Work Pressures on Women Managers

– Rosalyn McCarthy

In the early 1990s I undertook research to examine perceptions of work pressures and coping strategies among women managers. The major question addressed was whether cognitive style and sex-role attitudes would act as mediators between the pressures faced and the type of coping behaviour adopted.

Three very different groups of women were used in the sample. Firstly engineering managers were chosen as an example of a job area where women are still a minority (an Engineering Industry Training Board study in 1990 identified that only 6% of engineering managers in the UK were women). Women personnel managers were included as a contrast in that this is an area where historically women have been well represented (61.5% of IPM members were female in 1993). Finally, secretaries were selected because this job area has always been female dominated, and because most of the current literature focuses on managers rather than those at lower levels.

The KAI scores of the three groups were completely in accordance with the theory in that the more cultural boundaries which have to be crossed in entering a particular occupation the more innovative an individual’s cognitive style is likely to be.Women engineering managers who have crossed two boundaries by entering management and a male dominated area were not only more innovative than their own sex in the general population, but also in relation to their male counterparts. In contrast, there was a similar gap between the innovative style of women personnel managers and females in the general population, but these managers were similar in style to their male counterparts in that they have crossed the managerial occupational boundary, but are still working in an area where women are expected to be. Secretaries, however, as expected were very similar to women in the general population because they are in a job which both interns of status and content is consistent with expectations for most female occupations.

One expectation was that whilst the innovative cognitive style of the women engineers might be an asset to them in breaking the mould in terms of occupational choice, it might not be so useful when it came to surviving in what has been shown to be (for some engineering functions) an adaptive and male environment. However, there was no significant difference between Adaptors and Innovators in the number of pressures reported. As found in other KAI research the experience of pressure appears to be related more to ‘cognitive fit’ or the micro working environment of the individual. The existence of a ‘cognitive gap'(i.e. more than one standard deviation) between a woman and a close working colleague led to this group reporting a higher number of pressures overall than those who had good cognitive fit. this raises the intriguing question of whether such style issues are more crucial than minority status(even when that status is irrevocable as with gender or racial groups) in the process of assimilation. If you are on the same wavelength as your colleague perhaps you are less likely to notice other differences.

When choice of coping behaviour was examined, both Adaptors and Innovators appear to indulge in ‘wishful thinking’ such as hoping a miracle will happen to get out of the sticky situation, and this is in accordance with other research in stress which suggests that the work situation may not be so amenable to problem oriented coping due to lack of direct control.

However, Adaptors are more likely than Innovators to adopt ‘avoidance’ strategies such as concentrating on the immediate next step.

This is again in accordance with KAI theory, in that this behaviour could be considered to be ‘within paradigm’ coping addressing the problem within its existing framework rather than questioning the surrounding structure and generating a more radical solution which we might expect of Innovators.

The implications of this research (and other studies on stress and coping) impact on the practical actions which companies take to manage diversity in the workplace. Whilst the psychologists highlight some crucial issues on the subject of minority and majority groups, these ideas do not seem to be filtering through to management thinking as the solutions implemented are often very superficial and short term. The onus seems to be on researchers to present their findings to expand existing theory, and to do so in a way which help practitioners to incorporate current thinking in their business plans.

Rosalyn McCarthy, Balance Consulting.

Originally published in KAI News 1994.