Gender equality in the workplace has come a long way. Over the past decades, gaps between women and men have shrunk in multiple arenas, including labor force participation, educational attainment, representation in management and executive positions, and wages. And books like Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, which has continued to be both popular and powerful, have inspired women to continue breaking down their own barriers in the workplace.

But, despite these gains, some gaps also remain. To name a few, women continue to report experiencing higher rates of job discrimination, such as being paid less for the same job, than men. Gender pay disparities and underrepresentation of women continue to plague workplaces and particularly the highest echelons of corporations including the C-suite. And, during the pandemic, women exited the workforce in larger numbers than men, limiting their earning potential and career advancement.

This mixed landscape begs the question: Why do these barriers persist?

A Social Psychological Perspective

We reviewed some of the key research findings from social psychological science to help answer this question. Part of the explanation comes down to the fact that, at the core, people are embedded in their social contexts. People both shape their surroundings and are shaped by them. When it comes to gender stereotypes and norms—shared assumptions about what women and men can and cannot do—people not only treat others according to these norms and stereotypes, but also internalize them to shape their own paths. This also contributes to why gender gaps can be so difficult to eliminate. As long as external and internal expectations work in tandem, it is challenging to break the cycle.   

Take leadership, for example. Stereotypes about the qualities a typical leader should possess, like agency and assertiveness, tend to be misaligned with the qualities stereotypically associated with women, like communality and nurturing. Externally, this can translate into discrimination and prejudice against female leaders, such as increased scrutiny and pressure on female executives or a more difficult path to ascend into leadership positions in the first place. Internally, it can also affect how women lead, expressing their leadership style in more feminine or nurturing ways.

Or, take entrepreneurship. Not only have investors been shown to be more critical of pitches given by female entrepreneurs and less likely to fund female ventures, people's intentions to become an entrepreneur are also greater if they see themselves as more masculine.

In our own research on decision-making, we specifically examine how women and men respond to competition. Competition is ubiquitous in the workplace—from applying for a job to competing for a promotion—and can have important economic consequences, affecting people's earnings. In this important domain, our findings have shown that women prefer smaller competitions. For instance, when given a choice to compete in a smaller group, consisting of 10 competitors, or a larger group, consisting of 100 competitors, most women chose the smaller pool while most men chose the larger pool. Given that smaller competitions are often associated with smaller rewards, women may be at an economic disadvantage.

Furthermore, we also found that competitions with a greater number of competitors are particularly detrimental for women's performance. For example, when solving a series of arithmetic puzzles, women competing in a large group for a cash prize performed substantially worse than not only men in that competition, but also compared to both women and men in a smaller competition (with fewer competitors) and women and men who were completing the task without competition (and were paid according to how many problems they solved individually). Taken together, the external pressures of competing and internal preferences for how to compete may contribute to economic gender gaps in the workplace. 

Given that so many workplace outcomes can be shaped by the mutually reinforcing external and internal forces of gender stereotypes and norms and may also be further underscored by biological sex differences, we have to wonder: how can barriers for women in the workplace be broken? 

Ironically, recent research on job seekers has shown that when women tried to appear less feminine in their applications to counteract discrimination, they actually received fewer offers. This highlights the complex dynamic of changing one factor without the other. As people change, so do their contexts have to change and vice versa.

As researchers continue to chip away at understanding the dynamics contributing to barriers for women in the workplace, more ways to promote greater equality can be uncovered. Ideally, these insights will both empower women and create more equitable contexts to continue to build on the progress that has already been made.

For Further Reading

Hanek, K. J., & Garcia, S. M. (2022). Barriers for women in the workplace: A social psychological perspective. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 16(10), e12706.

Hanek, K. J., & Garcia, S. M. (2023in press). Gender and competitive performance: Closing gaps with smaller competitions. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making,e2345.

Hanek, K. J., Garcia, S. M., & Tor, A. (2016). Gender and competitive preferences: The role of competition size. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(8), 1122-1133.

Eagly, A. E. (2018). The shaping of science by ideology: How feminism inspired, led, and constrained scientific understanding of sex and gender. Journal of Social Issues, 74(4), 871–888.

Kathrin Hanek is an Associate Professor of Management at the University of Dayton. Her research focuses on how gender and social identities affect workplace outcomes.