Paper: Women bear ‘status-leveling burden’ in male-dominated occupations

University of Illinois
Photo of by M. Teresa Cardador, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

New research co-written by M. Teresa Cardador, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, examines the “status-leveling burden” women in male-dominated occupations face when collaborating with other women.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The challenges faced by women interacting with men in male-dominated occupations are well documented, but little attention has been paid to workplace dynamics between women at different levels in the organizational status hierarchy who collaborate with one another. New research examines the “status-leveling burden” women in male-dominated occupations face when they collaborate with other women in lower status occupations.

Drawing on interviews with 45 surgeons who collaborate with nurses in the delivery of patient care, the researchers present a model that shows how female surgeons – but not their male counterparts – experience and manage status tensions with other women across occupational status hierarchies. The gender dynamics confronting female surgeons differed when interacting with female, but not male, nurses, creating additional workplace challenges for the female surgeons to manage, said M. Teresa Cardador, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a co-author of the new study. Cardador is an employment relations expert who studies gender-segregated occupations.

“This is troubling because we already know that women in male-dominated occupations experience myriad challenges working in male-dominated spaces,” she said. “The status-leveling burden introduces yet another challenge that hasn’t been studied before.”

This means that women in male-dominated occupations “perceive that they have to manage fraught relationships from all sides,” Cardador said.

“Most prior research investigates the male-female dynamics and men who discriminate against women and why that’s challenging,” she said. “But now we’re showing that high-status women also have to manage the woman-woman status dynamic, too. That is, the dynamic between themselves and other women who aren’t in the same occupation as them but are colleagues with whom they need to collaborate to get their work done. And we found that this status dynamic is often a source of tension for the higher-status female surgeons.”

As a result of those tensions, the women in the higher-status occupation find it more difficult to rely on their formal authority to gain cooperation from female co-workers in lower-status roles, and feel they need to engage in status-leveling behaviors, Cardador said.

“Such behaviors include the female surgeons engaging in tasks that are generally in the nurses’ domain, such as cleaning up after a procedure and managing IV pumps,” she said. Female surgeons also engage in “various types of relationship-building behaviors, including trying to be extra friendly to develop cordial ties with the female nurses. It all adds up to this extra layer of physical and emotional labor that the male surgeons don’t need to perform.”

The findings highlight that such behaviors might come at the expense of negative performance and career implications for the high-status female surgeons, according to the paper.

“By performing these status-leveling behaviors, women in male-dominated occupations increase their chances of gaining cooperation from women in closely aligned occupations. But because these behaviors are time consuming and emotionally arduous, female surgeons who perform them can jeopardize their own productivity, thus putting them at risk for burnout and even attrition,” Cardador said.

It also creates a “double bind” for professional women, Cardador said.

“The double bind is that women who work in male-dominated fields have to generally adopt masculine styles of behavior fit in,” she said. “But when they do that there’s often a backlash and they’re labeled as aggressive, bossy and unlikeable. Our data suggest that if female surgeons, when working with female nurses, demonstrate the same level of authority as male surgeons, they fear backlash from nurses. When female surgeons then engage in status-leveling behaviors, they may gain cooperation from nurses while potentially losing respect from male surgeons.

“We definitely don’t want to send the message that woman-woman relationships are inherently problematic and play into certain stereotypes, because the woman-woman friction can generally be explained by the broader context of gender and status dynamics, where the female surgeons have lower status than the male surgeons, and the nurses have lower status than surgeons. Nevertheless, these gender and status dynamics create an additional workplace burden for professional women working in male-dominated fields.”

Cardador’s co-authors are Patrick L. Hill of Washington University and Arghavan Salles of the Stanford University School of Medicine.

The paper was published by Administrative Science Quarterly.

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