Women continue to make less money than men, and be less likely to hold top leadership positions. And whenever a grim new study is released, a news-making essay or book is published, or high-profile woman is criticized for being “too pushy,” it renews the debate over the underlying reasons behind this persistent inequality.
One explanation has to do with culturally prescribed gender roles, and the social price one pays – or expects to pay – for violating them. The consequences of social backlash can vary from clearly biased hiring and unequal pay allocation to more subtle reductions of social and professional opportunities at work.
At the same time, we can all point to exceptions: Some professional women do manage to obtain equal positions of power and pay in male-dominated professions. Some have suggested the style one chooses to adopt makes all the difference.
But here’s another explanation based on a line of research into what is known as identity integration: Women who succeed in challenging careers have a personality trait by which they regard their two “selves”- their professional identity and their gender identity – not as in conflict but as fundamentally compatible.
My work with colleagues Pranjal Mehta, Ilona Fridman and Michael W. Morris has focused on assessing people’s varying degrees of identity integration, and then finding correlations between that and aspects of their professional performance. We determined levels of gender/professional identity integration using a questionnaire that asked participants to indicate their level of agreement with eight statements, including: “I do not feel any tension between my goals as a woman/man and my goals as a businessperson” and “I keep everything about being a woman/man separate from being a business person.” Two weeks later, we placed participants in negotiating situations.
First, we found that, although women and men both vary in the extent to which they perceive their gender identity to be compatible with their professional identity, these variances seem to have performance consequences only for women.
Across five experiments, we found that women who perceive their gender roles and professional roles as highly compatible are more effective than other women in competitive bargaining situations. Women with high degrees of identity integration were more likely to bargain on their own behalf, because they were less concerned about a social backlash. Those women also achieved better outcomes than those who didn’t ask for more – and they didn’t incur a social backlash as a result of their assertive behavior.
Furthermore, when our women subjects were “primed” to tend more toward identity integration before entering a salary negotiating session (we asked subjects to recall a time when their gender and professional identities felt particularly compatible to them), they were more likely to ask for higher pay and less likely to expect social backlash for asking. This suggests a possible strategy for women hoping to negotiate more effectively on their own behalf: It might be valuable to spend time reflecting on how being a woman is compatible with being an excellent professional, as opposed to dwelling on perceived incompatibilities.
Changing male-dominated corporate cultures will require more, of course, than women who are personally unconflicted about their gender and professionalism. But knowing that identity integration matters to outcomes could yield a better understanding of the factors that are derailing women’s success, and clarify which they themselves can change.
(Shira Mor is an assistant professor in the Department of Organization and Personnel Management at Erasmus University’s Rotterdam School of Management, in the Netherlands.)
© 2014 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate