Aug. 2, 2004
Women in male-dominated fields feel conflicted
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—If you praise the career choice of a woman in a male-dominated field, chances are she'll respond negatively.
But if you discuss the difficulties of multiple roles and responsibilities, she'll more likely defend her situation. These are the findings of a study by an organizational behavior expert at the University of Michigan.
"The results were the exact opposite of what we expected," said Fiona Lee, a U-M psychology and business professor. "When they were presented with negative information about being a woman in their field, their identity integration increased and when presented with positive information about being a woman in their field, their sense of integration lessened.''
For this study, identity integration is the degree to which multiple roles or identities are compatible or conflicting. When their level of identity integration increases, their comfort level rises.
When women in the study read a paragraph describing the benefits of being a businesswoman, most reacted negatively. When they read about the downsides of their career, many were compelled to defend their multiple roles.
Identity integration has been studied among biracial subjects, but this research examined it in the workplace.
Despite gains in most fields, women remain minorities in engineering and business. U-M psychology researchers wanted to test how women engineers and business students would react when their "worlds collided." Would they view their gender and professional identities as compatible or conflicting?
Nationally, the number of women in business schools dropped for 2004 despite heavy recruitment efforts, with women holding just 13.6 percent of the board seats for Fortune 500 companies, Lee said. In engineering, Lee described similar trends, saying male co-workers tend to see female engineers as "aggressive,'' making male supervisors less likely to promote women engineers.
Lee and colleagues Amy Trahan and Chi-Ying Cheng studied 109 women majoring in engineering and business, including 53 experienced graduate students seeking MBAs. These women filled out surveys designed to see whether their gender and professional identities are competitive or compatible. The researchers are presenting their findings to the American Psychological Association at its annual conference this week in Hawaii.
The study found that low identity integration, or feeling of conflict between gender and professional identities, are related to higher stress and anxiety, Trahan said.
The researchers said the results show a clear need to address low identity integration for women in male-dominated professions. They said women in such fields would benefit from:
• A bigger focus on overcoming problems in their gender and professional roles rather than the benefits of those roles.
• More emphasis on incongruent aspects of job training and mentoring.
• More mentoring from senior women.
For more on Lee, visit: http://ipumich.temppublish.com/public/experts/ExpDisplay.php?ExpID=456
Contact: Joe Serwach