Female tokens in high-prestige work groups: Catalysts or inhibitors of group diversification?
When a woman is the only female in a high-prestige work group, she is unlikely to recruit another woman to her team for fear of being outperformed or undervalued, however, she is just as likely to recruit another woman when the high-prestige work group is already majority female.
Although women currently enter the U.S. workforce in record numbers, their representation at the uppermost levels of organizations have not kept pace with their numbers in lower ranks. Some researchers believe that by recruiting women into high-status work groups (such as special advisory groups, deans or CEOs) women will act as a catalyst for the inclusion of other women into organizations’ upper-level work groups. It is unclear, however, whether women in high-status groups are willing and able to advocate for other women during the hiring and promotion process. A number of studies show that high-ranking women might prefer to be unique in their group and may choose not to have other women join their group. These issues are related to the tokenism of women, as the number of women in a group affects their willingness to advocate for other women due to concerns surrounding competence and performance. Token women in high-prestige groups are concerned that, on the one hand, a highly qualified female candidate will be viewed as more competent and valuable than they are, thus diminishing their value in the group. On the other hand, a moderately qualified female candidate could reinforce negative stereotypes about women, thus adversely affecting others’ impressions of them due to gender stereotyping. This study examines whether the gender composition and status of a work group affects women’s willingness to recruit other women into their group.
When a woman is the only female (a “token” female) in a high-prestige work group, she is unlikely to recruit another woman to her team for fear of being either outperformed or undervalued.
- Female tokens (women on all-male teams) in high-prestige work groups chose female candidates 30% of the time, on average. In contrast, female tokens in low-prestige work groups chose female candidates 76% of the time, on average.
- Women that were in majority groups, regardless of the level of prestige, were more likely to prefer a female candidate compared to female tokens in high prestige groups. Women in teams with a majority of females chose female candidates 52% of the time in high-prestige work groups and 51% of the time in low-prestige work groups.
- When faced with a female candidate who had impressive qualifications, female tokens in high-prestige work groups expressed concern that other members of the work group would view the candidate more favorably than themselves. Likewise, female tokens in high-prestige work groups were concerned that a marginally qualified female candidate would perform poorly, which would negatively affect her own evaluations.
- Female tokens in high prestige groups were also less likely to support the admission of a highly qualified female candidate (relative to a highly qualified male) or a marginally qualified female candidate (relative to a marginally qualified male) into their groups.
The gender makeup and level of prestige of a work group impact women’s willingness to support the admission of other females into their group.
Three studies in this research paper examine the impact of work group prestige on female tokens’ preferences for female candidates. Preferences are assessed by asking participants to choose between a female or male candidate, with equivalent qualifications, for a position in their work group. In the first study, participants were 210 female university students in the northeastern United States. Participants were randomly assigned to be a member of the Student Advisory Committee to the Provost (high-prestige group) or a member of a group formed by a student advisor (low-prestige group). Participants were given information about other members, who were either three males (token scenario), or two females and one male (majority scenario). Participants selected a new member by reviewing and evaluating the applications of two candidates, one male and one female. Participants ranked the candidates on their preferences.
In the second and third study, participants first completed a test of academic ability. They were then told that if their scores were high enough, they would be assigned to one of the focus groups put together by the Dean (high-prestige group). Participants not chosen to be members of the Dean’s group would be taking part in a study designed by one of the administrative assistants (low-prestige group). Participants were randomly assigned to the Dean’s focus group or the administrative assistant’s focus group. They were told they would be selecting a new member to join their group by reviewing and evaluating the applications of two candidates, one male and one female. Furthermore, participants were randomly allocated to evaluate candidates that had high ability scores or candidates that had marginal scores. Participants ranked the female vs. male candidates based on their preferences. In the second study, participants were 207 female university students in the northeastern United States. The third study had 235 female university students.