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New Marshall Research Inspects Differing Impacts of Perceived Gender Discrimination on Women and Men

New Marshall Research Inspects Differing Impacts of Perceived Gender Discrimination on Women and Men

The latest from Leigh Tost and co-authors suggests new theories about a multi-faceted threat to productive workplace engagement.


Leigh Tost
Associate Professor of Management and Organization Leigh Tost.

A lot of research has been done on the negative consequences of perceived gender discrimination in the workplace, both for the individuals experiencing it and the organizations in which it happens. But relatively little research has successfully explained perceived gender discrimination and its effects in a way that can lead to improving the workplace for everyone.

USC Marshall Professor Leigh Tost’s latest research bridges that gap. Tost, with co-authors Ashley E. Hardin, Jacob W. Roberson and Francesca Gino, published “Different Roots, Different Fruits: Gender-Based Differences in Cultural Narratives About Perceived Discrimination Produce Divergent Psychological Consequences” in the Academy of Management Journal.

Gender discrimination is not a single thing, Tost says, because it can be experienced in different ways. So she and her co-authors asked: Is there a way to theorize about its consequences given that it is so multi-faceted?

“We think the best way to think about discrimination is as a narrative,” Tost says. “It’s a story people tell themselves about their experiences and/or the experiences of people like them. When we understand perceived gender discrimination as a story people use to make sense of their perceived experiences, then we can start to make sense of a lot of the muddled and confusing previous findings on the consequences of gender discrimination.”

Tost, who studies the psychological and sociological dynamics of hierarchy and diversity in organizations, notes that her latest research specifically looked at “perceived” gender discrimination. “We did not look at, nor did we theorize about, the consequences of actually being treated differently based on gender. We focused on the consequences of perceiving, or thinking, that you were treated differently based on gender.”

Among the study’s most important findings was that perceived workplace gender discrimination: “reduces self-efficacy among women but not among men” and “reduces both men and women’s sense of belonging in the workplace.”

“Self-efficacy” can be understood as confidence in our own abilities with respect to work tasks; and “belonging” is the sense that you are a valued member of the workplace community.

For women, perceived gender discrimination reduced both feelings of self-efficacy and feelings of belonging. “This makes sense,” Tost says, “because our research showed that the stories that women tell about gender discrimination focus, at least in part, on patriarchal assumptions about women’s lack of competence and suitability for the workplace and for leadership. The implications of these narratives are challenging to women’s sense of competence and belongingness.”

In contrast, Tost explains, the narrative that men tell about perceived workplace discrimination against men has to do mostly with organizational efforts to correct for historical injustices against women.

“For example, we might hear stories like ‘I missed out on a promotion because top management wanted to promote a woman instead due to affirmative action.’ In this view, the perceptions of gender discrimination don’t impinge at all on the men’s abilities. Instead, the stories are about wanting to promote women for reasons entirely separate from skill or ability.”

Consequently, the researchers found that perceived gender discrimination only affected belonging for men—but not their sense of self-efficacy. 

The researchers further argued that “these effects contribute to a reduction of well-being among members of both genders, with the negative effect on well-being being more pronounced among women than among men.”

“The effect is larger for women because it is driven by two factors—both self-efficacy and belonging—rather than just one, belonging, for men,” Tost explains.

What are the takeaways for organizations seeking to reduce the negative consequences of perceived gender discrimination?

While more research is needed, Tost can make a preliminary recommendation. “The effects of perceptions of gender discrimination depend on the stories people tell themselves to make sense of these judgments. If leaders want to understand the nature, extent, causes and consequences of gender discrimination in their organizations, they need to understand these narratives.

“Talk to employees. Do interviews. Collect qualitative, not just quantitative, data. If you understand people’s stories, you’re in a much better position to intervene to improve conditions for everyone.”