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Gender gap

Studying gender stereotypes and sexual orientation in the workplace

Research

By Susan White

A faculty member at Memorial’s business faculty has received national funding to address an important gap in research on gender stereotypes in the workplace.

Dr. Kara Arnold has won an Insight Development Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) for a series of studies that will look at sexual orientation and how it impacts hiring and promotion in jobs that are seen as traditionally male or female.

Dr. Kara Arnold has won a SSHRC grant to study the impact of sexual orientation on hiring and promotion in gender-typed work.
Dr. Kara Arnold has won a SSHRC grant to study the impact of sexual orientation on hiring and promotion in gender-typed work.

“While I’ve done a lot of work on women and leadership and that aspect of diversity, I haven’t done research looking at sexual orientation as a basis for diversity so it’s a new area for me,” she said. “It’s definitely exciting to receive this grant, and it’s a nice validation that this area is an important area of research.”

Teacher-student collaboration

Dr. Arnold is a professor of organizational behaviour and human resource management at Memorial’s Faculty of Business Administration.

Dr. Heather Clarke, a recent graduate of Memorial’s PhD in management program who now works as an assistant professor of human resource management at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, is a collaborator on the project.

Dr. Clarke formed the initial idea for the project while a student in Dr. Arnold’s PhD course on gender and diversity in organizations. Dr. Clarke and Dr. Arnold then developed a research program titled Sexual Orientation and Gender-typed Work: An Integration of Role Congruity and Implicit Inversion Theories. The program led to multiple publications and conference presentations and allowed Dr. Arnold to mentor Dr. Clarke in preparation for her academic career.

“What we’re looking at is whether people’s perceptions of fit, and therefore their willingness to hire for specific jobs, change if we know an applicant’s sexual orientation. It’s more subtle than just not hiring someone because of their sexual orientation. We suspect that the willingness to hire will depend upon the perceived fit between the applicant and the job,” Dr. Arnold said.

Gender stereotypes

Gender-typed work includes those professions that have been held predominantly by one gender, which, over time, has led to the assumption that employees must possess specific character traits or behaviours associated with that gender in order to be successful in that profession.

Nursing and daycare, for example, have typically been female-dominated and are also associated with stereotypical feminine traits such as nurturing and helpfulness. Stereotypical male attributes such as ambition and strength may be associated with jobs in construction or management.

Previous studies have shown that candidates that don’t appear to fit these stereotypes may be negatively impacted in the workplace. Similarly, past research has shown that gender stereotypes of gay and lesbian individuals are often inverted, meaning that gay men may be perceived as stereotypical feminine and lesbian women as stereotypically masculine.

“We’re interested in looking explicitly at incorporating sexual orientation into the mix. It just hasn’t been done.” – Dr. Kara Arnold

Dr. Arnold’s and Dr. Clarke’s initial study in this area looked at whether gay, lesbian and heterosexual men and women held similar gender stereotypes.  Their subsequent SSHRC-funded studies will examine how knowledge of an individual’s sexual orientation affects perceived fit when rating the competence of others in gender-typed work.

“There’s been a lot of work done looking at how gender stereotypes influence how people evaluate the fit of men and women for specific jobs,” said Dr. Arnold.

“For example, if no information about competence is provided, research findings show that competence is inferred from whether you fit or don’t fit that gender-typed job based on your gender. We’re interested in looking explicitly at incorporating sexual orientation into the mix. It just hasn’t been done.”

Potential impact on workplace practices

The results could help employers, employees and organizations become more aware of how bias arising from the lack of fit with gender stereotypes affects hiring and rewards practices. Dr. Arnold says research on sexual orientation as a dimension of diversity within the workforce is relatively new in terms of the whole diversity literature.

“If decision-makers within organizations have these implicit biases and it influences these types of decisions, then that’s something important we should be paying attention to.” — Dr. Kara Arnold

“There’s a longer history of looking at men and women in organizations and the subtle differences there,” Dr. Arnold said.

“And yet we know from the work that’s been done that there’s a lot of bias and discrimination that people face. It may not be uniform — there are certain organizations that are leading in best practices in terms of diversity — but it’s a question of being aware of your implicit bias. If decision-makers within organizations have these implicit biases and it influences these types of decisions, then that’s something important we should be paying attention to.”

Significant SSHRC success

Dr. Arnold’s research focuses on gender issues in organizations, employee well-being and transformational leadership and has been published in a number of leading journals and presented at international conferences. She also consults and delivers management training to private and public sector organizations on leadership, team building and healthy work.

In 2016 she was successful in two other SSHRC competitions for which she is a co-investigator. The first, led by Dr. Eddy Ng at Dalhousie University and with Dr. Greg Sears at Carleton University, looks at employment equity and best practices for workplace diversity across multiple countries.

The second is a Partnership Development Grant from SSHRC and the Canadian Institute for Health Research focused on healthy and productive work and return to work for those with mental illnesses or those who have family members dealing with mental illnesses. The project looks at these issues through a gender lens and is led by Dr. Ivy Bourgeault at the University of Ottawa.


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