Even when women get ahead in certain professions, they can face new problems, according to an Academy of Management Journal article.
Sharon Koppman of the University of California, Irvine, was studying merit in advertising work when she first discerned that female advertising account managers frequently took on menial tasks, such as bringing snacks to men on the creative staff, to cultivate good will and get them to cooperate on projects. Coauthor Andrew C. Cohen of Yale University made a similar observation during his independent research.
“I saw it in the data and I wasn’t expecting it. Andrew also saw it and wasn’t expecting it,” Koppman recalled. “It was there, it was obvious, something that needed to be written about.”
Koppman and Cohen changed gears to focus their studies on women who take on roles—such as mother, wife, babysitter, and cheerleader—to keep male peers on their teams happy. With coauthor Beth A. Bechky of New York University, they detailed their findings in Academy of Management article “Overcoming Conflict Between Symmetric Occupations: How ‘Creatives’ and ‘Suits’ Use Gender Ordering in Advertising”.
“Women have made inroads in some higher-ranking and historically male-dominated occupations, increasing the prevalence of occupational conflict between cross-gender pairs. Our findings suggest that, for these women, enacting gender differences to manage occupational conflict with men is a double-edged sword: though it promotes cross-occupational cooperation in cross-gender pairs, it does so by importing the gender hierarchy, which gives an edge to men and their occupations. As a result, what appears to be inroads for women does not guarantee equal footing with the men,” the authors wrote.
In some ways, it’s a twist on the iconic television series Mad Men, which depicts, in part, the tension between the “creatives”—copywriters, artists, and designers—and the “suits”—accountants and account managers—in a Madison Avenue ad agency during the 1960s. “Except today, the suits are mostly women,” Koppman said.
Their findings have implications for other sectors in which women have entered previously male-dominated occupations in large numbers and where jobs at the same level are dominated by opposite genders. For example, in engineering firms, predominantly male engineers increasingly have their work managed and sold by female managers and sales representatives. In television production studios, mostly male directors and writers have their work produced and marketed by female producers and marketing professionals.
The 116 professionals at five advertising agencies over a 16-month span to see how the creatives and suits collaborated during the ad development process. About 70% of creatives were men; similarly, about 70% of suits were women.
“For instance, a woman account practitioner might ‘mother’ a male creative by bringing him his favourite snacks, which encourages him to comply with her request because he feels cared for and respected. This enables collaboration to accomplish advertising work, yet potentially disadvantages women and their occupations, as it involves women performing low-status, menial, or emotionally taxing work to support men’s occupations,” the authors wrote.
Their findings showed that despite great strides made by women in the workforce, challenges still abound, even in situations in which women and men are on equal professional footing.
“We think that when people are at the same level, women would not be doing subservient work. We found that it’s a common practice for women to take on scut [menial] work,” Koppman said.
In the study, Julia, an account executive, described how she elicited cooperation from Tim, a creative director, during a meeting in which he presented his concept directly to a client. The client responded: “Oh, I really hate this.” As Tim seethed and started to defend his vision, Julia stepped in to defuse the tension.
“She asked the client to explain herself, saying, ‘Well, what don’t you like? Is it too direct? Do we need to soften it?’ She then coaxed Tim back into the discussion by emphasising that the client did like a lot of what he had done,” the authors wrote.
Julia acknowledged her maternal mediation style: “Women make better [account] managers, especially in the agency world, because people can get their feelings hurt a lot, and women are more aware of how to deal with personality,” she said. “It’s a bit motherly. With a more caring attitude, they [women] just make better managers. Especially with creatives.”
Many male creatives said they preferred when female account managers served as buffers with clients, freeing them to focus on their work. David, a creative production manager, appreciated it when women shielded him from interacting with clients. “I don’t talk to the clients, ever,” he said. “It’s great.”
Katie, a senior account executive, nurtured her relationship with Ted, the creative director, by regularly bringing him chocolate milk. As a result, he routinely complied with her request for quick revisions. “If a creative likes you, he will not only request you onto his account, he will go out of his way [for you],” she said.
In short, deploying feminine roles and stereotypes were frequent strategies account managers used in getting the job done. Koppman noted that a leader at one advertising agency said that account managers who did not keep the creative staff happy and productive would soon be out of a job. She said such practices become engrained in organisations because the women who oppose them tend to move on to other workplaces.
“By using roles like mother, wife, and babysitter, female account practitioners protect creatives’ legitimacy and handle the client. Using roles like mother and cheerleader, female account practitioners nurture creatives’ individual achievements, providing support for these men in order to get them to revise their work. Additionally, owing to their experience with the ‘women are not funny’ stereotype, female account practitioners couch their intellectual contributions as counsel for male creatives to reach more conservative clients and consumers,” the authors wrote.
In addition to creating extra tasks for account managers, performing menial tasks could eventually erode the stature of their profession, the authors noted.
“If women find that managing occupational conflict with men requires scut work, as this study suggests, more women entering an occupation and managing conflict this way may, in the aggregate, contribute to the tendency for occupations to lose status when they become dominated by women,” . “If women are more likely than men to manage occupational conflict in this way, the deference associated with scut work may become attached to occupations through continual enactments, leading feminising occupations to lose status over the long term. Along similar lines, if gender enactments and scut work come to be seen as ‘part of the job’ in female dominated occupation, this may exacerbate gender segregation over the long term because it likely deters men from entering these occupations. Indeed, multiple women in senior account positions told us that although they tried to recruit more men as account practitioners, they had been unsuccessful because men were unlikely to apply.”
Performing menial work and emotional labor is likely to leave women less emotionally satisfied with their jobs and more likely to exit than men in similar roles. As gender shifts increase at the workplace, organizations need to be mindful of more subtle forms of discrimination.
“We sometimes get the sense that we have made more progress than we have,” Koppman said. “We have a lot of work to do.”