Professor researches how gender roles shape professional settings

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Assertive professional women often face social consequences for their boldness, said business assistant professor Emily Amanatullah.

Amanatullah researched the role of gender in the workplace and said in her lecture on Wednesday that there are still gender disparities in the professional environment despite great strides made by women in the past century.

According to her research, only 14.1 percent of Fortune 500 corporate officers are female, while 16.1 percent of Fortune 500 board seats are occupied by women.

The stereotypes that exist are not imposed maliciously or intentionally, she said, but exist as invisible constraints that affect the way women think about their roles in the workplace.

“Women are typically associated with kindness and warmth, while typical masculinity means being independent, aggressive and assertive,” she said. “Our conceptions of traditional femininity and masculinity are very consistent despite social change.”

Women are assumed to have less leadership potential than men, she said, and women who go out of their way to demonstrate competency are seen as less likable. Women are therefore forced to be either likable and incompetent or competent and unlikable, she said.

Amanatullah examined the ways in which women asked for raises in order to classify them as assertive or non-assertive in her controlled experiments, and said she found that women were much more comfortable negotiating for someone else rather than for themselves.

She tested a variety of women from undergraduates to upper level managers, and said she found consistent results between age groups and positions.

“Seeing the consistency shows us that it’s a core function of gender roles that shape the world around us,” she said. “It’s rooted in how society creates those gender roles for us.”

Despite her findings that women may feel restricted in their ability to ask for raises, she said she feels women can look at her research and use it to help them find a balance between being assertive and still being a likable person.

“I think my research is empowering to women, because women simply have more to negotiate,” she said. “We simultaneously negotiate salary while managing social outcomes.”

Bonnie Ramirez of the Texas Animal Health Commission, who attended the discussion, said her experience in the traditionally male-dominated field of agriculture gave her insight into the ways men react to assertive women.

“Sometimes they’re really not sure how to take you,” she said. “Sometimes, as a woman, you come on too strong.”

Aaron Wanstrath, manager of product development engineering at AMD, said he has several women on his team and attended the lecture to better understand their concerns in the professional environment.

“Getting insight into what the issues are and how they’re being dealt with might help me make better decisions,” he said. “My field is male dominated in numbers, but women are absolutely on par with men in terms of performance.”

Amanatullah said it is possible for women to be warm and friendly while still being self-confident at work.

“If women are able to find that balance, we can still be assertive in what we’re asking for in a more deferential, warm way,” she said. “It can be done.”