Sigh. Can’t you just hear the backlash? The ugly comparisons to the odious Miranda Priestly of “The Devil Wears Prada” fame? The rousing chorus of “I told you so”?
Sorry, folks, but we don’t buy it. What we think this report speaks to is not what women may be doing wrong — but to the roadblocks, both culturally and structurally, that still stand in our way.
The study, from the Institute for Labour Market Policy Evaluation (IFAU) and the Uppsala Center for Labor Studies (UCLS) at Uppsala University, suggests that women managers are no more likely to eradicate the wage gap as their male counterparts, nor are they likely to hire more women. According to Science Daily:
…economist Lena Hensvik found no support for the claim that female managers entail any benefit for women in connection with wage setting. The study encompassed all of the public sector workplaces and a representative selection of private sector workplaces in Sweden during the years 1996-2008.
“At the first stage, I found that women with female managers receive higher salaries,” she says. “But when I went further and considered individuals who had had both male and female managers and how salary varies with manager gender, I found no significant difference between working for a woman and working for a man. Any differences appear to be tied to the individuals, not their managers.”
… But do women employ more women? Lena Hensvik asserts that there is no evidence that they do.
Let us be the first to say that we don’t buy the conclusion that the study necessarily shows that women in high places don’t benefit the rest of us. Or that we can’t count on women leaders to mentor us in the way that, well, Larry Summers mentored Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Or that a woman boss is no more than a man in a skirt. (or, ahem, shoulder pads) It’s a complicated issue that has much more nuance than the numbers might show: we’ve come a long way in a relatively short period of time, and the world has yet to catch up. All of us — men included — are still stuck in a working world designed by and for men, and though women now make up close to half the workforce, structures, society, and policies have not made the shift. All of which leaves us in something of a pickle that goes beyond a series of stats.
To help figure it out, we talked to communication scholar Laura Ellingson, director of Women & Gender Studies at Santa Clara University. She says it’s all about the questions that are not asked as opposed to the ones that are. Bingo. That’s a conclusion we will buy.
When it comes to the wage gap, Ellingson points out, it’s been well-documented that men and women negotiate differently when it comes to salary. “That is, men tend to negotiate once they receive an offer, while women tend to accept what they are offered. Hence, even when made identical offers for the same job, men tend to begin at a somewhat higher salary, a gap which widens over time. One might say that women should simply negotiate, but this is a very problematic piece of advice, since women who do negotiate are perceived quite negatively by managers if they use the same type of tactics that men use.”
It’s a classic double bind — cue Miranda Priestly once again: Women who are assertive score low on the likability scale. We’re seen as arrogant, or worse yet, ambitious. But if we don’t speak up, we get paid less. All of which is infuriating, Ellingson tells us. “They tell women not to ‘toot their own horns’ from infancy on, leading us to try hard NOT to stand out, and then they ask why we don’t advocate better for ourselves.”
What’s more, Ellingson says, when it comes to hiring decisions, female managers are still operating in a workplace skewed toward masculine interests, masculine styles of communication, and masculine goals, so the idea that they would naturally hire more women per se, is a ridiculous assumption. “So I guess I just don’t grant the premise of [Lena Hensvik's report] in asking that question. Here’s what I would ask instead: what types of pressures are subtly communicated to female managers — by subordinates and supervisors — that are not communicated to male managers? Change the question, change the answer.”
Something else to consider: the cultural differences between Sweden and, certainly, the U.S. (Not to mention the pay gap itself. It’s on average 8 percent in Sweden; 20 percent here.) For insight, we turned to intercultural communication professor Charlotta Kratz, a native Swede who has been teaching in California universities since the 1990s. She says those differences are not to be underestimated. According to Kratz, the experience of being a woman is of public interest in her country, which has led to a number of gender-equalizing structures throughout Swedish society. When we asked her about this particular report, she told us: “I would guess that the reason that there isn’t a bigger female ‘effect’ in Sweden is that the whole system is more female oriented. Swedish society is far more sensitive to gender issues in general compared to the U.S., meaning that Swedish men make different choices than American men.” In other words, she says, there would be less of a difference between men and women in Sweden than there would be here in the U.S.
All of which brings us back to that issue of asking the right question. Or, as feminist icon Gloria Steinem once said: “Don’t think about making women fit the world–think about making the world fit women.” It’s not a question of whether our lady bosses have our backs — but whether the workplace itself is receptive to change.