When competing in a male-dominated field, women should ‘man up’

August 14, 2014, 4:44 PM UTC
Businesswoman Getting Interviewed
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Any woman who has applied for a job in a male-dominated field faces a quandary: Does she play up her feminine strengths, such as being supportive or a good listener, or emphasize traits more associated with men, such as assertiveness?

It turns out that showcasing “manliness” is the better strategy, according to a study in the latest issue of Psychology of Women Quarterly.

In a laboratory experiment, a group of more than 600 undergrads from Michigan State evaluated a group of women applying for an engineering management job. They concluded that women who described themselves using traits traditionally associated with men — independence, or a focus on achievement — were seen as more fitting for the job than those who emphasized traits often seen as more feminine (warmth, supportiveness, and nurturing).

“We found that ‘manning up’ seemed to be an effective strategy, because it was seen as necessary for the job,” said Michigan State’s Ann Marie Ryan, who co-authored the study with Jennifer Wessel and several others.

The study is the latest in a growing body of work examining how women survive and thrive in the often-male dominated worlds such as top management.

Ryan and her team chose engineering because women are so poorly represented. Only 11.7 percent of engineers, according to the National Science Foundation, were women in 2011. Research released this week found nearly 40 percent of female engineering graduates quit the profession or never even get a job in the field.

In the first phase of a three-year NSF study that surveyed 5,300 engineering alumnae spanning six decades, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Educational Psychology Professor Nadya Fouad also found that two-thirds of those who left the field within five years said they pursued better opportunities in other fields, while a third stayed home with children because companies wouldn’t accommodate them.

“These women are more vulnerable to being pushed out because they typically aren’t in the internal ‘good old boys’ network,” said Fouad, who conducted her research with MSU colleague Romila Singh.

One of the biggest challenges for women in male-dominated fields, such as science, according to earlier research, is combating perceptions that certain top management jobs are “male positions” that require a skill set more associated with men.

The research community in the past has been divided over how women should combat these inherent biases.

Some have found that women face a potential backlash if they attempt to highlight their tough side, while a 2011 study in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology found that women who are aggressive, assertive, and confident — and can turn those traits on and off depending on the situation — get more promotions than either men or other women.

Fouad said much of that research is misplaced because it implies women themselves need to change to fit expectations of these fields and that it amounts to “blaming the victim.”

“The narrative in all these articles is always what is wrong with these women. They are not succeeding. They are not staying. They are not persisting in this male-dominated occupation,” she said. “We are saying these aren’t the right questions to be asking. The onus should not be on women to change their behavior to fit into some interviewer’s perception of how women behave.”

Ryan, though, was careful to say that women should not attempt to reinvent themselves for a job in a male-dominated field, nor should they just toss out the male traits without linking them to characteristics of the job. She also said women shouldn’t be afraid to bring up their softer side as the interview goes along, although her study found bringing up the fact they are a woman without explaining its significance to the job resulted in “negative personal evaluations.”

“It’s not simply talk about this or don’t talk about that,” Ryan said.

“What I’m trying to look at is how do you talk about your social categories,” she added. “Is there a way to talk about being a woman in a male dominated field or ethnic minority in an organization that is not very diverse? Can you talk about it in a way where people feel comfortable with the interaction but also where you can make your point about your qualifications? Or are there ways to talk about it which people react negatively to?”

Ryan’s work is part of the growing field of identity management in which researchers are examining how various groups looking for work handle potential bias. Among those that Ryan has looked at are military veterans, African-Americans, gays and lesbians, Arabs, older Americans and the disabled.

Ryan’s goal is for her research to lead to better guidance for prospective employees as well as improvements in way human resources departments deal with applicants.

Companies, she said, could improve their online application process, possibly replacing a name with a number to avoid any potential bias as well as giving someone space to explain who they are beyond simply listing their gender, ethnicity or race.

They could also train recruiters to be aware of their own biases coming into interviews and set up a monitoring system that would help uncover potential discrimination in the hiring process. Another option would be taping the job interviews.

“Because implicit bias is so insidious, I would actually record those interviews so that somebody can go back and audit,” Fouad said. “If the focus is on helping people get the most diverse and the best candidates and diverse pool of candidates, then all recruiters and interviewers need to know how they are reacting to various traits in individuals and they need to have that monitored so it is easily identified and corrected.”