Tension at the Top: Why Women at the Executive Level May Not Welcome Other Women to the Club

Topic: Evidence-Based Management, Teams
Publication: Organizational Behavior & Human Decision Processes (SEP 2011)
Article: Female Tokens in High-Prestige Work Groups: Catalysts or Inhibitors of Group Diversification?
Authors: Duguid, M.
Reviewed By: Thaddeus Rada

Workplace diversity is a goal that many (and hopefully most or all) organizations aspire to. In recent years, there has been an increased emphasis on incorporating previously underrepresented groups, and especially women, into high-prestige work groups at the highest levels of the organization. Among the many benefits that might come from the addition of women to high-prestige groups, it is commonly believed that other women may be inspired by the level of authority and success that women in elite positions have achieved. However, a new paper by Michelle Duguid challenges this logic, suggesting that this “inspirational” role is one that women may embrace with some reservations.

Duguid conducted three studies to examine various ways in which women, as minority members in high-prestige work groups (i.e. “female tokens”), may, at times, be unsupportive of the efforts of other women to join a high-prestige group. More specifically, Duguid explained that two types of value threat may lead to women resisting the inclusion of other women in elite work groups. The first type of value threat, competitive threat, may occur when another highly-qualified female candidate is being considered for a high-level position. In this situation, the incumbent female may feel threatened by the possible addition of another woman in the high-level group. The second type of value threat is collective threat, which may occur when a moderately-qualified female candidate is being considered. In this situation, the incumbent female may be concerned that the applicant will be a poor performer, and hence perpetuate negative stereotypes about women, perhaps making salient the fact that the incumbent herself is a woman.

The results of Duguid’s studies suggest that organizations would be wise to consider the feelings that incumbent women may have about the addition of other women to high-prestige groups. While the fact that women may have negative reactions to other female applicants should not discourage organizations from adding qualified women to high-prestige work groups, it seems advantageous for organizations to consider the dynamics of the group and the feelings of current female incumbents when considering such additions.

Duguid, M. (2011). Female tokens in high-prestige work groups: Catalysts or inhibitors of group diversification? Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 116, 104-115.

human resource management,organizational industrial psychology, organizational management