‘Identity conflicts’ holding women back

Conflicting identity roles can reduce competitiveness, hurt career: Study
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/22/2013

Nurturing caregiver or ambitious career woman?

For many women, the hope is to exemplify both. But the tension between a woman’s personal and professional identities may undermine her career by causing her to be more averse to competition than her male peers.

That was the central finding of a study that reported many women struggle with internal identity conflicts between their roles as professionals and their roles as mothers or wives.

How Competitive are Female Professionals? A Tale of Identity Conflict — a lab study done in partnership with Ryerson University in Toronto, the University of Guelph in Ontario and the University of Canterbury in New Zealand — found women who identify as maternal or nurturing may suffer setbacks in the workplace.

“In terms of higher education, we actually have more women enrolled in undergraduate programs in universities,” said study co-author Fei Song, a professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson. “However, if you look at the top executives or the leaders in different (sectors), we don’t see that many women, even though they’ve achieved a great deal in terms of education.”

So Song and her co-authors wanted to look at the disconnection between how well women do in education and career development.

“Somewhere along the pipeline, they just disappear,” she said. “We argued that women — especially professional women — often face this internal conflict about being a warm caregiver, such as a mother or a wife, versus being a very competent and, even in a sense, competitive professional.”

The researchers specifically chose a highly competitive, ambitious group for the study: MBA candidates at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, said Bram Cadsby, study co-author and an economics professor at the University of Guelph. They used an experiment in which participants solved math problems and were told they would have two compensation options — payment based solely on their own performance or on a competitive scheme dependent on whether they performed better than their peers.

Before completing the tasks, some participants answered “priming” questions about gender and family identities, while others answered priming questions about their professional aspirations and career goals.

“We are using those questions in psychological terms to prime them to think of a certain identity they might carry based on their gender,” said Song. “Women who were primed with the ‘female’ identity — being a mother, being a wife — competed significantly less frequently than the same type of women who were asked questions about their MBAs and their career planning.”

For example, in one round of the experiment, of those who received gender-family priming questions, 37 per cent of men chose the competitive payment scheme versus only seven per cent of women. With professional priming, 25 per cent of men and 25 per cent of women chose the competitive scheme.

Gender discrimination and the male-female wage gap are still significant issues, said Song — but the limits women impose on themselves due to conflicting roles and internalized stereotypes are also a factor limiting their success.

“Perhaps a great many women who have chosen to go the professional route have different identities, which may be, to some extent, in conflict with each other,” said Cadsby.

“As professionals, they may conceive of themselves as being competitive, dedicated to work... but as women who (are or may soon be) mothers, they may think of themselves as being caring, warm, loving, nurturing people... this conflict in identities may be responsible for the fact that (at) the highest professional levels, women do not seem to be choosing to compete as aggressively as men.”

So what does this mean for employers? Cadsby is cautious when it comes to making recommendations.

“Might the use of priming to activate professional identities in the workplace help reduce the motherhood wage penalty and the gender wage gap? Would this be beneficial for women? Whether this is possible in the real world is an open question that requires further study,” he wrote in the study’s conclusions.


Case study

SaskCentral working for women

SaskCentral, a Regina-based credit union, was recently voted among the top five workplaces for women in Canada. The recognition came after a long process of assessing the workplace culture and creating a deliberate plan to transform it, said Debbie Lane, executive vice-president of market solutions and chief people officer.

One essential facet is a commitment to work-life balance, so the conflict between identity roles — such as nurturing mother and ambitious professional — is minimized.

“One of the most important things is acknowledging everyday life challenges,” said Lane, adding that the intention was to create policies for all employees, not just women.

“Our policies are really gender-neutral and it’s just how we have implemented them and applied them that it has come out that way,” she said.

The company offers a compressed workweek, so its 95 employees — in consultation with a manager — can determine their own work schedules. SaskCentral also offers 10 personal days per year and three volunteer days, as well as top-up for maternity leave, a generous wellness program, employee assistance program, professional development funds and benefits plans.

“For women in particular, there seems to be a greater recognition and acknowledgement of how much it makes their work lives balance off with their personal lives,” said Lane. “Life is challenging, and we wanted to create the best work environment we possibly can… your personal life is a huge component. You can’t just shut it off when you come into the workplace. So in order to help position people to be the best that they could, we believe that there has to be a balance between the two.”

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