Morela Hernandez is an associate professor of business administration at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. The Darden School is on Twitter at @dardenmba. Links to Hernandez’s work are available at morelahernandez.com.
Imagine this: A successful female executive is encouraged by her supervisor to apply for a promotion. The promotion would come with higher pay, higher status, and greater responsibility. It is the logical next step in her career path.
But as the executive reads the job description, she hesitates. She thinks of all of the ways that the promotion will not be a good fit. Ultimately, she convinces herself that the promotion will not make her happy. She takes herself out of the application process before it ever begins.
Sound familiar? If this isn’t something you’ve experienced, you likely know a woman who has.
In an ongoing collaboration with Dr. Jasmien Khattab at the Darden School of Business, we set out to understand why and how women engage in rationalization processes to talk themselves out of jobs. In particular, we investigated how women might negatively evaluate promotional opportunities because of a process called “job crafting.” Simply put, job crafting — first explored by researchers Amy Wrzesniewski of the Yale School of Management and Jane E. Dutton of the Ross School of Business — is a self-narrative that individuals use to shape and define the meaning they attach to their work. Job crafting can help people view their jobs as malleable, allowing for positive aspects of a job to hold more weight than its negative aspects.
We predicted that women who are considering promotional opportunities might be job crafting the roles to redefine these prospective jobs in other ways. On the one hand, job crafting can be used as a tool to envision a promotion as an opportunity that relates closely and positively to a woman’s identity and is consistent with her aspirations. For example, a promotion might offer her appealing additional opportunities to mentor junior colleagues, to shape the future direction of the company to align with her own priorities and values, and to stretch her creative capabilities.
On the other hand, job crafting could lead that same woman to engage in rationalization processes to opt out of a leadership role. For example, the promotion might represent an obstacle to spending time with her family, taking her away from her children, and forcing her to focus on administrative tasks instead of the creative endeavors she finds fulfilling.
Prior social psychological research indicates that when it comes to occupational decisions, women can feel a sense of threat from conforming to negative feminine stereotypes. This stereotype threat accounts for women’s diminished interest in masculine occupations.
To reduce negative self-evaluations that can result from shying away from leadership positions, we predicted that women might externalize the problem — by crafting the leadership job in such a way that the job is a complete misfit. In so doing, they minimize the negative psychological state that can arise from potential conflicts between their internal desires (advancement in the job versus personal or family commitments).
Language Triggers Reactions, and Reactions Trigger Rationalization
In a set of experimental studies within the retail sales context, we explored how job crafting can affect a woman’s expected perceived fit and job satisfaction with a leadership role, and subsequent acceptance of such a role. We manipulated the type of job description applicants read, hypothesizing that women who feel an especially strong sense of gender identity would have a lower likelihood of accepting a promotion when the job highlights “agentic” (as opposed to “communal”) characteristics. Whereas agentic characteristics refer to stereotypical prescriptions of leaders being achievement-oriented, dominant, and decisive, communal characteristics are generally associated with women who are expected to be relationship-oriented, kind, sensitive, and cooperative.
To test our hypotheses, we invited 105 working adult women with years of experience in retail/sales to participate in our study. Forty-seven participants read a job advertisement for a leadership role in agentic wording, and 58 participants read a job advertisement for a leadership role in communal wording. Examples of agentic and communal (in parentheses) job descriptions included the following: “Can challenge (motivate) others to reach their potential as employees”; “You will be the boss (head) of our fast-paced store, with further opportunities for career advancement”; “Be a leader (role model) in your store, representing our exclusive brand.”
Participants read either the agentic or communal set of descriptors. Next, they were asked to indicate their expected perceived fit, their expected job satisfaction, and the likelihood that they would accept this leadership role if it were offered to them, as well as the extent to which they identified with their gender.
Our analyses showed support for our hypotheses. Mainly, we found that women high in gender identification (as compared to women low in gender identification) were likely to job craft the position offered to them such that they expected to have lower job fit and satisfaction. These women were also less likely to accept the leadership role — meaning that job crafting was negatively related to job acceptance for women high on gender identification in the agentic condition.
The results imply this: A perceived lack of fit and expected satisfaction with the promotion creates a sense of threat that prompts women to focus on why they will be dissatisfied in the position.
The Message for Business: Pay Attention to Job Descriptions
Taken together, our ongoing research begins to shed new light on the problem of female underrepresentation in top leadership roles. Beyond the established factors of gender-based pay discrimination, inhospitable work environments, or divergent access to social networks, our findings point to a more insidious, implicit, systemic filtering mechanism: Job descriptions that use stereotypical prescriptions of leaders.
Considering individuals’ uncanny capabilities to “shape, mold, and redefine their jobs,” as Wrzesniewski and Dutton have put it, managers who wish to employ female executives at the highest levels of their organizations should be especially careful of the signals they might be communicating to potential applicants.