The Tragedy of Workplace Gender Inequality: Why Fewer Women Occupy Managerial Positions

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This article consists of two interviews, one with Professor Laura Kray and one with organizational psychologist and doctoral researcher Sonya Mishra, both of the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. Links to their pages can be found below the article.


In recent years, there have been numerous articles on social media channels analyzing why there are fewer women than men in managerial positions; however, most of these articles are written by commentators who do not fully understand the driving factors behind the problem. To help people learn what is actually going on in the workplace and showcase useful strategies women can use to reach managerial positions, it is crucial to know the current research findings on the issue and gain expert viewpoints. Therefore, I decided to interview organizational psychologists and gender researchers from the world’s top institutions. During our conversations, they not only shared their updated research results but also provided applicable strategies that focus on empowering women.

Interviewee 1: Laura Kray

Laura Kray is a leading expert on the social-psychological barriers influencing women’s career attainment. Kray is the recipient of multiple research awards from the Academy of Management, the International Association of Conflict Management, and the California Management Review. Kray is a fellow of both the Association for Psychological Science and the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. Some of her current research seeks to debunk popular myths about the gender pay gap and to identify solutions to gender inequality in the workplace.

Kray’s research has been supported multiple times by the National Science Foundation and has been featured in a wide range of media outlets, including The Washington Post, New Yorker, National Public Radio, Harvard Business Review, New York Times, Financial Times, Slate, Forbes, Huffington Post, Daily Beast, Scientific American, Businessweek, and Time.

In addition to research and teaching, Kray consults frequently with global organizations seeking to develop the next generation of leaders who are committed to addressing issues of diversity and inclusion. Kray founded the Women’s Executive Leadership Program of Berkeley Executive Education in 2008 and she remains the faculty director today. She is also the faculty director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership. (1)

CW: What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding people have about why fewer women are in managerial positions?

LK: Misunderstandings arise as to the cause of gender inequity. There are both structural and individual causes. The structural causes include limited career-advancing opportunities for women and workplaces characterized by “masculine defaults,” which means they were created for men and to suit men. Moreover, implicit biases and gender stereotypes prevent women from being seen as leaders to the same extent as men. When women do act in a leader-like fashion, they experience backlash more than men do. As for individual causes, people perceive women as less ambitious or they do not put in as many work hours or women do not want to be in leadership positions. For example, the message of lean-in is basically for women to try harder, which implies that the problem is that women are not trying hard enough. But this is not what the research shows. Among MBA students at top schools, women report having similar career aspirations as men, but women fall further short of these goals. The biggest misunderstanding is that people think the problem of fewer women in managerial positions is an individual one, while in fact, it is a structural issue. That does not mean that individual women do not need to take responsibility for their careers; but in general, we need to do more to address the structural problems.

CW: Yeah that makes a lot of sense to me. I know that you have conducted amazing research on this topic, so I am wondering what are some surprising results that you would like to share?

LK: Sure, actually I just got a paper accepted with Dr. Margaret Lee, EGAL’s inaugural post-doctoral scholar with some surprising findings. In this project, we uncovered a new source of gender disparity that has not really been investigated in the literature, and it could provide a novel answer to the question that why there are fewer women in managerial positions. When you think about why there is a gender pay gap, most people think it is because there are more men at the top, and people in top positions get paid more, so there is a gender gap. They think that we should promote more women to the top positions, and then the pay gap will go away. However, we found that differences in vertical positions within organizational hierarchies alone cannot account for the gender pay gap. Analyzing data from a large alumni network of a top business school, in consultation with the Dean’s Office and an outside consulting firm that collects data on salaries and people’s career progression, we noticed something different.

While it is the case that there were more men in positions of leadership than there are women, this was not the whole story. Even after statistically controlled for how high people rise in hierarchies, by just comparing the people who were at the same level of an organizational hierarchy (e.g. same job titles, job functions, and industry), we still saw that men had a greater span of control (i.e., number of direct reports) than women had. This pattern reflects a horizontal difference between men and women in control over resources and in the size of teams they led. This result showed that even when women and men were at the same level in the hierarchy, men managed more people, and this difference contributed to a pay gap. On average, men had about 11 direct reports whereas women only had about 6. This difference was non-existent when they were individual contributors, and then grew steadily as they moved up to managerial roles, then director roles, then VP roles, and even persisted into the C-suite. Therefore, we cannot just work on promoting women to the top, because at every step along the way, men enjoy larger spans of control that contribute to higher pay.

Then, we ran many controlled experiments in which we found that people think that managing 11 people was a more difficult and challenging job (than managing 6 people), and should get paid more. This answer may be fair. But the problem that was not fair, or potentially not fair, are the gender stereotypes about who is a good fit for leading a large versus small team. We also found that this tendency to associate men with large teams and women with small teams did not boil down to people thinking men are more competent. In fact, in our samples, people were just as likely or more likely to say that women were more competent than men. However, a difference emerged in people’s belief on how female and male managers interact with their teams. They think that men are more authority ranking, so they are more at ease with directing orders to subordinates. On the other hand, they think women are more democratic and engage in more communal sharing, an approached characterized by an attitude of “we’re all in this together” to get the job done. Thus, people think that in order to lead a large team, you need to be more authority ranking, so men are regarded as better fits for these higher-paying jobs, even within the same level of hierarchy.

CW: This is such an exciting finding! It is interesting to see so many biases playing out in the system.

LK: Yeah, everywhere you look, you will see some biases. For example, it is apparent when looking at two MBAs coming out of the same degree program being hired in the same year and observing the dynamics process of how their jobs, roles, and responsibilities evolve over time. If one person is able to accumulate these human resources and direct reports, and is able to be more productive with higher-impact results, then this person can rise through the hierarchy in a way that has nothing to do with base-level ability or commitment—just the opportunities that they have been given, which can create self-fulfilling prophecies.

CW: Right, that makes sense. I know that we have to change the system but given the current situation, what are your suggestions for women who want to climb up the ladder in the organization?

LK: At first, there is something to be gained by educating people about these barriers and obstacles, and more importantly, how biases can creep into the system and how we can address systemic barriers. Moreover, organizations should maintain a commitment to transparency and accountability. Several years ago, some employees at Google got together and created a spreadsheet where they revealed their salaries. As they looked into different salary bands, men were making more money than women every step of the way. Google confronted this situation with excuses like selection bias in who shared their salaries and that the gap disappeared after controlling for “technical skills” within rank. But these explanations were all very weak. Leading organizations like Google should have more transparency, accountability, and commitment to rooting out bias.

When Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff was confronted by a female employee about a gender pay gap, at first he was in denial of its existence as he thought he was an egalitarian leader of an egalitarian company with a great culture. Then he worked with his staff to look at the numbers more closely and found that women were being underpaid. After he realized this problem, he took several million dollars to alleviate these discrepancies. He thought the problem was fixed. Yet a year later, they looked again and found some of the gaps reappeared as, among other reasons, they had acquired some companies with biased pay systems in the past year. Therefore, they came to realize that eliminating the pay gap is not like a one-and-done thing. It is an ongoing commitment, and you do not have to be a sexist for these disparities to emerge around you.

CW: Thanks for your insightful suggestions! For the last question, I want to ask how do you see your research in motivation and mindsets fit in solving the gender inequity problem, and what are some improvements in the field that you witness?

LK: Mindsets have a lot to do with gender inequity. The fixed mindset is not just about striving to perform but is also about proving to others that we fit whatever gender role is associated with us. Individuals with fixed mindsets are less open to change and can be more defensive and will even sweep mistakes under the rug rather than admit to weaknesses. Men with fixed gender role mindsets tend not to see gender inequities as unfair. If we can shift people into more of a growth mindset where we are less like trying to pigeonhole other people and pigeonhole ourselves, we will be more likely to approach situations—whether it be personal relationships or professional roles—more open to learning and changing. These beliefs are the key to eradicating stubborn inequities that are outdated and not serving us.

In terms of improvements over time, I am seeing more male students in my Gender Equity and Leadership MBA class in the past few years. I think it is absolutely critical to engage men in this conversation, and also to balance out the conversation, so it is not just about fixing women. It is also about fixing men as well in the sense of what we know about toxic masculinity, which can produce pressures on men to prove their masculinity, with negative effects on how they treat others in business negotiations, etc. The point of doing so is not to blame men. We are all products of the environments in which we are rewarded and incentivized. Nevertheless, we need to take a hard look at how masculinity shapes business dynamics, and figure out how we can help men to feel more secure as it seems that masculine insecurity drives a large number of dysfunctional behaviors that can disadvantage women.

CW: Thanks for your sharing! Your words were very enlightening. I cannot wait to read your publications and get to know more about your research.

Interviewee 2: Sonya Mishra

Sonya Mishra is a doctoral researcher in the Management of Organizations department at the University of California, Berkeley. She employs social experiments and big data insights to examine how gender inequalities manifest in workplace environments. Through studying the mechanisms behind prejudice and discrimination, Sonya Mishra seeks to develop intervention methods that promote diversity and equity. She is currently researching potential ways women can shatter the glass ceiling at the workplace. (2)

CW: What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding people have about why fewer women are in managerial positions?

SM: People tend to believe that women choose to opt-in or opt-out of certain careers based on their own personal volition. For example, when thinking about women in the technology industry, people might believe that women tend to opt-out of tech jobs. However, research on gender inequity in the workplace finds that due to factors like gender bias and gender stereotyping, these choices are often made for women by the systemic barriers that exist in many industries. For instance, many jobs require employees to put in long hours and don’t have flexible work options. Given that women are still largely held responsible for the lion’s share of domestic/childcare work when companies don’t provide flexible work options, they are forcing women to leave their highly demanding jobs (that tend to pay well) and go searching for more flexible jobs that might pay comparatively less.

The gender gap in wages and career attainment is highly nuanced. In another example,  research finds that even in a female-dominated field such as nursing, 7% of male nurses are paid more than 93% of female nurses. Therefore, it is not women intentionally choosing lower-paying jobs. It is the biases and systemic barriers that persist in certain industries, making career advancement more difficult for women.

CW: This is very interesting and insightful! So, what are some biases at the workplace that thwart women from getting into managerial positions?

SM: One reason for why we might not see many women in senior positions is backlash, defined as the social and economic penalties women face for violating gender stereotypes. A lot of my current research centers around backlash against women.  In our society, gender stereotypes dictate that women should be warm, communal, friendly, etc. However, most modern workplaces value stereotypically masculine traits (dominance, assertiveness, agency), so in many cases, women might have to act in stereotypically masculine ways to advance in their careers. However, when women break their gender stereotypes by behaving in stereotypically masculine ways, they are labeled negatively (e.g., unfriendly, cold, harsh, unlikable). Moreover, research has also shown that likability penalties are unique to women in leadership, such that women have to be competent and likable to succeed, whereas men just need to be competent.

Gender biases also appear in formal performance evaluations. Stanford Professor Shelley Correll’s research on performance evaluations found that women were much more likely than men to receive comments on their personalities in their performance evaluations, which lowered their performance ratings compared to men. Men, on the other hand, were more likely to receive comments on task-related topics. Gender stereotypes complicate women’s path to leadership. In order to level the playing field, we need to see organizations committing to gender equality, which might include putting structural solutions in place to reduce the extent to which gender bias colors women’s careers.

Another reason that partly explains why we see fewer women in leadership is performance support bias or the idea that women are given less support than men both formally and informally. A study conducted by Madden looked at stockbrokers from a large brokerage firm in the United States and found that, on average, female stockbrokers were making less money than male stockbrokers. However, their pay was based on commission. Women’s performance was also equal to that of men. What actually caused the difference in earnings between men and women was that women were given lower-performing accounts compared to men. Men were given cushy opportunities that set them up for success, whereas women had to make do with what they were given.

CW: That sounds fascinating. There are definitely many factors that come into play in gender inequality at the workplace. I know that you also conduct research in this field, so I am wondering if there are any interesting findings in your research that you would like to share?

SM: Yes. My research looks at what women can do to improve their outcomes. We all know that the broader system needs to change to be more inclusive of women, but in the meantime, we cannot tell women to simply wait for the system to fix itself. My research acknowledges that there are two routes to moving up the corporate hierarchy. Social psychology defines these two routes as power and status. Power is defined as control over valuable resources, and status is defined as being respected in the eyes of others. Both routes can ultimately lead to the same amount of influence. My research showed that status is more aligned with feminine stereotypes, while power is considered more masculine. Women who desire status are less likely to be seen as norm violators and are less likely to incur the backlash mentioned previously because the nature of status is more feminine than that of power. Essentially, status is a form of influence that is more other-oriented. For example, status relies on the conferral of respect from others, whereas power is formally obtained through a position. Both power and status convey agency, but only status conveys communion, which makes it more aligned with feminine stereotypes.

CW: I really appreciate your sharing. Those are many useful research findings and insightful comments. I look forward to reading your papers.


In the interview, both experts pointed out that one common misunderstanding was that people, particularly those women who successfully made it to the top position in the company, believed that if women work hard enough, they could climb up the ladder in the organization. However, in fact, there are biases built in the system that do not favor women. Professor Kray found that there are disparities in every step to the management positions, and educating people may be an efficient choice to eliminate the biases. Sonya identified the difference between power and status in her research such that taking the status route can protect women from being regarded as norm violators. As we are seeing more and more women climbing up the ladder and reach management positions in the company, more research is needed to educate the public and strive for more progress.

Links to the pages of Professor Laura Kray and Sonya Mishra

  1. https://haas.berkeley.edu/faculty/kray-laura/
  2. https://www.sonyamishra.com/
More posts by Chenyu Wang.
The Tragedy of Workplace Gender Inequality: Why Fewer Women Occupy Managerial Positions
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