On some level, it makes sense to think that a woman who’s struggling professionally would benefit from working for a high-powered female boss, since the manager might serve as a role model and motivate the employee to succeed.
However, new research suggests that pairing a low-performing woman with a high-performing female boss could potentially create bigger problems.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, found that low-performing women who switched from a male supervisor to a high-performing female supervisor earned substantially less than men who made a similar shift.
The researchers can’t say exactly why that happened, but one possible reason is that high-performing female bosses may feel threatened by their low-performing female subordinates and worry that they themselves will be evaluated negatively through association with the struggling employees. So they might be hesitant to support the employees, and might even actively denigrate them.
The study looked at about 1,700 full-time employees who worked for an information services firm in the US from 2005 to 2009. The researchers had access to company data including performance evaluations and salary records. Throughout the observation period, about half of the employees changed managers at least once, and the researchers focused specifically on employees who switched to working for a manager of a different gender.
Results showed that low-performing women who switched from a male manager to a high-performing female manager had 30% lower salaries than low-performing men who made the same kind of switch.
The researchers acknowledge that the female managers might not necessarily have been responsible for the entire 30% decrease. Yet the findings are consistent with theories of “collective threat” among women, or the idea that successful women managers are afraid their female employees’ subpar performance will reflect poorly on them.
“A high-performing woman might, for example, worry about being devalued because of her association with a low-performing female subordinate,” study coauthor Sameer B. Srivastava, Ph.D. said in a release. “This might lead her to undervalue the subordinate’s contributions.”
In other words, these women managers have worked hard to overcome obstacles like negative stereotypes about women in the workplace, and they’re concerned about losing everything they have achieved because of a low-performing employee.
“They might be more threatened when a low-performing woman starts to work with them and might inadvertently undo some of the gains they have achieved themselves,” Srivastava told Business Insider.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from this research is that simply having more women in management roles isn’t enough to close the gender wage gap, as some previous research has suggested.
“It may just be wishful thinking to assume that if we just get more women into management, then these gender inequalities will work themselves out,” Srivastava said. “It’s a necessary but not a sufficient condition.”
Instead, the researchers say we need organizational initiatives that encourage women to identify positively with their gender identity in the workplace — not to be wary of trying to help other women succeed.
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