Women face internal identity conflicts in the workplace: Study

Those who see themselves as ‘caring‘ may be less competitive than male counterparts
|hrreporter.com|Last Updated: 09/13/2013

Are you an ambitious professional or a nurturing caregiver?

For women in the workplace, there can be a significant identity conflict between the two roles, according to a new study.

The study, entitled How Competitive are Female Professionals? A Tale of Identity Conflict, was done in partnership with two Canadian universities. The joint study out of Toronto’s Ryerson University, the University of Guelph in Ontario and the University of Canterbury in New Zealand found women can experience tension between their professional and “family” identities and, as a result, may compete less with their coworkers.

Women who see themselves as “caring” or “nurturing” may consequently choose to be less competitive than their male colleagues in the workplace, the study found.

Focusing on gender roles and stereotypes, the study hypothesized that women who pursue a professional career will face tension between the identity roles of the competitive, ambitious professional and the warm, supportive and caring stereotype of traditional female gender roles.

The study’s authors included economics professor Bram Cadsby (Guelph), Fei Song, a professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management (Ryerson) and Professor Maroš Servátka (University of Canterbury).

“Stereotypes are learned early in life, become part of one’s cultural understanding, and are internalized as personal beliefs and values,” Song said. “People extend stereotypes to develop self-concepts, which are characterized by associations between the self and stereotypical personality traits, abilities and roles. Such stereotypes are likely closely related to the differing levels of competitiveness exhibited on average by men and women.”

Participants in the study were male and female MBA candidates at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. Researchers used a behavioral experiment in which participants performed a task and were told they would be compensated based on performance.

The study participants were given two choices: they could be compensated based solely on their own performance, or based on whether they performed better than three other peers.

Before completing the task, some participants answered “priming” questions about gender and family identities. The study found the priming questions lessened the likelihood of choosing the competitive compensation option for females — but not for males.

“Although such priming effects may be short-term in nature, these results suggest that life-cycle events such as marriage, pregnancy, and parenthood could have very substantial and long-lasting effects on the activation of family identities with their consequent effects on attitudes toward competition,” Cadsby said.

“Thus, the decision to avoid or minimize competition made by many women in professional careers may be driven not by lack of ability but rather by the increased salience of gender/family identity, based on stereotypical beliefs, attitudes and ideals over time,” he said.

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