Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
March 7, 1997

Retention, not just promotion, important in workplace gender equity, research shows

Like many talented youngsters growing up in the suburbs of New York City, Jill Kern considered an acting career. She joined the First All Children's Theater, a children's repertory theater company in the city. Today, she watches many of her friends from the group on television, even in movies, but Kern has landed her starring role in the classroom.

"Teaching and research can be great outlets for creativity," Kern said. "That is one of the reasons why I decided to pursue an academic career."

Kern teaches "Individual Behavior in Organizations" and "Diverse Identities at Work." Multiculturalism is a theme in the first course and the focus of the second.

One of her teaching philosophies is that in order for students to understand why people behave as they do in organizations, they first must gain insight into what motivates their own actions. From the first day of class, Kern encourages students to reflect on their behavior. To break the ice and help students learn about stereotypes, Kern asks them to find others in the room with certain characteristics, such as fluency in a language other than English, inability to drive a stick shift, or a religious background other than Christianity.

Kern's interest in multiculturalism also fuels her research.

Most recently, she has been developing a theory of gender relations in organizations.

"I think we need to define gender as an unequal power relationship," she said, "because it is the definition most likely to make people uncomfortable and, therefore, most likely to bring about social change."

Using this definition, she conducted two studies looking at lawyers on the partnership track at 10 of New York City's male-dominated, top law firms.

The first study revealed that most men believed merit alone affected advancement, while most women believed that gender and merit determined promotion.

The second revealed that some women were quite comfortable working in male-dominated environments, while some men weren't. What distinguished those who were comfortable from those who weren't was their gender ideology, she said.

"I define gender ideology as a continuum ranging from gender blind to gender cognizant," Kern said. People who are gender blind believe that gender does not and should not count in their firm. Those who are gender cognizant believe that gender does count in ways it shouldn't in the firm and shouldn't count in ways it does.

The gender blind attorneys believed, for instance, that men and women had an equal chance for success in their firms and that the firms should accommodate clients who are willing to work only with male lawyers, Kern said. The gender cognizant lawyers believed that men have an unfair advantage in promotions and that one criterion the firm should consider when evaluating whom to promote to partner is attaining gender balance in the partnership.

In the second study, Kern found that the gender blind attorneys anticipated staying longer at the firm than the gender cognizant attorneys. Since significantly more men than women are gender blind, the finding suggests that more men than women will stay at the firm long enough to be considered for promotion to partner.

The pool of potential partners will, therefore, continue to be made up mostly of men, Kern said. The finding also suggests that those most likely to leave are those inclined to believe that their firms need to change to create a more level playing field between men and women. Thus, the pool of potential partners will largely be limited to men and women who oppose changing the firm's traditional practices.

"The research suggests that simply hiring more women and promoting them to top positions, though necessary, isn't enough," Kern said. "If an organization is truly committed to multiculturalism and social change, it needs to retain and promote to senior positions women (and men) who support the idea that changes should be made to create greater equality between men and women."

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