UIC study: glass ceiling hasn't gone away

Sally has no children. She has no elderly parent to care for. She has no pressing family issues at all at the moment.

However, Sally is a woman, and therefore, her boss perceives her as having “family-work conflicts” that negatively affect her chances for a promotion. 

This is not a story from 1978, but from 2008, and Sally works for a Fortune 100 company in the Chicago area.

The example illustrates the findings of one recent study conducted by the University of Illinois – Chicago Department of Managerial Studies, which will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Academy of Management Journal.

The study, conducted last year, looked at over 125 boss/subordinate relationships and found that even when women reported no actual family-work conflicts – such as children under the age of 12 or an elderly parent – they were still perceived to have such conflicts by their supervisors.

“Even when we factored out people who do care for an elderly parent or who do have a child under 12 ... there was still that perception that they have family work conflict,” explained Jenny Hoobler, assistant professor of management at UIC.

She led the study with Sandy Wayne, professor of management at UIC and director of the Center for Human Resource Management, and graduate student Grace Lemmon.

The study also found both male and female supervisors saw family-work conflicts  with a larger number of their female subordinates, despite actual conflicts reported by those subordinates, according to the study.

“I think people assume we’re talking about male bosses that have these stereotypes, but we’ve found that both male and female bosses felt their female subordinates had a higher degree of family work conflict,” Hoobler says. 

Also surprising to the researchers was that more male subordinates reported a higher degree of actual family-work conflict than the women subordinates.  Yet, the bosses still reported more women as having such conflicts. 

“There could be a lot of things behind that. It could be the women got the message that they weren’t supposed to really report (these types of conflicts), they’re used to not talking about it in the workplace (and) minimizing it,” Hoobler suggested. 

When a family-work conflict was found to exist, the boss also reported the subordinate as being less of a fit with the organization, being less of a fit for the job and having lower performance ratings. The subordinate also reported fewer actual nominations for promotion. 

“It’s not just that managers held these perceptions of female subordinates having family work conflict, but these then translated into real career outcomes. So, their potential for moving up in the organization was not good,” Hoobler says.  

Claire Peerson Braverman is senior vice-president of financial services at Synovate, a company based in Chicago, and has no children. From what she can tell, her boss holds no such stereotypes or perceptions as those found in the study. 

“My boss supports me. He gives me guidance. He doesn’t pry into my private life. He is concerned with business results,” Braverman says. 

Braverman suggests that there may be other conflicts at play in the lives of the female subordinates in the study, noting that even if one does not have children under 12, but “If you have teenagers, you still have a huge burden at home and everybody knows it.”  

Janet Milkovich, president of the American Business Women’s Association – The Chicagoland Express Network, calls the findings alarming and also suggests that perhaps the women subordinates in the study have other conflicts aside from the traditional family-work conflicts. 

“It leads me to ask more questions, such as particular age," she says. "Are they (just) out of college? Also, commuting presents its own set of stressors. People feel a lot more pressure when they commute.”

In interviews conducted prior to the study, the company described its own culture as “traditional” and in focus groups, UIC learned that some women at the organization were offered golf lessons and there was even a class offered to learn football scoring.

“Hopefully, as a result of this, they’ll think about educating the males in some of the things that are traditionally female," Hoobler says. "Let’s make the dialogue happen both ways. Let’s not just value one conversation that’s going on over another.”

The study was conducted using surveys completed by each of the bosses related to a particular subordinate and by each of the subordinates related to their workplace. 

The surveys were completed in separate rooms at the company’s facilities and the participants – all salaried, full-time employees - were advised that the surveys would not be seen by the human resources department.  

“So, hopefully, we get more honest information,” says Wayne. 

As for ways to combat these stereotypes, Hoobler suggests it may be as simple as bringing attention to them. 

“Awareness is the biggest thing – making the managers aware that they hold these perceptions,” she says.


LIAM STRAIN, 02-26-2009

I think what bothers me (in addition to the unconscious ceiling here), is that we are still under the "your job is more important than your family" mentality. That people with fewer conflicts are more fit as employees.

So much for companies stressing a work/life balance.

MEGAN COTTRELL, 02-27-2009

That's a great point, Liam. I think there's still that mentality that the best employee is one whose life is their work - like a robot, rather that someone who comes to work as a full person, with other interests and commitments.

But being a woman in a job still dominated by men, it disturbs me that even if I get past the initial barrier of getting a job when my gender may make me seem less qualified, I may have a harder time keeping it, moving up or ever getting a raise.