Why Isn’t Having More Women In Leadership Budging The Gender Wage Gap?

A recent study found that women in managerial roles haven’t broken down the wage barrier for their female employees.

Why Isn’t Having More Women In Leadership Budging The Gender Wage Gap?
[Photo: Flickr user Nestor Lacle]

We’ve covered a lot of ways to reduce the gender wage gap. Among them: implementing a policy where every employee knows what the entire staff earns, instituting diversity initiatives, and encouraging women to pursue leadership roles through mentoring and entrepreneurship.


It turns out that getting from 77¢ to $1 is a bit more complex than doling out prorated paychecks for every working woman. And achieving parity is about to get even less clear.

A recent study found that women in managerial roles haven’t broken down the wage barrier for their female employees. In a titled, “Agents of Change or Cogs in the Machine? Re-examining the Influence of Female Managers on the Gender Wage Gap,” University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business assistant professor Sameer Srivastava and doctoral student Eliot Sherman examined how salaries of both male and female employees changed when they switched from reporting to a male manager to reporting to a female manager.

The study’s authors first point out that previous research is contradictory. On the one hand, some studies indicated that as more women rose to managerial roles, their female staff would benefit in a variety of ways, including experiencing less discrimination and competition, and a more supportive work environment. On the other, reports of “queen bee” syndrome suggest that women who have risen through the male ranks tend to hold back other women from doing the same.

We told you it was complicated.

The study authors surveyed 1,701 full-time employees in the U.S. who worked for a leading firm in the information-services industry over the course of four years. Their average age was 43, and they’d worked an average of eight-plus years at the firm. Salary, reporting structure, and annual performance evaluations were all reviewed. Female managers made up 47% of the management level staff.

The results:

  • Relative to men who switched from working for a female manager to a male manager, women who made such a switch were predicted to earn 1.4% less.

  • Women who were working for female managers experienced a “slightly negative” impact on their salaries.

  • Low-performing women who experienced a switch from a male manager to a high-performing female manager had 30% lower salaries than low-performing men who experienced the same kind of switch.

  • Male employees reporting to female managers were predicted to earn approximately 5% less than male employees reporting to male managers.

“Taken together, these supplemental analyses revealed no support for the agents-of-change expectation, even in the divisions and hierarchical levels where it was most likely to be detected. They also provided preliminary and suggestive evidence of a cogs-in-the-machine effect among the subset of female managers who faced potential collective threat from women who reported to them,” the authors conclude.

Nancy Mellard, the national leader of professional-services firm CBIZ Women’s Advantage, tells Fast Company that the stats are disappointing but not surprising. “Women need to listen to what this study is saying,” she maintains. “I don’t see the findings as negative–it is a call to action.”

Mellard argues that women managers must start taking the tools they have been learning and internalizing, such as negotiating salary and standing up for a deserved promotion, and apply those to how they manage their teams.

In the meantime, other research indicates that men might be a woman’s secret weapon to win the war against wage and gender inequality. A study of Danish companies found that male CEOs were closing the wage gap after they became fathers to daughters–especially at small companies. Dad or not, other men “leaning in” on investors to stop the effect of unconscious bias are helping advance female entrepreneurship. Finally, a study from the University of Colorado last year found that the best people to promote racial and gender diversity in hiring are white men.

Mellard continues to emphasize the need for a strong female network. “Then we can get rid of the stereotype of only a few women managers getting ahead,” she says.


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.