The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

January – June 2019

Gender traits in relation to work versus career salience

By Prof Madelyn Geldenhuys, Prof Anita Bosch, Shuaib Jeewa and Ioulia Koutris

  • June 2019
  • Tags Insights, Leadership
17 minutes to read

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Understanding gender traits to make the workplace more meaningful

This study used gender traits – that is masculinity, femininity and psychological androgyny (gender-flexible behaviour) – to find greater nuances in the importance of work roles versus career roles to individuals (where work has a short-term focus and career a long-term focus). Generally, self-reported sex is used to determine differences in role salience between men and women, as opposed to considering the gender traits people display.

Making a distinction between work-role and career-role salience, and their relationship with gender traits, is useful when considering workplace mentorship and career guidance, because gender traits may dictate choice of occupation and career outcomes. Even though workplace outcomes are different for men and women, studies are indicating fewer differences in work-role salience when considering sex – man or woman – than previously noted.

This study used gender traits – that is masculinity, femininity and psychological androgyny – to find greater nuances in the importance of work roles versus career roles to individuals

Some researchers have reported career-role salience differences using gender-role orientation, in line with the argument that gender roles, although socially ascribed to the sexes, can be randomly assumed by human beings, irrespective of their biological sex.

To gain a better understanding of gender traits in the world of work, this study set out to:

  • Determine whether work-role salience and career-role salience are distinct constructs, as this will help to improve theorising on role salience in work and career settings
  • Determine whether gender traits (masculinity, femininity and psychological androgyny), as measured by the revised Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI), can predict work-role and career-role salience rather than the use of biological sex as a variable
  • Confirm the adapted factor structure of the revised BSRI, and whether sex differences (man vs. woman) existed between the variables.

The modern work landscape

Work is focused on earning material or other benefits valued by the person doing the work. Modern forms of work may include project work or part-time work, both requiring delivery of prescribed tasks that are current and temporal in nature, where alternative contractual arrangements may be made to an employment contract. In South Africa, women take up the greater share of part-time or non-permanent work in comparison to men, and reasons provided for this phenomenon often centre on essentialising women’s care obligations resulting in the need for such flexibility.

In contrast, careers have a long-term focus. Women’s careers may be directed by their perception of the socially correct choices, which are largely based on socially ascribed feminine gender roles linked to care obligations.

In South Africa, women take up the greater share of part-time or non-permanent work in comparison to men, and reasons provided for this phenomenon often centre on essentialising women’s care obligations

Distinguishing between career-role salience and work-role salience

In this study, role salience refers to the idea that not all life roles are equally important to an individual. A salient role in an individual’s life takes greater importance, and explains the standards and prominence that individuals assign to a specific role.

Work salience usually refers to the importance of working, which emphasises the short-term aspect of work, while career salience refers to the importance of a ‘pattern of employment’, which emphasises the long-term aspect of work.

Assessing work-role salience in developmental career counselling is important, because it supports how individuals make career decisions. For example, individuals experiencing low work-role salience may need to become more aware of the importance of their work before they make decisions regarding their career. In addition, they should explore how work fits into their life. Career-role salience refers to individuals’ planning, progress and overall decision-making regarding their career across their lifespan. However, the terms work and career are often used interchangeably, without much concern for the difference. Individuals who identify with their careers have a profound and personal investment in their work role and desire to advance within an organisation, with this advancement often entailing a higher social standing and more power. Career-role salience refers to the importance of a career role for an individual in relation to other life roles, such as those related to family. It is socially assumed, and therefore potentially endorsed during career counselling and guidance, that women may not place such importance on their work role and, by extension, their career role, instead placing greater emphasis on the family role.

Career-role salience refers to the importance of a career role for an individual in relation to other life roles, such as those related to family.

Gender identity and gender traits

Gender identity, as the ‘master identity’, is informed by an individual’s sense of self in relation to social queues about gender. Being born a boy or a girl, and therefore classifying yourself as male or female when research data is collected, no longer satisfies explanations of gender differences. Instead, gender traits – being masculine, feminine or psychologically androgynous – provide a nuanced understanding of work and career decisions and outcomes. Psychological androgyny is regarded as the ability of people to be high on both masculinity and femininity.

Women may be primed from a young age to display feminine gender traits such as being caring, affectionate and gentle, while men are encouraged to display masculine gender traits such as assertiveness and dominance. Displaying gender traits, that is, masculine and feminine, could lead to roles such as work and career being more or less salient in the lives of people, irrespective of whether they were born a man or a woman. The roles of work and career are therefore assumed and relinquished, based on how people interpret social pressure to conform to gender expectations.

Understanding masculine and feminine gender traits enables us to consider the benefits of being able to enact both, resulting in psychological androgyny, which includes behavioural flexibility and adaptable behaviour as dictated by the situation. While women have displayed more masculine traits, they have not become less feminine as a result. Changes in gender flexibility are more pronounced in women than in men.

Being born a boy or a girl … no longer satisfies explanations of gender differences. Instead, gender traits – being masculine, feminine or psychologically androgynous – provide a nuanced understanding of work and career decisions and outcomes.

While we acknowledge that gender is both ‘multifaceted’ and ‘multidimensional’, gender traits can be measured by using the adapted Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI). The BSRI measures masculinity, femininity and a calculation for psychological androgyny.

Work is largely masculinised or feminised and therefore predominantly taken up by either men or women. Women and men who identify with being feminine, for example, showing care, submissive behaviour and focusing on precision so as not to take risks, prefer feminised work and occupations, such as teaching, domestic work, nursing and administration. Masculinised work, which also holds higher social status, is associated with men and women who identify with being masculine and is characterised by leading, managing, calculating and taking risks. A career therefore manifests as a pattern of work in either a masculinised or feminised occupation.

 How was the research conducted?

The data was collected by distributing a survey to organisations in South Africa. In total, 395 completed questionnaires (79% response rate) were received from a targeted group of 500 employees. Three measurement instruments were used: the Work Salience Questionnaire of Allen and Ortlepp, the Career Salience Questionnaire of Allen and Ortlepp, and the adapted Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI) of Sandra Bem, adapted by Geldenhuys and Bosch.

Psychological androgyny is regarded as the ability of people to be high on both masculinity and femininity.

What did the study find?

Among others, the study found the following:

  • In the South African context, work-role salience and career-role salience measure different phenomena, confirming that these are two separate constructs, as postulated by Allen and Ortlepp.
  • We expected that men and women would attach different levels of importance to work roles and career roles, with men positively associated with masculinity, women positively associated with femininity, and women being more psychologically androgynous than men. The results indicated that women are more feminine than men, and that women are more psychologically androgynous than men. No statistically significant differences between men and women with respect to masculinity, work-role salience and career-role salience were found. Hence, there are no differences between men and women in terms of the importance they attach to work roles and career roles or how masculine they were.
  • The results show that masculinity increases career-role salience. Masculinity and psychological androgyny increase work-role salience, while femininity decreases work-role salience. Work-role salience predicts career-role salience. In addition, masculinity indirectly affects career-role salience with a partial mediation through work-role salience.
  • The factor structure of the adapted BSRI was confirmed.

Psychological androgyny is regarded as the ability of people to be high on both masculinity and femininity.

Discussion

The study empirically distinguished between work-role salience and career-role salience as separate constructs, while confirming the factor structure of the revised BSRI. Additionally, as work and careers are less influenced by sex (i.e. man or woman) in current times, but rather by gender traits, that is, masculinity and femininity, we have determined the effect of gender traits on work-role and career-role salience. We make another important contribution by determining that psychological androgyny, or gender-flexible behaviour, creates salience in a person’s work role. The study also supports the notion that women at work are more gender-adaptable than men. This has important implications for the career development of women specifically.

Sex differences in the experience of role salience

While we could not confirm that men are more masculine than women, the women in this study were significantly more feminine and more psychologically androgynous than the men. Because of societal and cultural expectations placed on men and women, women are displaying more feminine behaviours such as caring and being compassionate and understanding. Yet, the work environment is seeing a shift in women’s display of gender, where masculine traits are rewarded. Although women’s display of masculinity has increased, as confirmed by this study, we show that they have not rejected feminine traits and ‘have not discarded their womanhood’.

… gender roles, although socially ascribed to the sexes, can be randomly assumed by human beings, irrespective of their biological sex

Family responsibilities also play a role, as women are both working and taking care of their households, while men still focus mainly on their careers. These shifts for women have resulted in greater gender flexibility on the part of women. Our analysis of the traditional focus on differences between men and women shows that work-role and career-role salience are less affected by sex and that gender traits, as operationalised by the BSRI, provide greater nuance in the interpretation of the importance that people place on work and career roles. Men and women (sex) do not experience work-role and career-role salience differently.

Feminine versus masculine gender traits

Socially ascribed gender roles have become entrenched in how men and women function in society and at work. Women are often viewed as more feminine and often occupy competing roles outside of work. The results confirmed that work-role salience predicts career-role salience meaning that people who place importance on their work-role are likely to place importance on the career-role too. Masculinity increases career-role salience, while masculinity and psychological androgyny increase work-role salience. Femininity decreases work-role salience. Consistent with the literature, people displaying masculine gender traits attach importance to work or career roles, while people displaying feminine gender traits place work and career secondary to other roles. In this study, women typically demonstrated more adaptability or psychological androgyny than men. Women today portray more masculine traits, which supports the idea that psychological androgyny can counter the negative work salience effects of femininity and allow people to become less sex-typed at work. Increased psychological androgyny enables people to experience more salience in their work role.

In addition, some researchers believe that psychological androgyny may depend on a person’s situation. It is often the case that women compromise their careers in order to comply with societally imposed behavioural norms and may not want to threaten masculinity at work. Other researchers have indicated that, for women, ‘respectable femininity’ is encouraged to advance in their careers.

… women at work are more gender-adaptable than men.

In essence, this study showed that gender traits may be a better predictor of differences in the importance attached to work roles and career roles than biological sex.

  • Find the original journal article here: Geldenhuys, M., Bosch, A., Jeewa, S., & Koutris, I. (2019). Gender traits in relation to work versus career salience. SA Journal of Industrial Psychology, 45(0), a1588. https://doi.org/10.4102/ sajip.v45i0.1588
  • Prof Anita Bosch holds the USB Research Chair: Women at Work, and also lectures in Organisational Behaviour and Leadership at the University of Stellenbosch Business School.
  • Prof Madelyn Geldenhuys is from the Department of Industrial Psychology and People Management, College of Business and Economics, University of Johannesburg.
  • Shuaib Jeewa is from the Department of Industrial Psychology and People Management, College of Business and Economics, University of Johannesburg.
  • Ioulia Koutris is from the Department of Industrial Psychology and People Management, College of Business and Economics, University of Johannesburg.

Although women’s display of masculinity has increased, as confirmed by this study, we show that they have not rejected feminine traits and ‘have not discarded their womanhood’.

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