Wharton’s Rebecca Schaumberg shares her research on how gender bias can manifest through descriptors such as “self-reliant,” which has a different meaning for men vs. women. This episode is part of a series on “Women & Leadership.”


What Does Self-reliance Mean in the Workplace?

Dan Loney: How does self-reliance factor into potential career success for a woman? Rebecca Schaumberg is an assistant professor of operations, information, and decisions here at the Wharton School. She has taken a deeper dive into this area over the years, and she joins us here in our studio. Rebecca, what’s the importance of self-reliance in general?

Rebecca Schaumberg: Self-reliance is obviously a trait that within the U.S. we talk about a lot. It is a cultural value that especially, for someone like me who has grown up in the Pacific Northwest, kind of the frontier states, it’s part of our ethos and our culture. But it is a trait which tends to be associated stereotypically more with men than women.

I think because of that, our understanding of what this trait means and what it conveys — particularly as it is associated with women — is not well understood. And self-reliance is pretty different from how it is often thought about in terms of its association with men.

Loney: Part of the research you did a few years ago looked at how self-reliance in women is perceived in the office setting, and the potential impact.

Schaumberg: Self-reliance conveys this inability to ask for help, this resistance to others. I’m from Oregon. It’s kind of like the man in the woods who doesn’t want to talk to anybody else. But that just did not align with the examples and historical examples in my own life of women who I thought of as being highly self-reliant. Where, in fact, it wasn’t at all a resistance to community, but it was a capacity or an agency.

What inspired this work for me was actually my great-great-grandmother who immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland. She had 11 children, and on her way, her husband dies. She ends up in Nebraska and makes it work through the use of community. I’m like, “That is a self-reliant woman.” Female homesteaders in the early 1900s. Those are self-reliant women, and that’s just not captured well in our association when we think of men. It’s sort of self-reliance and an inability to ask for help.

That’s not how I thought about self-reliance for myself. It’s not how I thought about self-reliance for the other women in my life. Indeed, it’s not how other people appear to perceive self-reliance when it’s communicated or associated with women, which is just fundamentally different and means something very different than when it is communicated by a man.

Loney: In terms of the workplace, there are probably historical patterns of how self-reliance is thought of, how it’s associated with men probably different than with women.

Schaumberg: I think we just haven’t even thought of what self-reliance means, or how the definition changes when it’s associated with women. Indeed, I think historically the workplace has been so male-dominated that our understanding of these traits has often been associated with masculine qualities. Or we only see them through that lens of being attached to male employees, as opposed to when often they’re associated and attached to female employees. They just may mean something fundamentally different.

The Same Trait Can Imply Different Meanings for Men vs. Women

Loney: Tell us a little bit about the research and what you found.

Schaumberg: What I did and what I was interested in is, pretty simply, if you describe a man as self-reliant, and you describe a woman as self-reliant, do those communicate dissimilar or different things? You hold everything constant, which can be challenging, particular when you’re studying something like gender. You take different individuals or different types of leaders or you describe different people, and you hold everything constant except is it a man or a woman, and do you describe them as self-reliant, or another trait like “dominant,” or just something neutral?

When you describe a man as highly self-reliant, it communicates more of this inability to connect with others, a lower what we call “communality,” which is connection with other people. And that’s just not the case for women, where in many ways this self-reliance is orthogonal or independent of any association of communality.

You describe a man as highly self-reliant, and people infer that he’s not going to be very social, he’s not going to be very warm, he’s going to be resistant to working with others. They just don’t make that same inference when you describe a woman as self-reliant.

Loney: Right, and when you’re talking about the business setting, it seems like the focus right now on community and groups and working together is even greater than we’ve seen.

Schaumberg: Yes, and I think what’s interesting about that is if you view self-reliance from this masculine angle, or as it’s associated with men, you would think that it would be in opposition to a team-oriented environment. But when you take, as I say, this more feminine perspective on self-reliance, it is actually quite aligned with that environment — or at least not in opposition to it.

Loney: Is it surprising that there is that separation of what the perception is for men and women?

Schaumberg: On the one hand, yes. I think with traits like self-reliance, dominance, or even caring or compassion, we associate these traits with different genders. We associate caring and compassion stereotypically more with women, so when we hear those traits, we often have an image of a woman and all the stereotypes that go along with that. But what happens when we put that trait in association with a man? We assume it means the same thing, but that’s an assumption.

I think what this work shows, which I think is a promising other area of inquiry, is that these same traits mean something different when they’re associated with different genders. We can’t assume that the meaning of the word or the trait stays the same.

Loney: There is probably a significant business impact component here that needs to be investigated so that you can truly have a better understanding of how your operation works, the ways to reach the levels of success that you want for all employees across the scope.

Schaumberg: What you realize is that if you start to think about the traits and qualities that you would look for in a leader, in a manager, someone to lead a team, a project leader, we have to understand what these qualities mean when they’re associated with different genders or different types of groups of people. If we’re saying, “I don’t think I would want somebody who is self-reliant,” because that seems in opposition to being team-oriented or being a leader, that’s just not the case if you take in this other perspective associated with women.

Loney: You’re not necessarily viewed as a team player if you’re self-reliant because you’re able to take care of things on your own, and you don’t really feel like you need to incorporate other people into the mix.

Schaumberg: Yes, I think that is the dominant perception of what this trait is. Again, because the dominant perception comes from an association of this trait with men in general, we don’t realize that trait can mean something different when we associate it with women. I do think that that is surprising, but it is less surprising when I start to think about the association with other things.

There’s a term in cultural psychology called horizontal individualism, which is a mouthful but basically means that there are views of the self that you’re an independent person, but you’re not better or worse than any other person. In my own work, that seems to be more about what self-reliance is conveying for women than it is for men.

Recognizing the Nuances of Words Can Improve Equity in the Workplace

Loney: By understanding this, you’re maybe taking away some of those historical beliefs that will make the overall operation or the overall mindset around employees and workers in the company better in the future.

Schaumberg: That’s what I would hope. What’s also interesting to me with any research related to gender is we often talk about it through the lens of one gender. So I’m talking about self-reliance as it relates to women, but I think this work also sheds light on some of the pressures that we’ve talked about, self-reliance as it relates to men. For men, that stereotype seems to suggest potentially more of this, “To uphold this value of self-reliance, I’m not supposed to seek help. I’m not supposed to work with other people.” The hope would be: Could we change the view of what it means to have the capacity to be self-reliant such that it’s not in opposition to being able to work well with others?

Loney: Even though you did this research a few years ago, with all that we’ve gone through in the last four years with the pandemic and remote work, there’s probably more importance to having that understanding.

Schaumberg: I think you’re right. I think there was kind of an induction of — many of us didn’t want to be going to Walden and Thoreau and being by ourselves during all of that time. And I think it’s changing. Some of the benefits of what we found during that time is being able to be more in control and being more agentic over our own work lives as individuals, while also still integrating ourselves within an organization.

I think in many ways the pandemic revealed some of that tension between our own individual agency and needing to integrate with an organization. In some ways, my own work is just showing that tension with self-reliance, where it is both this capacity to be by oneself and to take care of oneself, but that it does not necessitate not being able to work well with others.

Loney: Where do you want to take this next?

Schaumberg: What this revealed to me is often these traits change their meaning and what they convey based on who is possessing that trait. Describing myself as self-reliant could be different from describing my brother as self-reliant. My guess is that there are other traits like that, where we think they might mean the same thing, when we describe, for instance, a man as dominant or a woman as dominant. Or if we describe a woman as caring or a man as caring. But once we associate those qualities with a particular gender, the very meaning of the word could shift.

I think it’s important to flesh that out when we’re talking about who we are seeking as an employee. What are the qualities that we want in a leader? We have to know what we truly mean, rather than just using the word. If I say, “I’m looking for a self-reliant person,” or “I’m looking for a dominant person,” or “I’m looking for a caring person,” I am assuming that that means the same thing to you as it does to me. But then if I dig deeper and say, “Well, what do you mean? What does that look like to you? Can you describe what that person is like? Then I think we have to actually describe what the person is like because we realize that sometimes using these shorthands or descriptors, we might not be communicating what we intend to communicate.

Loney: What has the research meant for you personally?

Schaumberg: I think about sometimes the challenge. I think about this in academic research, but also as it aligns with what organizations are interested in. Organizations are deeply interested in issues related to diversity and having rigorous empirical evidence one way or the other about how we study issues of diversity in the workplace. I think in some ways what this work has revealed to me is just how challenging that can be. We’re trying to say, “Oh, do people judge dominant women differently than dominant men?” And that very well might be the case. But if what we mean by dominance changes when we’re describing a woman and a man, then it becomes incredibly hard to study these very things that we care about.

Loney: Yes, I think it’s also fun for you to express the connection that it had for you personally with your great-great-grandmother.

Schaumberg: I think that’s where a lot of research comes from. Sometimes the research that motivates us the most as academics, where when you look into the world, and you realize your own experience is not necessarily aligning with the things that you’re reading, or the things that people are saying. And then that deep exploration into why is it that your experience might be different from what you’re reading or what standard beliefs suggest.