Gender differences in social information processing at work
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Recently, women have made great strides in the workforce, yet, they remain largely underrepresented in top leadership positions. Gender differences in behavior are one of the explanations for this women’s leadership gap. In general, gender differences in behavior reflect a tendency for women to behave in more communal ways than men (e.g., nurturing, sensitive, friendly and caring) and, to a smaller extent, less agentic (e.g., dominant, ambitious, independent, and task-focused) ways than men (e.g., Carli, 1989). Although this strategy is good for encouraging collaboration and positive relationships among their coworkers, it does not necessarily display women’s ability to be a confident and powerful leader. In order to fully understand why these gender differences in behavior at work occur, it is important to understand the gender differences in the psychological processes that precede the behavior. In an effort to fill this gap, this study asked participants about their own interactions at work and utilized vignettes in order to examine gender differences in various social information processes, and the role they may play a role in the women’s leadership gap. The results suggested that stereotypical gender differences do exist in certain social information processes, but that these differences are dependent on the situation such that certain situations elicit stereotypical gender differences more than others. Specifically, a situation in which there was a conflict between behaving agentically and behaving communally but in which advancement opportunities were not directly addressed led to the most gender stereotypical social information processing. Namely, in this situation, women were less likely to set agentic goals, evaluated communal behaviors as more helpful for maintaining relationships, and were more likely to indicate that they would behave communally than men. Conversely, in a situation in which advancement opportunities were explicitly addressed, gender stereotypical social information processing was attenuated, and in fact, women tended to process the situation in a more agentic manner than men. Most notably, the one consistent finding across all situations was that men evaluated agentic behaviors as more helpful for maintaining relationships than women, and this gender difference mediated the relationship between gender and managerial level. This result provides initial evidence that gender differences in social information processing may play a role in the women’s leadership gap.