A new study based on male teacher reactions to female principals — based on 40 years of data — sheds light on continued biases against female leaders in all industries and sectors.
The dearth of female leaders in industry, despite the stated intentions of most companies and organizations to encourage diversity and promote women, is well documented. Past studies in this field have focused in large part on the actions and biases of (mostly male) leaders, or on the career choices of women (e.g., fewer women training for jobs in male-dominated industries).
A new study examines whether male subordinates might be contributing to the problem, specifically by leaving their jobs when female bosses are appointed. The study uses 40 years of data on teachers and principals in New York state school districts to determine 1) whether male teachers transfer to other schools or leave the district altogether when female principals are appointed; and, if so, 2) why males teachers prefer male principals.
Measuring teacher turnover under male and female principals — and controlling for other factors related to differences in the characteristics of the schools, principals or the teachers themselves — the research offered consistent evidence that male teachers preferred male principals:
The research explored the factors that might cause male teachers to avoid working for female principals. The research showed that:
There is no specific data on teacher biases in the records kept by New York. However, previous research on diversity and biases offers some clues. In earlier studies, researchers found that the higher the rate of female employees in a business or an industry, the lower the level of male bias against female leaders. In addition, attitudes against female leaders evolved over time.
Thus, if bias played a role in sparking male teachers to leave, the data would show 1) a decrease in departures over time, and 2) a lower attrition rate in schools where female teachers represent a larger percentage of the workforce.
The data in the research showed that in schools with a higher rate of female teachers, male teachers were less likely to request transfers or leave the district. The data also showed that over time, with all other variables held constant, male teachers were less likely to leave. Thus, using both these measures — rate of female teachers in a school and time period — the research confirmed that biases against female leaders caused male teachers to leave schools with female principals.
This research offers key lessons for diversity efforts in all industries. The female share of the workforce is much higher in primary and secondary education than in most industries—and previous research has shown the rate of female employees in an industry impacts the acceptance of female leaders by male employees. As a result, the reticence of male employees to accept female bosses will be significantly more pronounced in other industries and professional sectors. To be blunt, if male teachers are biased, male factory workers or engineers will be even more biased.
Time has tempered some of the bias against women leaders, although the lack of women in leadership roles at major companies indicates that hurdles remain. Companies have focused on creating professional development and promotion opportunities for women, and offering diversity training to male leaders. As this research indicates, companies must pay equal attention to diversity training and other effort for male subordinates, many of who will be unhappy working for a female boss. If dissatisfaction of male subordinates is unchecked, the success of women in leadership roles, and the business units and organizations they lead, will be undermined.
Do Male Workers Prefer Male Leaders? An Analysis of Principals’ Effects on Teacher and Retention. Aliza N. Husain, David A. Matsa & Amalia R. Miller. NBER Working Paper 25263 (November 2018).
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