Shrinking the wage gap

Lower-level female employees benefit from other women breaking through to upper management, a new study says.

Published October 8, 2007 10:55PM (EDT)

Here's some encouraging news: A study in the October issue of the American Sociological Review found that all female employees benefit from women breaking into the higher echelons of management. (You can read an abstract of the study by following the link above; the full text of the study, which the authors sent us by e-mail, isn't currently available online.)

According to the study, titled "Working for the Woman? Female Managers and the Gender Wage Gap," women in the United States are entering managerial positions in increasing numbers. Until now, though, most research on the topic has looked only at how that shift has affected women in management; there has been minimal research examining the effect of these promotions on all working women, and previous data relied on small samples from within specific industries. In the "Working for the Woman" study, researchers checked out the issue on a national level, across industries, and across employee pay grades -- their research drew data from the 2002 U.S. Census, with a sample of approximately 1.32 million workers across 155 industries and 79 metropolitan labor markets -- and questioned whether the increase in the number of female managers has made a difference for women lower in the hierarchy.

And the answer seems to be yes. Broadsheet talked with study coauthor Matt Huffman, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California at Irvine, who explained, "What we were really looking at was how the 'glass ceiling' issue extends to all women, beyond just the managerial level -- to subordinate or lower-level female employees. So, what are the consequences of some women breaking through that glass ceiling? And what we found is that women making it to these upper-level managerial positions [do] lift all boats -- the benefits, the narrowing wage gap, filter down to women in non-managerial positions."

Seem like a no-brainer? While this information may appear prosaic at first, the results seem to turn previous findings on their head. Prior to the current study, there was little empirical evidence that the movement of women into managerial positions resulted in any material benefits for women who didn't make the jump.

The "Working for the Woman" study tried a different angle. Huffman, along with Phillip Cohen, an associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, performed detailed analyses of previous research on the topic. Their work "extends the existing literature by considering whether the relative status of female managers affects the pattern of gender inequality beneath them."

For instance, previous research suggested that women who make it to management roles aren't necessarily invested in changing the system. (This may have been especially true in the early years of women in the workplace, when very few women attained management positions.) Huffman and Cohen's report suggests that this factor may partially explain why previous research didn't see female management benefiting other female workers, and why greater numbers of women in management roles haven't yet translated to great gains for all women.

"Although there are reasons to believe female managers might reduce inequality, the underlying motivations and power assumptions are debatable," the report notes. Women who display "affinity with the existing hierarchy" may be more likely to get promoted. "There are a variety of factors that play into the selection of management," Huffman says. "You know, if the women who made it to management did so because they were seen as being a team player or were seen as being traditional, they may not be so willing to help other women."

Second, as previous studies have found, benefits to women workers seem to trickle down only when women are employed in high-level managerial positions and can influence policy. If female managers don't have a say in wages or promotion schedules, they're less able to give fellow workers a boost. The study found that in the construction industry, for instance, women tend to be clustered at the low end of managerial hierarchies and may not have enough power or motivation to pass along benefits to subordinate female workers. So if the upside of these findings is that women help each other out when given the chance, the downside is that the so-called glass ceiling has broad effects. "Not only are qualified women blocked from upper-level managerial positions and denied the benefits of those jobs, but their absence has ripple effects that shape workplace outcomes for non-managerial women as well," the study observes.

Interesting/potentially distressing side note: Some data analysis in the research found that wages for men are lower in the industries with more female managers. Huffman observes that there is not enough information to draw specific conclusions, but it'd be interesting to learn why this is -- do male workers find it harder to get ahead under a female manager, or do women managers remain concentrated in workplace settings with lower wages across the board?

All in all, the results are provocative. Huffman says that the hope is that this study will draw increased attention to the role that managers play in producing and sustaining labor market inequality, and that it will shed light on the potential influence of women who do break through the glass. Further questions remain: If women in high management positions bring material benefits to women in all positions, will minority and/or LGBT workers in upper-management roles help advance their respective communities? Will we see similar changes in networks outside the traditional work world, like activism and politics? It would be nice to see the "Working for the Woman" study act as a catalyst for similar research in disparate fields.

By Erin Renzas

Erin Renzas is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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