Supervisor Attitudes Matter More than Attributes

Posted on September 07, 2017

Employer-worker relationships and the factors that drive the career success of broad groups of workers, including young professionals and females, deeply interest Dr. Dora Gicheva, assistant professor of economics at the Bryan School of Business and Economics at UNCG.

In her most recent works, Are Female Supervisors More Female Friendly, and Career Implications of Having a Female-Friendly Supervisor, Gicheva and Steven Bednar, professor of economics at Elon University, discovered something they weren’t looking for:  a supervisor’s gender may not be related to supervisor female-friendliness (defined as supervisors who are supportive of women’s presence in, and contribution to, the workforce).

“Researchers have looked at whether female supervisors help female workers in a number of settings, but findings in the literature are mixed. We were intrigued by the lack of unequivocal evidence that female workers do better (or worse) under a female boss and wanted to explore further if a female mentor is associated with better outcomes for females in the workplace,” she said.

Novel Trend

Gicheva was surprised with this research discovery. She expected to focus on the mentoring relationships between female workers and their female supervisors, but wasn’t finding much evidence that workplace outcomes differed for lower-level workers depending on their supervisor’s gender. “So I started digging deeper to find out what’s really going on. Once I started thinking beyond demographic characteristics and considered mentors’ attitudes, a more interesting trend emerged.”

“We found that supervisors’ attributes, such as gender, don’t matter as much as their attitude about being open to mentoring females. Some upper-level managers, men as often as women, are better at mentoring females. Female workers’ performance improves faster under such supervisors and turnover rates are lower. This is novel because it’s not something people have thought much about. The literature focuses on gender, race, and other demographics. But thinking about inherent attitudes changes the conversation.”

Mentoring for Equity

There is a concern that females are not doing as well in the workplace as same-level males; their promotions and earnings aren’t on par. People identified that these differences start emerging early in a worker’s career, but amplify further along.

“Our studies show that a supervisor may be better able to infer the true ability of a worker as long as there is a common attribute with the worker. Or, it could be that mentoring is an important determinant of employees’ career trajectories and is more effective if the workers and supervisors have similar characteristics. Embedded in this idea are important policy implications for alleviating gender wage gap and other adverse career outcomes for females. One way to help to foster women’s success is to pair them with supportive supervisors. The difficulty is in understanding how to identify supervisors who would be successful, or demonstrate success in mentoring females,” Gicheva said.

Why is this work important? According to Gicheva, “Research should prompt other researchers to think more about attitudes and to move beyond demographics. We looked at NCAA Division 1 programs, and while our findings may not apply to all work environments because the NCAA is very specialized, the structure is similar to other markets; we are talking about athletic directors and head coaches, which translate to upper and lower level managers. The point is to encourage people to start thinking about attitudes, to look broader, and to think about these harder to observe characteristics. This carries beyond gender to think about minority workers. Some supervisors are better at mentoring minorities – it’s important to identify these mentors and give them opportunities to support lower-level workers from underrepresented groups.”

Improving the Workplace

This study can spark conversations about mentoring in the workplace, and signaling out groups that are underrepresented in the workplace or in higher levels, and offer them more support and mentoring to help them succeed, according to Gicheva.

She said that deriving other new measures of inherent supervisor attitudes can potentially reveal more about the mechanisms through which employment matches matter in the workplace. With this new information, employers are encouraged to think about workplace support programs that can help different groups succeed. This is good for retention, and good for business.

Mentoring in the workplace is very important to the success of all workers — and to the success and health of an organization. Gicheva added, “Let’s continue looking at ways to create mentoring opportunities, and remove obstacles that prevent the success, especially for underrepresented workers.”


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