Organizational psychology

Fathers with bad grades in high school go on to have the same leadership opportunities as mothers with a 4.0 GPA

leadership opportunities disparity for men and women

A new study published on January 18 in the journal Social Forces finds skewed leadership opportunities between mothers and fathers in the workforce. Fathers who had very low academic achievement in high school (1.0 GPAs) have similar leadership prospects to women who completed high school with a GPA of 4.0.

The disparity only emerged after the participants became parents. “When we examined the childless years before people became parents,” the study explains, “high school GPA was similarly associated with leadership at work for both men and women.”

“Such analysis clearly identifies the transition to parenthood as the primary source of change in men’s and women’s opportunities for leadership positions,” the authors write.

Men supervise more people than women with equal high school GPAs

The study also found that men supervise more people in the workplace than women do, regardless of their high school GPAs (grade point averages). This leadership gap between men and women was particularly pronounced among people who became parents. 

Among people who earned a 4.0 GPA in high school, fathers have on average four times the number of supervisees as mothers (19 for men versus four for women). 

Additionally, having a higher GPA is strongly associated with managing more people later in their careers, but only for fathers. As high school GPA increases towards 4.0, the average number of supervisees increases from 4 to 19 for fathers, but barely changes for mothers (increasing from 3 to 4).

Analyzing 5,000 career paths

This study focused on a sample of about 5,000 people born between 1957 and 1964. The researchers had access to these people’s high school transcript data, and their responses to how many people they supervised from 1988 to 1998.

The data comes from the NLSY79. That is a nationally representative survey of 12,686 people who were aged 14–22 when they gave their first interviews in 1979.  They limited the sample to the years 1988, 1989, 1996, and 1998, when questions about leadership roles were consistently asked among the respondents. They also limited the sample to respondents with complete high school transcript data; that transcript data was also provided by the NLSY79 survey. Doing so resulted in a sample of 5,306 people. 

A lack of barriers for men means more leadership opportunities

“Our research clearly illustrates the barriers that exist for women, especially mothers, in the workplace,” said the study’s lead auhor Jill Yavorsky of UNC Charlotte.

“Given that even men with low grades go on to attain higher leadership roles than women,” she said, “this study highlights perhaps the lack of barriers that men face in securing greater leadership opportunities.”

The researchers also examined why this large disparity emerged between mothers and fathers. They discovered that part of the leadership gap by GPA is due to the fact that high-achieving fathers benefit significantly from having a college or advanced degree, whereas mothers with a comparable degree do not.

Indeed, the leadership opportunities of mothers who have a college degree or higher are similar to those of mothers who do not have a college degree. 

“Based on other research,” Yavorsky said, “we know that even when men and women are in the same field, including female-dominated jobs, men still tend to have higher leadership prospects than women.”

“This suggests that the disparity isn’t just due to men and women selecting different career paths. Rather, men benefit in terms of their leadership opportunities regardless of the path they choose.”

Men work longer hours and take less leave

Additionally, the study found that among top achievers, men had higher leadership prospects than women because they tended to work longer hours in their jobs and had accumulated more work experience than women, particularly after they became parents.

Yavorsky said mothers are more likely to have a disproportionate share of household duties than men, and are more likely to take parental leave and disrupt their careers to care for children or others in their family.

But even after taking these explanations into account, leadership disparities between high-achieving mothers and fathers remain.

Will the same pattern hold for today’s young aduts?

“It is likely that these general patterns hold for younger cohorts,” Yavorsky said, “as recent research indicates that progress on many key measures for workplace gender equality has stalled or slowed since the mid-1990s.”

“Additionally, contemporary research in the field indicates that the COVID-19 pandemic is more negatively affecting women’s employment and productivity than men’s, in large part because mothers are absorbing more of the responsibilities associated with school and child care closures,” she said.

“This pattern could further exacerbate gender disparities in job experience and therefore future advancement opportunities in the workplace.”

Yavorsky noted two key governmental policy changes that could result in greater utilization of women’s talent. One is subsidized child care, to make it more affordable and reliable for all families. The other is paid maternity and paternity leave that encourages fathers to contribute more to household responsibilities from the start of parenthood.


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Study: “The Under-Utilization of Women’s Talent: Academic Achievement and Future Leadership Positions”
Authors: Yue Qian and Jill E Yavorsky
Published in: Social Forces
Publication date: January 18, 2021
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/sf/soaa126
Photo: by Joseph Mucira from Pixabay 

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