Monday, August 23, 2021

One of Us: How Women’s Inclusion Hurts Women

Have you heard stories or seen TV shows about how surgeons are the bossiest of doctors, ruling operating theatres like emperors, except that everything they do is more urgent than any imperial demands? That’s an exaggerated stereotype, but some surgeons fit it, and some forms of surgery are so exacting in process and speed that surgeons cannot tolerate slack. Many surgeons get away with bossiness because their work requires it—and because doctors are at the peak of the hospital pecking order and surgeons at the peak of the doctor pecking order. Everyone looks up to them.

Except that surgeons who are women are a little less looked up to than surgeons who are men. The usual mechanisms are at work, such as men (and some women) thinking of surgery as an activity that fits manly men better (so much cutting and bleeding...) and women generally having difficulty getting accepted in the top tiers of any occupation that has traditionally been held by men. But research by M. TeresaCardador, Patrick L. Hill, and Arghavan Salles published in Administrative Science Quarterly has found another source of difficulty: nurses.

Why are interactions with nurses problematic for female surgeons? Ironically, the source of the problem is that most nurses are women, and they interact differently with other women than with men. Nurses tend to act according to the script when the surgeon is a man: he orders, they obey. He does not need to chat or be friendly to get precise and timely work done, so the only benefit of being a friendly male surgeon is that he is seen as a nice guy. The same tends to be true when male nurses interact with female surgeons: they act according to the script.

But female nurses want – even demand – to include a female surgeon in the club of womanhood, where friendly chatting is required, members must know each other’s children’s names and ages, and work is rarely done exactly according to script. “After all,” they may think, “the female surgeon is one of us. That means she should also share some of the burden of the nursing tasks in addition to her work as a surgeon. That’s only fair. If she does not accept our requirements for inclusion and instead acts bossy, we can slow down our responses to her needs and make her job more difficult.” This is what precisely happened in the hospital the authors studied.

The result is extra work for the female surgeon and the loss of some of the special position that a surgeon has in the hospital pecking order. Maybe that’s OK because hospitals are too status conscious and hierarchical to begin with. But the problem is that only women surgeons face these demands for inclusion and the extra work accompanying it. It is discrimination against women, by women.

Is this something that women who are not surgeons should worry about? It probably is. What happens in the hospital is that different occupations interact to produce a result, and the higher-status occupation depends on the lower-status occupation for its success. That should sound familiar to many workplaces: higher-status workers are expensive, so organizations become effective by leveraging them through having lower-status workers do supportive tasks. If the supportive tasks are done differently depending on the sex of the lower-status and higher-status workers, this is an important source of workplace discrimination we need to better understand.

Cardador, M. Teresa, Patrick L. Hill, and Arghavan Salles. 2021. Unpacking the Status-Leveling Burden for Women in Male-Dominated Occupations. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.

Monday, August 16, 2021

How Smart are Strategists? Looking at Others to Find Your Own Failure

Both in research and in practical life we understand why innovations spread gradually, and why firms copy each other. Whenever an innovation is introduced, it could be good or bad, and this uncertainty makes managers hesitant to adopt the innovation until they have seen that others use it and benefit from it. There are many successful innovations in this world, but also many failures.

What about managers assessing the success or failure of their current strategy? That sounds like a much simpler problem because they know the market share, the revenue, the profit – everything they need to know in order to decide whether to stay with the strategy or adopt it. But, in research I published in Administrative Science Quarterly long time ago, I found that it is not quite that easy. Even when assessing their current strategy, managers copy each other, except in that case they are copying abandonments, not adoptions. If you had the same strategy as me and you abandoned it, I might just decide that mine is not good enough either.

How does this even begin to make sense? They have all the information they need, one may think, and do not need to look at each other. But social influence is so powerful that people copy all sorts of things (as anyone who follows fashion in clothes will know), and managers do the same when making decisions that affect the profit of their firms.

There is in fact a justification for copying abandonment. A strategy should not just be assessed based on how good it is right now, but also on how good it will be in the future. If other firms abandon because they think it is failing, then using that information is smart strategizing. Of course, it is unclear whether managers copy abandonment because of sheer social influence or because they are letting other assess the future.

I did research on how radio stations changed their format (what kind of music and other content they broadcast). To understand what was happening, I also interviewed program directors, who make the decisions, and announcers, who actually create the programs. Interestingly, many of them thought that abandoning an old format was a smart thing in general, because its market share was gradually decreasing, but they also named specific radio stations that had abandoned too soon, and without having a good alternative ready. So what managers is a mixture of social influence and smart strategizing.

This research was done a while ago, but the conclusion has become a theme in much of the research I do on managerial decision making. The smartest story of why they make decisions is not true. The dumbest story is not true either. All decision making is a mix of different influences, and managers are simply trying to balance different considerations to end up with decision that makes sense.

Greve HR. 1995. Jumping ship: The diffusion of strategy abandonment. Administrative Science Quarterly 40(September): 444-473.