When Women Model the Way

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Tuesday, November 29, 2022
By Alexandra Niessen-Ruenzi
Photo by iStock/Portra
Female role models in male-dominated industries narrow the gender pay gap and inspire other women to choose nontraditional careers.
  • Counter-stereotypical female role models are highly visible women who defy gender norms in the careers they pursue.
  • These female role models have gained significant popularity since the 1950s and tend to be most admired by people who are younger and more educated.
  • Surprisingly, many of these role models come from more conservative backgrounds, where their differences make them more visible.

Historically, women have been underrepresented—and underpaid—in some of the most lucrative and competitive industries. Since the 1990s, the imbalance in the numbers of men and women entering full-time employment has narrowed in the U.S. and other developed nations. This is not to say it has been obliterated. In fact, the gender gap lives on, both in terms of representation and pay.

Schools of thought vary as to why there are so few women in fields such as engineering and finance. Perhaps the gap can be explained by women’s personal preferences or by the biases against women taking positions in male-dominated professions. One key contributing factor might be the scarcity of female role models who otherwise would nudge women to enter such fields.

Female leaders in male-dominated disciplines tend to be seen as contradictions of gender stereotypes. These stereotypes arise from gender norms—pervasive beliefs about the ways men and women should act. Unsurprisingly, gender norms can strongly impact the views people hold and the life choices individuals make. When counter-stereotypical female role models exist, women who admire them might make career decisions that are less influenced by restrictive gender norms.

For instance, positions of authority are often deemed “masculine,” so bosses are expected to be male and secretaries are expected to be female. In some industries, certain roles are more likely to be held by one gender over another. Consider the decades-old cliché that doctors are men and nurses are women. But when even a small number of women become CEOs or doctors, they can pave the way for more women to follow them into those positions.

Research carried out at U.S. universities in 2007 supports the idea that counter-stereotypical role models influence career decisions. That research found that if the percentage of female faculty in the science and engineering departments increased, so did the number of female majors in physical sciences, engineering, and biological sciences.

Studies such as this bring to mind the words of astronaut Sally Ride during an interview with Harvard Business Review in 2012: “Young girls need to see role models in whatever careers they may choose, just so they can picture themselves doing those jobs someday. You can’t be what you can’t see.”

A Defined Type

If counter-stereotypical female role models encourage women to work in higher-income professions, it is reasonable to assume they have other effects on the job market as well, shaping everything from the gender pay gap to the way women are perceived in the workplace. To discover the extent of their influence, I undertook a study with two fellow researchers, Mengqiao Du from the University of Mannheim Business School in Germany and Vidhi Chhaochharia from the University of Miami in the U.S.

To reach a concrete definition of a counter-stereotypical female role model, we analyzed responses to 46 Gallup surveys conducted between 1951 and 2014. The Gallup surveys are based in the U.S. and have been run since 1941. They are designed to record public sentiment toward a range of political, social, and economic issues.

We were interested in people’s answers to one question in particular: “What woman that you have heard or read about, living today in any part of the world, do you admire the most?” We gathered a list of 247 female figures who were deemed admirable.

We defined counter-stereotypical female role models as women respected for their own work and stereotypical female role models as women known because of their connection with male relatives.

From there, we sorted the female figures into groups based on their primary occupations. Then we compared the number of men and women in that industry at that time to determine which of these women worked in male-dominated fields.

We defined counter-stereotypical female role models as women respected for their work as politicians, intellectuals, business leaders, astronauts, scientists, athletes, or activists. From this camp, some of the names that came up most frequently were writer Helen Keller, journalist Barbara Walters, and politicians Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, and Indira Gandhi.

In the other camp, we classified stereotypical female role models as any women known because of their connection with male relatives. These included famous wives, mothers, daughters, and other family members, as well as famous friends. Names that came up frequently were Jacqueline Kennedy, Mamie Eisenhower, and Grace Kelly. We also found that nurses, religious figures, and entertainers such as actresses and singers fit into this category.

Of course, there is a gray area in which women can move from one group to the other. Hillary Clinton, for example, was known first as a wife and later as a politician. Fewer than 9 percent of the women in our sample made such transitions, and we factored in this movement when drawing our conclusions.

The Role Model Effect

Once we identified counter-stereotypical female role models, we investigated what kind of impact they had at work. To do that, we analyzed a range of survey responses and labor market information from the last 70 years of U.S. history.

We found that U.S. states where counter-stereotypical female role models are more popular also have a significantly lower gender pay gap. Furthermore, we found that admiration for such women has grown across the entire U.S. population over time, roughly coinciding with a nationwide “grand convergence” in the gender pay gap over the last 30 years.

We also learned that, within organizations, attitudes about female role models can affect gender parity. In companies where admiration for counter-stereotypical female role models is widespread, there is a more equal balance of the two genders in senior positions. In such companies, the disparity in men’s and women’s chances of becoming a manager is reduced by 12.4 percent. Women who say they admire counter-stereotypical female role models have an increased chance of becoming executives.

In addition, women who admire successful women in male-dominated professions tend to make occupational, educational, and fertility choices that improve their earning potential. For instance, they pursue degrees in higher education; wait longer before having their first children; enter more competitive job markets, such as those in STEM fields; and strive to climb the corporate ladder into management roles.

A Change in Attitude

During the time period that we studied, there was a dramatic shift in the types of female role models that were popular. Eighty percent of survey respondents in 1950 admired stereotypical female role models who held positions that conformed to traditional gender norms. That figure had plummeted to 30 percent by 2014. On the other hand, over the same time period, admiration for counter-stereotypical female role models rose from below 20 percent to around 50 percent. The changeover took place in the 1980s.

We were curious about the factors that would predict which role model a person might admire. We found that younger people and those with higher education levels are more likely to admire counter-stereotypical women.

Of the counter-stereotypical female role models, 53.5 percent were born in states with a more conservative perspective. The remaining 46.5 percent came from states with a looser conception of gender roles.

The people who are least likely to support women in counter-stereotypical roles tend to be Christians—and other women. We believe that some conservative women feel that their traditional female identities are threatened by female figures who pursue careers and lifestyles contrary to gender norms. By earning college degrees and delaying having children, these counter-stereotypical women defy conservative societal gender norms, which often value women as mothers and homemakers.

So are counter-stereotypical female role models likely to originate in states that have more liberal views, or do they come from conservative environments that favor traditional views on gender roles? Implicit in that question is an even broader one: To what extent are counter-stereotypical female role models the agents of change, and to what extent are they products of it?

We collected information on the birthplaces of the counter-stereotypical female role models identified in the Gallup surveys and compared this with data from the General Social Survey (GSS), which gathers information about Americans’ attitudes and experiences. By looking at responses to a range of GSS questions on gender roles, we gained an understanding of how gender norms vary between U.S. states.

What we found will be surprising to some. Of the counter-stereotypical female role models identified in the Gallup surveys, 53.5 percent were born in states with a more conservative perspective. The remaining 46.5 percent came from states with a looser conception of gender roles.

These numbers suggest that some female role models are not products of environments where gender norms are already liberal. In fact, when extraordinarily talented or intelligent women live in conservative environments, they are more likely to stand out. Because their differences make them more visible, they become active agents of change who help others expand their view of gender roles.

Lessons for Business Students

While our research focused predominantly on the U.S., many of its lessons can be applied to other developed Western societies. I believe that the first step to overcoming the gender inequalities that still persist in industrialized nations is for women to become aware of the extra obstacles they face in order to establish themselves in male-dominated professions.

Therefore, I share this research in my teaching at the University of Mannheim Business School. For instance, I have designed a lecture on Women in Leadership, which often is attended by a mostly female student audience.

I use the study results to illustrate how deeply gender norms are engrained and how profoundly they impact career choices later in life. I want my students to be conscious of the fact that men and women often are held to different standards during recruitment and interview processes and that the responses of female candidates might be interpreted differently than identical responses from male candidates. I teach students that these varying interpretations are ultimately rooted in gender norms. I want them to keep these differences in mind, whether they are looking to hire or be hired.

For all students, there is value in knowing what challenges they might face when it comes to choosing their career paths. When they see the hurdles a long way off, they have more time to prepare to jump over them.

Alexandra Niessen-Ruenzi
Chair of Corporate Governance, University of Mannheim Business School
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