Utilizing Gender Pay Issues to Inform HR Policies

Beth Livingston Examines Gender Roles and Their Impact on the field of HR

Beth Livingston, HRS Assistant Professor at Cornell University, studies gender roles and their impact on employer relationships. She is currently expanding work on a CAHRS grant, out of which was published an article in 2008. In 2011, Livingston started expanding on the paper, looking at sexist attitudes about women in workplace. “I’ve found that men with more sexist mindsets make more money than women, whereas men with egalitarian attitudes don’t show a gender-wage gap,” she explains.

As a human resource expert, Livingston wants to know what this means for employers and employees. “Why the wage gap?” asks Livingston. “Do individuals with different sexist attitudes negotiate differently? Is it discrimination? What is happening? Understanding interpersonal issues can help us take the next steps in terms of what to do about the wage gap,” she points out.

For instance, Livingston’s CAHRS research centers around employer/employee relationships. Each person’s role orientation was identified, and then each person was put in a mock interview situation, where one person played the part of the boss, and one person played the role of the employee. “We wanted to see if these people focused on different things during the interview based on their gender attitude,” explains Livingston, such as being more or less assertive. “Is a male with more egalitarianism focused more on salary? Or if someone gets paid less do they negotiate for more flexibility?” Initially, the results of the survey indicated a difference in how people negotiate. The thought is that traditional men are less likely to have flex time than egalitarian men.

The second step to the research included a National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY79)  The final part of the grant – in progress as this article goes to press — involves MILRs and undergraduates getting jobs right now. “We started off by determining their gender attitudes and then looked at their first job offers,” she explains. “How do they negotiate, and for what sorts of things? Did they get flex time? Did they ask for it?

“Even controlling for types of job, we have already found differences in wages in our 2008 research on gender-role attitudes,,” Livingston states.  As every company knows, rewards can be seen as more appealing than salary. One example would be a total package of rewards that includes all those things.”

“We intend to look at the data with a finer analysis. Some men value family – and this type of personality adds a nuance to gender distribution particularly in regards to work and family,” says Livingston. “Women may get paid less but they’re not dissatisfied by what they’re getting paid. Not all women and men have the same family values,” she explains. The research project will wrap up with a paper estimated to be completed by summer of 2013.

What’s Next?

Livingston is currently working with two PhD students on gender and how it relates to work and family. She’s interested in looking at employees holistically. “In order to understand how to look at rewards, you have to look at the total picture. I’ll be examining couples and how their interaction affects work decisions – particularly as they relate to ex-patriot positions,” she explains.

Livingston is looking to analyze how organizations address their employees’ work. It can be easy to talk about policy but more broadly, how do employees experience this in terms of their partners?

Moreover, Livingston is looking at negative attributions such as “how organizations can reduce blame and provide resources with the possibility of avoiding negative attributions.” For instance, every employee will, at some point, experience negative work and family spillover—but who do they blame for it? Who is perceived to have caused the conflict? How individuals perceive these interactions and how they attribute blame for them might also help us understand how organizations can manage this inevitability.

The Power of Words

Livingston is also pursuing the stereotype of women as catty, and is working on an article about the label of conflict as catty. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandburg – whose Leaning In spurred a debate about the privilege of having a career and family — commented on the book, saying, “Everyone loves a fight — and they really love a catfight,” she writes. “The media will report endlessly about women attacking other women, which distracts from the real issues. When arguments turn into ‘she said/she said,’ we all lose.”

“When men debate, it can be heated and filled with conflict. But when women have the same types of debates, it becomes a label,” points out Livingston. We examine the effects of how people are perceived as a result, she says. And above and beyond the “catty” label, she’s looking to prove how careful we need to be about words and also about how conflict is perceived. “Ideally, more information about this topic can reduce incivility and bullying and how is it perceived in the workplace,” she states.

In the end, Livingston points out, how can we fundamentally judge and see people if we don’t understand the psychology behind the behavior? “Policies can be put in place, but that’s not proactive. We’d like to get to the point where managers will have tools to learn to perceive but not label conflict,” she states.

Talk with Beth Livingston about any of her current projects – or to get involved in a future gender-role research endeavor.