Wharton’s Maurice Schweitzer says he’s optimistic that women will face less workplace discrimination in the future as gender equality improves and norms evolve. This episode is part of a series on “Women & Leadership.”


Have We Made Progress on Gender Inequality in the Workplace?

Dan Loney: Gender inequality in the workplace has been an issue for quite a long time, but how much does it still occur, and what can be done to try to eliminate it? It’s a pleasure to be joined by Maurice Schweitzer, who is a professor of operations, information, and decisions here at the Wharton School. Maurice, how much of an issue is gender inequality today?

Maurice Schweitzer: I think it’s different across different industries and across different divisions, but it remains a persistent challenge.

Loney: You have done work looking at the differences between how men and women are perceived in the workplace, and that goes to this level of concern around gender inequality.

Schweitzer: Yes, that’s exactly right. You can think about gender differences that reflect how people act, and then how people are treated, and then how people are evaluated based upon their behaviors. And there’s evidence to suggest that women incur some costs in all three of those categories.

We’ve definitely seen great progress. That’s absolutely true, even in the C-suite. Still, women are more likely to be in roles like HR than to be the CEO or chief financial officer. So even though we’ve seen progress, there remain significant differences.

Loney: What is the perception of a woman in the workplace, especially when she’s more assertive?

Schweitzer: If we take a step back and think about the traditional expectations and norms that we have around men and women, we expect women to be more communal and caring and kind, and we’re expecting men to be more assertive, more agentic. There can be penalties when people step outside of those assumed norms, those gendered norms. When women behave more assertively, that might be perceived to be less congruent with the stereotype, compared to when a man behaves assertively. There’s some evidence to suggest that women experience more pushback for similar behavior.

Loney: When you have a scenario like that, what is the impact on the employees?

Schweitzer: It could present this challenge because women who want to move up the corporate ladder face a challenge because if they’re assertive, they may be perceived to be overly assertive. But a man doesn’t face that same penalty. What we’ve found, and what other scholars have found, is that when women advocate for a group –- for my team, for my division, for my area — when women advocate for others, this sort of “we” or “us” advocacy, it’s now very consistent with that gendered norm.

Think of that mama bear. We’re expecting an assertive woman attorney, or if you think about, say, the U.S. government, we’ve had women secretaries of state for many years. Think about Madeleine Albright, for example, or Condoleezza Rice. For many years, we’ve had women who have been secretary of state assertively advocating for others, for the country in this case.

Are Evolving Gender Norms Moving the Needle?

Loney: But how can a woman be assertive and still garner the respect that she deserves?

Schweitzer: There’s a bind, and I think this is one of the challenges women face. I think we’ve seen many changes. If we think about the last 60, 70 years, we’ve seen dramatic changes. Even here, for example, at Wharton, our MBA class is becoming really close to a 50/50 split in terms of gender. I think that reflects incredible progress and incredible change from where we were before, when classes were exclusively or predominantly men.

We’ve seen the same thing happen in executive positions, though not to the 50/50 level. In some areas like computer science and finance, gender inequality remains quite big. I think in those cases, in particular, women face a challenge in being assertive without being perceived of as having violated some gendered expectation.

Loney: It seems like that component of advocating for others is very important in terms of a normalization of the perception of a female leader.

Schweitzer: What others have found is that basically when women are very assertive in advocating for their group — as opposed to for themselves individually — but advocating for the group, when they frame it that way, that’s perceived very positively. In fact, people are expecting that. It’s congruent. So, there is a path, there is a lane for women to be very assertive and still consistent with that sort of stereotype in a way that does not cause them blowback for being assertive.

There are definitely individual differences. There are industry differences. There are cultural differences. As we go across different cultures, you can see that the gender equality norms, for example in the Scandinavian countries, northern European countries, we see much greater equality there than in some other countries. I think these things are changing, not as fast as they ought to be. As somebody with daughters, I’m very keen to see these things change faster than they are.

Loney: Realistically, are we looking at something that you think can shift over time? Or will that historical bias be there for a long time to come?

Schweitzer: It’s socialization. If we think about norms in our society, you and I are probably similar in age to remember historically how we perceived people who are homosexual, and now how normalized that has become. Part of that comes from changes at the top, when leaders advocate for this. We see examples when laws change. We can see norms change in some cases pretty quickly.

I’m optimistic that we can make real substantive change. I don’t think this is an innate, fixed, or fast reception. This is something that can change, and it has been changing, but gendered perceptions, gendered norms have been slower to change than we’d like.

Loney: I find it interesting because it’s also a time where you see companies, specifically small to mid-sized firms, that end up being all female or primarily female. I’m wondering how a lot of these historical biases play in when you have a framework like that?

Schweitzer: It’s interesting. Actually we’re seeing women in high school, in college, be very successful, often more successful than their male counterparts. New companies, emerging companies — there’s now an incredible supply of very talented women, in some cases far more talented women than men — again, depending on the geographic region. But we’re seeing some companies completely led by women. Some new companies are even completely comprised of women. I believe that’s going to be something that will emerge going forward. I think that will help us normalize the idea that anything somebody from one group could do, another group could do.

We’ve been talking about gender as a binary thing, but we’re beginning to understand that it’s really more of a continuum. So, I think our perceptions around gender are really going through a transition. There are fits and starts, and it’s not all monotonic, but we’re moving to a very different place.

Can Women Be Hopeful About the Future of Gender Equality?

Loney: How should women should perceive the state of the workforce right now? And how should they best handle these biases and scenarios when they come upon them?

Schweitzer: I think it’s tricky. On one hand, I would encourage women to be very optimistic and very enthusiastic about the opportunities and the way forward. On the other hand, there’s no question that there remains gender bias, and women as well as minorities from every persuasion are likely to encounter some bias at some point. What do you do about that? It’s tricky because we can say, “Well, you want to fight everything everywhere,” but it’s difficult to fight every battle, and there are some times when we’ve got to pick and choose what we’re taking on because there’s a cost as you fight things and allocate your resources, the precious time and attention that you have, to figure out where you can navigate your career the best.

I’m optimistic that these things will change over time as we see more women leaders succeed and demonstrate that anything that was a historically male position, women can do just the same.

Loney: Where do you think that cost ends up? Does it show in the career path that a woman may have? Does it show up in the productivity levels that companies may or may not have?

Schweitzer: It certainly can. There is some work on what are termed non-promotable tasks. There are things like planning an office party, and some things that may fall on some people more than others — people who are around, who seem congenial, who seem like they’d be a good fit for doing something. And there are some tasks that don’t help people when it comes time for their annual reviews and their promotions, that people can spend time and effort and energy doing. I think fighting some battles in ways that may upset some people, alienate people, create friction or cause people to wonder, “Hey, I know they had conflict. There are always two sides of a story. Who knows how much blame each side deserves?”

It could be that the battles that people take up can be costly. So, I think we have to pick and choose where we fight, and where we push forward, advancing our careers and sort of blazing a path for change that frankly has been slow.

Loney: Yes, because the dynamic of having those battles within the office is certainly different than having them out in the public.

Schweitzer: I think that’s right. So how public these battles become, if we think about influence within an organization, we’re trying to gain allies. We’re trying to advocate for our ideas and our positions, so we need other people to like us. We need to be familiar and likeable, and sometimes that means not arguing over everything. Again, I think that there are tough choices that some people, like women or other minorities, might have to decide that represents a cost that others may not face.

Loney: You seem very positive, very confident that we are on the right path so that we can have better work scenarios where we don’t have to deal with these biases as much as we did in the past.

Schweitzer: I’m very optimistic about the future. There are clearly setbacks, and in many organizations and in many institutions, some of the most intense pressure gets put on young employees during their childbearing years. That makes things hard. One cause for optimism is I see men and women — it isn’t 50/50, but we’re seeing shifting expectations and norms. And women have been a major part of the workforce for decades, and they’re assuming leadership positions. We are seeing real change. Is it all going in one direction? No, there are definitely setbacks, but I’m optimistic that things are changing, and that we will, in our lifetime, see things get better. At the rate of change that we’re seeing, it’s not going to be solved, but things are getting better.