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Who Should Bring Home the Bacon? Professor Tinsley Tackles Attitudes on Women in the Workforce

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When it comes to women in the workforce, our attitudes don’t seem to match reality.

By Melanie Padgett Powers

Women continue to make strides in the workforce, earning higher salaries and in many cases becoming the primary breadwinners in their households.

The numbers back this up. A record 40 percent of households with children younger than 18 have mothers who are their family’s sole or primary source of income, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data.

Of this group, 5.1 million, or 37 percent, are married women with a higher income than their husbands. But while working women are the norm nowadays, new research suggests that our attitudes about who brings home the bacon might be lagging behind reality.

Georgetown Business spoke with Catherine Tinsley, professor of management and director of Georgetown­ Uni­versity Women’s Leadership Initiative, about her new research in this area. Tinsley’s work reveals that the majority of American men and women across all ages and races still prefer men to be the primary breadwinner.

Tinsley explains the reason for this disconnect between reality and attitudes: Behavioral shifts in society tend to happen first, but attitudinal shifts may take longer as we wrestle with our own deep-rooted beliefs.

In your research, you used the term “gender ­determinism.” What does that mean?
Gender determinism is the belief that gender is critical in establishing an individual’s personality and skills and what he or she should be doing. If you’re high on gender determinism, that means you think gender is really important, and if you’re low on gender determinism, you think gender is not important — that no one gender has a particular skill, no one gender is likely to engage in a particular behavior over another.  

People high on gender determinism will say things like “women are much better team players than men” or “men are much better at being authoritative and making decisions; women get emotional.” All those statements are fairly reflective of this belief that gender matters. Whether it’s innate or socialized, people think there are big differences across the genders.

What did you find when it comes to ideas about breadwinners?
Gender determinism exacerbates someone’s preference for the male to be the breadwinner. In other words, the higher you are on gender determinism, the more you want the male to be the breadwinner, and the lower you are on gender determinism, the more you do not have a preference.

We were surprised that the majority still wanted the male to be the breadwinner, implying our society’s attitude as a whole hasn’t shifted much on this issue. We also found women high on gender determinism made real-life work choices that lowered their wages. The higher a woman’s gender determinism, the more likely she was to work from home, and when we controlled for the number of hours worked, education level, and type of job, we found working from home lowered women’s wages.

You might think that people high on gender determinism also would be more likely to work part time, but that did not prove true. The reason, I think, was because a lot of women in our nation do not have a choice to work part time. For financial reasons, they have to work full time. So gender determinism is predictive of their preference, but it’s not necessarily predictive of behavior when they do not have a choice.

"Our research shows that traditional gender roles are surprisingly robust, even in the face of changing behaviors."
—Catherine Tinsley, Professor of Management and Director, Georgetown University Women’s Leadership Initiative

It sounds like there are still some widely ingrained beliefs that haven’t caught up to the reality of the U.S. workforce. How can businesses and society as a whole become more equitable?
People could test for gender determinism. Measuring gender determinism is not difficult. Gender determinism could help explain the continuing gender wage gap and why we still see a glass ceiling. If, for example, the people doing the hiring are high on gender determinism, then women are more likely to be penalized. We know from research that if managers think a woman is going to have work-family conflict, they are much less likely to promote her. I do want to underscore that this is implicit; most of this discrimination is not conscious.

Exposure to role models that are engaging in behavior generally associated with the opposite sex can help to attenuate gender determinism. For example, in our research, when we showed participants commercials selling laundry detergent with a man folding the laundry, we were able to lower people’s level of gender determinism immediately afterward, but of course we don’t yet know how long that effect will last.
In what other ways can we lower gender determinism?
Assuming that exposure to role models is important, I would love to see more TV shows with women as the primary bread­winner. We have plenty of TV shows depicting working women and even working mothers, but not with women as the family’s primary breadwinner. It would be like Murphy Brown where Murphy Brown is married. That’s a promising avenue for more permanent changes to implicit gender beliefs. It’s not the activities we see in a daily life that change people’s beliefs and preferences. It’s what we depict as the idealized version of daily life.

In light of your research, how can women get raises or promotions or advance in their careers?
Women definitely should highlight their competency at work, showing how their behavior in the workplace has been productive. If they are faced with someone high in gender determinism, why not play up on the stereotypes they hold? Send signals projecting, “I’m such a team player because I’m so cooperative, good at communication and negotiation, and listening to people and being there for others.” That’s what I would do; I’d play up the communality that’s going to be expected of the female.

That’s provocative. So women should play into those stereotypes?
I want to make a distinction between what you do when you’re in your 20s and 30s and don’t have very much power and don’t typically have a real capacity to change things, and what you should be doing in your 40s, 50s, and 60s when you do have power and you possibly have the capacity to change people’s stereotypes and implicit beliefs.

It would be really great for women who are in the C-suite to be open about how wonderful it is to be the primary breadwinner and how their husbands take care of the kids. Once women have achieved a certain level, it’s almost incumbent upon them to try to be as honest as possible about their situation in order to break as many stereotypes as possible.

As women are moving up, they can try to look for evidence of low gender determinism in an organization and then be themselves. But, if they think they’re in a highly gender-deterministic environment, there may be a number of years in which they decide to play the game in order to rise and then stop playing.

Let’s talk about Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In and this idea that young women need to work harder and be more aggressive in striving toward their career goals.
Sandberg’s advice “don’t check out too early” is well-founded. She’s trying to battle against some of that gender determinism we’re seeing. In our research, we were shocked that, as a whole, people in their 20s have just as much gender determinism as people in their 40s.
Where I am critical of Sandberg’s book is that it emphasizes the prescriptions of what women should do without acknowledging the obstacles, organizational barriers, and implicit beliefs still out there.

For example, I look at my class of young, really intelligent, motivated, dynamic students and worry, what happens if they fail? I know they’re not all going to succeed, not all going to make it to the level they want to make it to, and I worry they’re going to blame themselves.

What does all this mean for the future?
Our research shows that traditional gender roles are surprisingly robust, even in the face of changing behaviors as to who the primary breadwinner could be across households. Yet, not everyone espouses strong beliefs about the importance of gender. Some people think gender defines little about a person’s character or behaviors. These people may be early adopters of beliefs that allow for an expanding gender role for both men and women. My take is that this is the trend, and more discussion of the real-life dynamics of women engaging in traditionally “male” behaviors like being primary breadwinners should accelerate progress.


Published in Georgetown Business magazine, Fall 2014