, the Academy of Management is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has some 19,000 members in 102 countries, including about 11,000 in the United States. This year's annual meeting is expected to draw some 10,000 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.

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