IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Data Debunks Tired Old Myth that Women are “Too Emotional” for Leadership
Since men and women are constrained by different gender norms in organizations, it is likely that different baseline propensities for having negative interactions at work exist for men and women. Whereas women are expected to exude warmth and communality, men are expected to act individualistically and competitively. Research has linked such status expectations to workplace behavior, outcomes, and rewards.
For example, women are praised for consensus-driven work styles, while men are esteemed for demonstrating a ruthless, aggressive pursuit toward career advancement. Such gender expectations have been shown across a variety of labor market outcomes, including hiring and promotions. In fact, when women behave counter to these expectations, they suffer penalties at work. From a young age, women are socialized by these gender norms demonstrated through a downplaying of male competencies (e.g., mathematics) in place of more gender-consistent ones.
It is reasonable then to expect that these same social forces influence negative ties in the workplace for men and women. Namely, if women are socialized and rewarded for nurturing, consensus-driven behavior and men for individualistic, competitive actions, this may decrease women’s likelihood of a negative relationship at work or at least cite having one.
This is substantiated by the fact that negative ties produce asymmetric effects on outcomes compared with positive ones, and that involvement in negative ties at work has been linked to perceptions of employee performance. Although men and women may be equally motivated toward positive impression management at work, men may be granted more leeway when this comes to involvement in negative interactions if aggressive behavior is seen as gender consistent and expected for men.
While gender diversity and inequality are well-documented topics in management, sociology, and labor economics, few have looked closely at the gendered negative relationships within a workplace using a network perspective.
Deepening our knowledge of the networks around those involved in negative ties at work, particularly within and across gender, could highlight where tensions may arise between and within the sexes that might contribute to subsequent unequal outcomes for men and women.
Understanding the relational side of conflict also bears practical importance as companies increasingly organize using diverse teams, heightening the reliance on informal ties between and within gender to get work accomplished. Toward this end, exploring gender and negative work ties inside firms offers a unique approach to the study of interpersonal conflict in today’s professional workplace.
Using network data from two large firms operating in distinct industries in the United States, both similarities and differences emerged. Men and women were equally likely to cite a negative work tie. Yet, women were more likely (than men) to cite a negative tie with a woman (compared with citing a man or, not citing anyone). The same was not observed between men.
Negative ties between women at work however were further explained by considering the gender composition of a woman’s social support network. Here for women, the likelihood of same-sex conflict was dampened for women with more female social support ties at work compared with women with less female social support.
Through a series of analyses, I was able to test for other observable differences associated with the results to explore possible mechanisms such as differences in the qualitative explanations of the negative ties, in the rank of those involved in the negative tie, and in subsequent organizational exit and intentions to exit.
Contrary to characterizations of women as more emotional or hostile or men as aggressive and competitive, this analysis revealed no association between gender and the propensity for negative, emotionally-laden descriptions of the work conflict. Nonetheless, across both men and women respondents, citing networks with fewer women as a percentage of work ties, but more as a percentage of affective ties was associated with the more negatively described conflicts.
While I could not disentangle whether such network compositions enabled this type of venting or emerged as a consequence of the negative interaction, the linkage between the two indicates where potential “hot spots” where more unhealthy conflict may be occurring in a firm.
In addition to contextualizing the negative ties, I was able to examine if differences in formal power were inherent to a particular type of gendered work conflict. This revealed more nuance to female negative relationships where women were more likely than men to cite difficulties with employees of the same rank in the firm. At the same time, I observed no association between a particular gendered conflict and the actual or stated intentions for near-term organizational exit. Accordingly, it did not appear that any gendered conflict was more or less influential on subsequent exit or retention at either firm.
Overall, by highlighting similarities and differences that exist in men and women’s negative ties inside two firms, this paper contributes to research on gender diversity as well as a growing body of social network scholarship on negative ties. The fact that most firms encourage informal relationships among their employees—and pay particular attention to gender diversity in hiring — makes this a finding worthy of managerial consideration, particularly when a significant organizational advantage comes from the human and social capital of a firm.
Knowing that unique gendered network characteristics such as the gender compositions of an employee’s social support at work were associated with negative ties may also help organizational leaders better anticipate potential trouble spots within their firms where such gendered conflict may erupt.
Jennifer Merluzzi (2017) Gender and Negative Network Ties: Exploring Difficult Work Relationships Within and Across Gender. Organization Science 28(4):636-652. https://doi.org/10.1287/orsc.2017.1137
Jennifer Merluzzi is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Management and Public Policy at George Washington University School of Business. She specializes in research on the early careers of professional managers and labor market inequality. She conducts studies on the role of individual identity in influencing and affecting labor market outcomes, such as promotions, job offers or compensation. Her research has appeared in scholarly journals such as Administrative Science Quarterly, Organization Science, and Academy of Management Discoveries and has also been featured in Harvard Business Review and the New York Times. Professor Merluzzi's current projects include investigating hiring method and promotion outcomes, examining career outcomes across gender and marital status, and tracing the career paths professional women have historically followed into and out of entrepreneurship.