For working women, the news is often demoralizing.
We learn of case after case of gross workplace abuses brought to light by the “Me Too” movement. Among Fortune 500 CEOs, there are about as many women as there are men named John. Women still regularly face discrimination when applying for jobs and at work, continue to earn less than men and are even penalized romantically for career success.
Some new research, however, offers a much-needed dose of encouraging news: If women can overcome early career challenges and establish themselves as high performers, it seems they may actually reap more career rewards than their male peers, according to two recent research papers.
The first study, by economists J. Aislinn Bohren, Alex Imas and Michael Rosenberg, involved an undercover experiment conducted in an online mathematics community. Members of this online community post questions and answers to one another’s queries about math, and community members rate the quality of one another’s posts by anonymously voting them up or down. The more upvotes a person’s posts earn, the more status and privileges they gain on the site (e.g., faster responses to their questions, greater access to site features, etc.). The economists’ study explored women’s treatment on this website under two sets of conditions: when they were new users without any reputation, and when they were high-status, well-established users of the site.
To evaluate the treatment of women who were new users, the economists created an essentially identical set of 280 new accounts and posted high-quality questions and answers from them. However, half of these new users’ accounts were randomly assigned male names (e.g., John, Robert) and half were assigned female names (e.g., Emily, Sarah).
The results were as predictable as they were depressing: Consistent with past work suggesting professional women often face discrimination, new users assigned female names were not treated as well as those with male names. They received significantly fewer upvotes than males for the same kinds of posts.
The surprising twist came, however, when the researchers managed to establish 280 accounts with extremely strong reputations on the mathematics website. One day, these 280 high-status accounts were surreptitiously given new, randomly assigned usernames — half male and half female. The high-status users continued posting on the site, and lo and behold, a new pattern emerged. High-status women received significantly more upvotes than high-status males for the same kinds of posts. The authors explain their findings by pointing out how difficult it is for women to achieve high status on the site. When women achieve this daunting feat, overcoming discrimination to do so, it suggests they must be even more remarkable than their male compatriots. As a result, the authors of the study conclude, users reward high-status women more for equivalent work than equally high-status men.
Another, complementary paper written by organizational scholars Lisa Leslie, Colleen Manchester and Patricia Dahm, shows a similar result: that women viewed as rising stars in organizations are valued more than men of similar status. In an analysis of 1,311 employees at a Fortune 500 company, the researchers found that although women rated by their supervisors as “low-potential” earned just 92 percent of the salaries of their “low-potential” male peers, women rated as “high-potential” earned 107 percent the salaries of their “high-potential” male peers.
The same researchers then analyzed the pay of 35,602 top executives at Fortune 1500 companies. They found further support in this data for the contention that the gender pay gap reverses for star performers. After accounting for key differences in their backgrounds and industries, women in this sample of leaders were paid 110 percent of what men earned. While this data set ends in 2006, interestingly, the pattern was particularly strong in the types of organizations the authors contend most value gender diversity (e.g., consumer goods and services as opposed to manufacturing). Attention to gender diversity has grown since 2006, so there is every reason to anticipate the pattern has persisted.
Together, these findings offer a much-needed dose of good news for career women immersed in a season of grim headlines. It would, of course, be ideal for ambitious women to anticipate equal treatment at work and at home, and we unquestionably still need to make major improvements to the barriers encountered by women at every stage in their careers.
For now, there is at least some evidence benefits begin to accrue in the workplace at a higher rate for women than men after they attain substantial professional success.
The moral of the story is simple: Do not give up. There is light at the end of the tunnel.
Katherine L. Milkman is a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who researches behavioral economics.