Science Daily (2017) recently published an article titled “Women Get Less Credit Than Men in the Workplace.” That article attempted to summarize recent research by McClean et al. (2017). Unfortunately, as yet another example of journalistic distortion in support of political ideology, that article grossly misrepresented the actual research — and the research itself did not prove what it purported to prove.
The distortion of the Science Daily article was apparent immediately, starting with its title. That title significantly overstated what McClean et al. actually found. This was obvious from the subtitle of the Science Daily article. That subtitle said only that “women receive less credit for speaking up in the workplace than their male counterparts.” There is obviously much more to the workplace than “speaking up”; the research did not address the question of whether men or women receive more credit for those many other activities. Even more narrowly, the research was limited to peer ratings of the leadership potential of people who spoke up. As the researchers admit, peer ratings are usually much less important, in promotion decisions, than “manager perceptions [which] are critical to getting ahead in an organization.” Peers often have little grasp of what management actually values. Moreover, being perceived as leadership material could actually be counterproductive to promotion, or even to continued survival within the organization, in the very common situations where insecure managers fear upstarts. That is, even if everything the researchers found were completely true, they might only have established that women are less likely to be cut loose in a layoff.
The researchers found that “men who spoke up promotively benefited the most in terms of status and leader emergence [in their peers’ ratings] . . . compared to women who spoke up promotively.” To understand that finding, it was obviously necessary to understand the meaning of “promotive” speaking. Unfortunately, in its fixation upon a preconceived agenda, the Science Daily writer did not seem to notice that his/her article failed to so much as mention that word. The research article itself defined “promotive voice” as positively “expressing improvement-oriented ideas for change,” as distinct from “prohibitive voice,” which involved more negatively expressing “concerns about potentially harmful work practices.” This raised the question of whether women used promotive voice as frequently as men. For example, if only one woman per hundred used promotive voice, the failure to ascribe leadership credit to that one woman could be due to other factors, such as the use of counterproductive gestures or expressions, or tacit disapproval from other women in the group context. Comparing credit given to women and men using exactly the same words would further disregard the possibility that women would ordinarily prefer, and might be more effective with, words different from those preferred by men, when using promotive voice.
The researchers tested their hypotheses in two contexts. The first was an annual competition among teams at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where each team was required to have at least one woman. Needless to say, a woman selected on the basis of sex, to serve as a token, is already positioned to be perceived as inferior to her male teammates. Moreover, the team activities were not typical of American organizational activities in general, much less those in which women ordinarily excel. According to West Point, the tasks involved in this competition can include “obstacle course navigation, combat swim (with full gear), . . . [and] weapon handling skills.” One can hardly think of a less representative or gender-balanced context for research. It would not be surprising if both male and female team members discounted a female participant whom they personally knew — or even unfairly believed — to be inferior in such tasks. The results from such research may be worse than no research: they may present exactly a false impression of team dynamics in civil society. The authors claimed to have eliminated (i.e., “controlled”) athletic ability and cognitive ability as potentially distorting factors, but that sounded like an attempt to control for skin color in research on racism. In other words, it is not clear that such alleged controls would be effective or even credible, in a context where superior ranking would be based on precisely those factors.
For their data, researchers relied on self-reports from male and female participants. That is, “To measure the two types of voice, we asked each individual to rate the frequency with which they spoke up promotively and prohibitively.” But self-report is notoriously unreliable. Wikipedia lists several reasons:
Self-reported answers may be exaggerated; respondents may be too embarrassed to reveal private details; various biases may affect the results, like social desirability bias. Subjects may also forget pertinent details. Self-report studies are inherently biased by the person’s feelings at the time they filled out the questionnaire.
It would be particularly unsurprising if a woman at West Point, generally feeling herself to be beleaguered or treated unfairly due to her sex, would tend to rate herself more positively than her actual behavior deserved. In any case, the mere fact that a woman made positive (i.e., promotive) statements would not demonstrate that her statements were most appropriate for the situation: her teammates, male or female, may have reached the potentially correct conclusion that her remarks were just not as helpful as those provided by others who were more expert in the relevant tasks.
There was also a simple question of odds. The researchers indicated that teams consisted of ten members, of whom one to three (average = 2) were women. Obviously, these groups were not likely to foster a female culture that could demonstrate the potential superiority of a female type of leadership, whatever that might be. In effect, to score well in this context, women would apparently have to demonstrate that they were better than men at doing stereotypically male things in the ways that men would do them. Even then, on average, there were eight men implicitly vying to be perceived as leadership material, versus two women, so one would expect to see more high-scoring men than women. Suspiciously, the researchers do not seem to have asked (or at least they did not report) whether female raters disagreed with male raters, on the question of which group members evinced the greatest leadership potential. That was interesting because, in their second study (below), the researchers found that, actually, “men and women rated the targets similarly.”
The survey response rate was 54%, meaning that only about half of the eligible team participants filled out the questionnaire. As far as I could see in a superficial scan, the researchers did not attempt to explain why others declined to reply, or whether the survey results were skewed by representing the views of only certain participants (e.g., those who excelled or did not excel in particular activities, or who were on winning or losing teams).
As I say, the researchers reported two different research contexts. In addition to the West Point study, they undertook a computer-based experiment, soliciting reactions to a scenario involving an imaginary insurance sales team. The key question was whether a male voice, delivering a short statement describing a suggested improvement, was rated as superior to a female voice delivering the same statement. Thus, as above, there was the question of whether men and women would, in fact, tend to use exactly the same words, or even the same style or context, to persuade their teammates of something. It was also unclear whether women would actually be considered less effective if they had been given latitude to identify and achieve outcomes that they would consider most feasible and helpful. The researchers indicated that they chose the insurance industry because “approximately half of those employed in insurance sales or related activities are women,” but obviously this would say nothing about whether the insurance industry and its constituent companies, jobs, and tasks were created, designed, controlled, or steered by women.
The Science Daily article quoted one of the study authors as saying this:
I challenge any man reading this to go into your next meeting and see who comes up with ideas and who gets credit for them . . . . I know this was an eye-opening exercise for me — being a man who was previously unaware of the level of bias women face.
Well, yes, that is the standard feminist complaint. And it does deserve study. But a cockamamie study at West Point is substantially irrelevant, on its face, to the interpersonal dynamics of meetings, and so is a computer-based study of reactions to a short speech. In response to that researcher’s remark, one could equally well challenge men and women to go into meetings and consider the relative degree of credit given to those men who actually do the work and come up with the ideas, as distinct from the predatory men who use that work and those ideas to promote themselves.
Overall, this research (not to mention its Science Daily writeup) provided the important disservice of perpetuating feminist dogma, to the effect that women are unfairly disadvantaged, without first establishing that sex is the most useful distinction among research participants. Some women are born leaders, and some men are not; therefore, in a study of peer reviews of leadership potential, the groups more appropriate for examination would be groups of men and women who do, versus those who do not, possess qualities or evince leadership (or predatory) traits or behaviors. The results of that research could facilitate further questions of whether qualities associated with leadership are, in fact, effective for organizations over the long term, or are appropriate for the kind of person that a typical man or woman would like to be. This would be far more productive, and far less likely to provoke distortions, than this tired old feminist effort to characterize women as if they were all the same, and as if they were all being mistreated in every corner of life.