Joshi (2014). By Whom and When Is Women’s Expertise Recognized? The Interactive Effects of Gender and Education in Science and Engineering Teams

Aparna Joshi – Smeal College of Business, Penn State

Isabelle Solal – INSEAD
Sarah Wittman – INSEAD

Article link:

Question 1. Research projects sometimes have fascinating back stories. How did this one originate? What inspired you to look into the relationship between gender and expertise recognition in teams? How was it influenced by your prior work, and how has it influenced work you are engaged in now?

I have never been a gender researcher per se, and I didn’t start out looking for a gender effect. I was a team diversity person, and in 2009 I had just finished work on a meta-analysis of team diversity effects, specifically on how the context might influence how diversity of any kind (gender, race, etc.) plays out. What we found is that gender diversity had a strong, negative effect in the high tech industry. This isn’t terribly surprising: the news has been full of stories recently about gender and Silicon Valley, especially now with Ellen Pao’s lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins. But as I started working on this paper, the effects of gender were so robust, I just felt compelled to pursue it.

Then, during the review process, the reviewers and Katherine Klein, my editor, really helped me unpack the gender effect theoretically and methodologically, across multiple levels. And now I’m completely hooked! So this project has inspired a whole new stream of research. I recently finished work on a meta-analysis of gender effects on performance and pay. What we’re seeing is that, in the most prestigious occupations, there is no difference in performance but there is a significant difference in terms of rewards. I’m also writing a paper now on female CEO succession events, and doing work as well as on female politicians and the conditions under which they are more likely to be able to pass legislation.

So this paper has really led me to focus my research on gender dynamics in different occupational contexts.

Question 2. As you point out in your paper, the work on social role and social identity theory has often been done in the lab. What kind of challenges did you face studying gender effects in the field, with actual science and engineering teams?

I am not trained as a lab researcher – I have always done my research in the field, so this was an obvious methodological choice for me. That being said, field research can be a laborious process. It’s hard to get the sample size you need, not just across teams, but also within teams. Making sure your teams are comparable and you’re getting the right controls is also a challenge.

Incentivizing participation goes a long way to addressing these issues, but the key was getting buy-in from the lab leaders. I didn’t tell them I was looking at gender. I framed it much more broadly and asked them open-ended questions to gain their trust. I asked them what ‘success’ in their lab teams looked like, and what they look for when forming teams. Thankfully, these were academic labs so they were open to idea of letting someone in to do research. I did give each lab the overall study results and customized feedback at the end, including the results around gender. They were surprised by my findings, but at least they listened, and seemed to genuinely care about improving integration within their teams. In many instances when I have shared the results of this research, people, especially men, refuse to believe it and insist on looking for another explanation. I tell them that women assign expertise based on education level, but men don’t, and it’s hard for some people to accept that. Women, of course, believe it completely!

Question 3. We were particularly interested in the findings from your third study, where you show that gender diversity can improve the team’s performance, but only if the team works in a field that has a good gender balance. There has been a lot of work done to try to find a direct link between diversity and performance; how does this paper contribute to that discussion?

I think the problem is that, for a long time, the team diversity literature ignored the importance of context and focused exclusively on team composition. The literature on expertise recognition had the same issue. The truth is, most real world teams operate in very strong settings that will necessarily impact how those teams function. Scholars are now taking a much more contextual approach, which allows us to better understand the effect of societal and proximal cues, like the gender balance of the wider field.

Team composition will often be secondary to the broader context. But saying that diversity doesn’t directly influence performance doesn’t mean that diversity doesn’t matter. It does matter, just not in the way you might think.

Question 4. Your findings have important implications for women in the workplace, particularly for highly educated women working in male-dominated industries. What do you see as the biggest challenges, and where might solutions come from?

The struggle to get women’s expertise recognized is a phenomenon that affects many industries. In settings where evaluations and promotion decisions are highly subjective, there’s a lot of room for biases and stereotypes to creep in. This is what we’re seeing in the Ellen Pao case, where promotion within these VC firms or in other elite professional firms becomes about “can she really own the room?” Even in places with more objective criteria for promotion, like academia, the way female faculty are evaluated (for example, in terms of classroom performance) is an issue, because women are still atypical in that context.

How we get women to rise within male-dominated industries, when their expertise is not being recognized, is really a chicken and egg problem. We do need to focus on women and questions of team performance in order to make team leaders more mindful of the issue. But I think the solution lies at least in part with the men. Men play an important role as gate-keepers, and those with egalitarian views can be extremely helpful. We know from research that men’s view towards women vary tremendously depending on how they were socialized, on their marriage structure, on whether they have daughters. Men are malleable. Our job is to figure out how to shape them!

I think bringing the men back into the conversation doesn’t take the focus away from women. On the contrary, I feel that it is important to have men involved as part of the solution, and that this is very much in line with the feminist agenda, with our goal of achieving better integration.

Question 5. Do you have any advice for doctoral students, anything about life or academia that you wish you had known when you were starting out?

I feel that doctoral students today are so much better informed than I was when I did my PhD, and have so many more opportunities to collaborate across schools. Collaboration is the key, I think, from a professional standpoint but also for social support. Those bonds you establish with your co-authors will last a lifetime; they are what I cherish the most about my academic career. I worked on this particular paper alone and, at times, it was painful. Co-authors not only improve the work, they also make things more fun! Finding a good co-author is a little bit serendipitous, but you shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to people you think you can learn from. It’s about recognizing expertise in others, to make yourself better.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: