Promoting more female managers still won’t fix women’s salary gap

Companies seem to believe that promoting women will fix gender wage gaps automatically. New research suggests not

Human resources manager

(Robert Daly/Getty)

When Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In was published in 2013, it generated a great deal of discussion on the issue of the lack of women in leadership positions. As the COO of Facebook and the ninth woman listed on Forbes’ 2014 ranking of the world’s most powerful women, she believes that “more female leadership will lead to fairer treatment for all women.” The Lean In movement has induced a wave of initiatives to promote women in business across North America, but are these efforts effective? By placing more women in management roles, does it really pave a way for gender equity at work?

In order to answer this question, Sameer Srivastava, assistant professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, examined salary and other personnel records for 1,701 full-time employees at a leading information services company from 2004-2009, before and after a switch to a female manager, to test the argument that female managers act as agents of change to help reduce the gender wage gap.

Srivastava found no support for that assertion. “There was no significant difference in salary for women who switched from working for a male to a female supervisor compared to men who made the same switch,” says Srivastava. “In other words, in this setting at least, female supervisors did not appear to act as agents of change.” Srivastava cautions that care must be taken in generalizing from his findings within a single organization.

Additional analysis points that when a low-performing female employee switches to work for a high-performing female supervisor from her previous male manager, she actually ends up doing significantly worse—earning 30.1% less relative to men who make the same switch.

While the findings may look discouraging for advocates of more women in management and leadership positions, Srivastava says that “the takeaway should not be that having more women in management roles is unimportant or undesirable.” Instead, “it’s telling us that getting women into management roles is necessary—but maybe not a sufficient condition for reducing the gender wage gap.”

“To get the full change to happen, we probably need not only greater representation of women, but we need to see also a cultural shift in organizations that really places greater value on gender equity in the workplace, and makes it more legitimate and acceptable for women to lend a helping hand to other women in the work place.”