The importance of female role models who go against gender stereotypes

Despite a “grand convergence” in the gender pay gap over the last 30 years, men continue to out-earn women.

In the US, the gender pay gap amounts to roughly 18%. Part of the reason for this gap is the greater representation of men in highly lucrative and competitive career fields, STEM being a well-known example.

Numerous reasons have been suggested to explain why women choose to enter these occupations at a lower rate than men. It might be because of personal preferences, or biases against women taking positions in these industries.

It is also possible that a lack of female role models in professions that are currently heavily male-dominated discourages women from considering them as career options. Previous research has already identified a link between women’s career choices and the influence of successful female figures in stereotypically “masculine” occupations.

A study published in 2007 found that if the percentage of female faculty in the science and engineering departments of US universities increased, the number of female majors in physical sciences, engineering, and biological sciences also rose.

As US astronaut Sally Ride told Harvard Business Review ten years ago, “Young girls need to see role models in whatever careers they may choose, just so they can picture themselves doing those jobs someday. You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Indeed, with my fellow researchers – Mengqiao Du from University of Mannheim, Business School and Vidhi Chhaochharia from the University of Miami – I discovered that in the US as a whole, over the last 60 years, female role models who did not conform to gender stereotypes became more popular than those who did. Furthermore, we observed that the gender pay gap is smaller in US states where counter-stereotypical female role models are more popular.

We propose a reason for this is that admiration for such figures is associated with women making several occupational, educational, and fertility choices that improve their earning potential.

Among these decisions, women are more likely to pursue degrees in higher education, wait until later in life to have their first child, enter into more lucrative fields like STEM, and ascend the corporate ladder into more senior positions, for example as managers.

This might be in part because counter-stereotypical female role models help to moderate the involvement of traditional gender norms in restricting women’s career choices. Gender norms are commonly held beliefs in a society, and influence individuals’ views on gender roles.

The widespread nature of norms makes it unsurprising that they factor in to women’s and men’s career and lifestyle choices. For instance, highly lucrative and competitive industries are often stereotyped as masculine. Consider the trope that nurses are female and doctors are male.

In order to understand any potential influence counter-stereotypical female role models have on the gender pay gap, my colleagues and I compared data from 46 cross-sectional Gallup surveys with labour market information taken from the Current Population Survey.

Based in the US, the Gallup surveys measure public opinion towards various social, political, and economic issues, all the way back to 1941. We looked at responses gathered between 1951-2014 to the question, “What woman have you heard or read about, living today in any part of the world, do you admire the most?”

From the responses, we gathered a list of 247 female figures, who we then categorised according to their primary occupations. We then compared this information against responses to questions about gender roles in the General Social Survey, which gave us an understanding of gender norms in each US state, and data on women’s labour market outcomes in the Current Population Survey. Combining these data, we were able to determine a list of occupations that conformed to gender stereotypes, and those that didn’t.

We identify counter-stereotypical female role models as women who worked as politicians, writers and journalists, businesswomen, astronauts, scientists, athletes, or activists. In contrast, stereotypical female role models were famous wives, mothers, daughters, friends or other family members, nurses, religious persons, or entertainment figures.

We found that admiration for counter-stereotypical female role models reduces the gender gap in the probability of becoming a manager by 12.4 percent, and that women who said they admired female figures in typically male roles and industries had an increased chance of becoming an executive. They also were also more likely to be in full-time employment and to have received a higher level of education.

This could signify one of two things: either counter-stereotypical female role models are a driving force for change, or they are, for the most part, the products of US states that already take a more relaxed view of gender norms. Contrary to this latter theory, we observed that 53.5 percent of the counter-stereotypical female role models identified in the Gallup surveys came from states that held more conservative views about gender.

The 46.5 percent remainder came from states with more liberal norms, indicating that counter-stereotypical female role models do not simply emerge from more liberal states, but they are agents of change who impact on how people view traditional gender roles.

Public admiration for women in male-dominated industries has changed markedly over time. We observed the key turning point came in the 1980s, when counter-stereotypical female role models became more popular than those who conformed to traditional gender norms.

From 1950-2014, the percentage of respondents to the Gallup surveys who identified counter-stereotypical female role models as admirable rose from 20 percent to 50 percent. In that same time period, admiration for stereotypical female role models plummeted from 80 percent to 30 percent.

Naturally, the prevalence of counter-stereotypical female role models in the US varies throughout time and geography to a much greater extent than gender norms. Nevertheless, the influence they have on women’s labour market outcomes can be viewed as a starting point for change in people’s views on traditional gender roles.

It is possible that, in time, enough women will be inspired to enter male-dominated professions such as politics and STEM, and female role models who work in those fields will cease to be counter-stereotypical, but will instead reflect a new set of norms.

Professor Dr. Alexandra Niessen-Ruenzi, holder of the Chair of Corporate Governance at the University of Mannheim, Business School.