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Promoting Gender Equality: A Systematic Review of Interventions

  • Open access
  • Published: 01 September 2022
  • Volume 35 , pages 318–343, ( 2022 )

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  • Michaela Guthridge   ORCID: 1 , 3 ,
  • Maggie Kirkman 2 ,
  • Tania Penovic 4 , 5 &
  • Melita J. Giummarra 1 , 5  

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More than four decades have passed since the United Nation’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was adopted. Now is an opportune time to consider whether the interventions seeking to realise CEDAW’s aspirations have brought us closer to achieving gender equality. This systematic review aimed to identify and synthesise evidence for the effectiveness of social justice, cognitive, or behaviour-change interventions that sought to reduce gender inequality, gender bias, or discrimination against women or girls. Interventions could be implemented in any context, with any mode of delivery and duration, if they measured gender equity or discrimination outcomes, and were published in English in peer-reviewed journals. Papers on violence against women and sexuality were not eligible. Seventy-eight papers reporting qualitative (n = 36), quantitative (n = 23), and multi-methods (n = 19) research projects met the eligibility criteria after screening 7,832 citations identified from psycINFO, ProQuest, Scopus searches, reference lists and expert recommendations. Findings were synthesised narratively. Improved gender inclusion was the most frequently reported change (n = 39), particularly for education and media interventions. Fifty percent of interventions measuring social change in gender equality did not achieve beneficial effects. Most gender mainstreaming interventions had only partial beneficial effects on outcomes, calling into question their efficacy in practice. Twenty-eight interventions used education and awareness-raising strategies, which also predominantly had only partial beneficial effects. Overall research quality was low to moderate, and the key findings created doubt that interventions to date have achieved meaningful change. Interventions may not have achieved macrolevel change because they did not explicitly address meso and micro change. We conclude with a summary of the evidence for key determinants of the promotion of gender equality, including a call to address men’s emotional responses (micro) in the process of achieving gender equality (micro/meso/macrolevels).

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The adoption of CEDAW was a remarkable achievement in the history of the women’s movement. Its ultimate aim was to catalyse social transformation that transcends cursory legislative reform (Facio & Morgan, 2009 ). Article 3 of CEDAW promotes this social transformation, calling for state parties to ‘take all appropriate measures’ to achieve gender equality. In practice this has included, but has not been limited to, gender-blind strategies, awareness raising, litigation, international advocacy, art and social media activism, and gender mainstreaming (see Table 1 for definition).

The Global Gender Gap Index 2022 benchmarks 146 countries on the evolution of gender-based gaps in economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment (World Economic Forum, 2022 ). Although the Index measures gender parity (defined in Table 1 ) rather than substantive equality, it is a useful tool for analysing progression and regression. With scores depicting the distance to parity on a scale of zero to one hundred, the 2022 Report found the average distance completed to parity was 68 per cent. With the present trajectory, it will take 132 years to close the gender gap and 151 years to achieve equal economic participation and opportunity (World Economic Forum, 2022 ). Moreover, these estimates are predicted to worsen as the world faces crises in politics, economics, health, food, and the environment. Now more than ever we must assess our successes and failures in attempting to reduce gender inequality and discrimination.

The aim of this systematic review was to identify and synthesise evidence of the effectiveness of social justice interventions that sought to reduce gender inequality, gender bias, or discrimination against women and girls. Because recent systematic reviews have examined the effectiveness of interventions targeting violence against women and sexuality (e.g. Karakurt et al., 2019 ; Bourey et al., 2015 ; Yakubovich et al., 2018 ) we did not include these types of interventions. We were unable, however, to identify systematic reviews examining other interventions targeting gender equality. Therefore, this review focused on interventions that sought to achieve gender equality in any political, social, cultural or economic context, except violence against women and sexuality.

Theoretical Framework

The truism ‘context matters’ is pertinent to this systematic review. According to contextual social psychology, effects brought about at a microlevel are modified by the mesolevel and macrolevel, and vice versa (Pettigrew, 2021 ). In this review, microlevel variables include individual characteristics, including biology, beliefs, behaviours, values, and emotions, such as empathy and resentment. Mesolevel contextual factors include interpersonal interactions in family, work, and school etc. (e.g. gender segregation), and macrolevel context includes broader social and cultural norms, including religion and politics. Social norms in this context are “rules of action shared by people in a given society or group; they define what is considered normal and acceptable behaviour for the members of that group” (Cislaghi & Heise, 2020 , p. 409). In this sense, social norms exist within the mind, while gender norms exist outside it, and both are produced and reproduced through social interaction. In contextual social psychology, beliefs are embedded in institutions that affect our relational behaviours. While there are psychological causes of macrophenomena (Pettigrew, 2021 ), these phenomena (such as patriarchy) also influence individual affect. For example, affirmative action laws (macro) should increase contact between genders (meso), which in turn should reduce individual prejudice (micro). While this is a top down example, it also works from the bottom up, whereby micro behaviours can affect macrophenomena. In this context, prejudice against women and girls is a “multilevel syndrome” (Pettigrew, 2021 , p. 74).

“Systems thinking” also recognises the intersection between problems and processes from local to global levels (Arnold & Wade, 2015 ). Systems thinking is a complex interplay of a multitude of constantly evolving factors (Banerjee & Lowalekar, 2021 ). According to systems thinking, gender equality will be realised when interventions at the micro, meso and macrolevel are configured holistically, rather than individualistically. Interventions at any level need to consider and accommodate the role of processes and factors that may support or hinder the effectiveness of the intervention to yield population benefits. The different contextual levels that impact on gender inequality may be successfully tackled by feminist movements, but integrating the interventions pluralistically rather than monistically remains elusive as feminist movements appear to continue to work in silos. In undertaking strategies across different contexts, however, we are more likely to achieve substantive equality. But we need to address this complexity in the three contextual levels (micro, meso, macro) in order to predict, modify and eliminate discrimination against women and girls. These theoretical frameworks are used throughout this review to aid the synthesis of the evidence and identification of implications for practice.

Review Design

The Sample, Phenomena of Interest, Design, Evaluation, Research type (SPIDER) tool was used to design the review (Cooke et al., 2012 ). SPIDER is appropriate for systematic reviews of quantitative, qualitative, and multi-methods research. We use the term multi method rather than mixed method because mixed method studies could be considered to have used multiple methods of data collection/analysis, but not all multi-methods studies follow “mixed methods” procedures as they do not always provide an integrated synthesis of findings across the methods used (Creswell, 2009 ). The search terms are documented in Supplementary Tables 1 and 2. The review was conducted in accordance with the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) guidelines (Page et al., 2021 ). Rapid review methods were used for citation screening and data extraction (Plüddemann et al., 2018 ). Papers were eligible according to the criteria defined below.

The sample could include people of any age, race, or gender in local, global, or transboundary intervention contexts. The phenomena of interest included any social justice, cognitive or behaviour-change interventions that sought to reduce gender inequality, gender bias, or discrimination against women, with any mode of delivery and duration. Interventions could be any type of program (e.g. behaviour change), policy (e.g. gender mainstreaming), process (e.g. awareness raising) or experimental condition that aimed to influence gender-focused outcomes. An intervention was categorised as achieving its aim (e.g., having a beneficial effect on gender equality or reducing discrimination), partially achieving its aim, not achieving its aim according to the assessment in the paper (i.e. if the analyses in the respective paper found that the intervention did not work), or having a harmful effect (i.e. resulting in increased discrimination or inequality).

The intervention being investigated could have been administered by any party, including expert advocates, government or non-government organisations (NGOs), social justice enterprises, or academic researchers. The research design did not need to include a comparator or control group, but must have incorporated a between-groups or pre-post comparison, or retrospective assessment of the impact, feasibility or acceptability of the intervention or program. The primary outcome for evaluation was any measure of actual or perceived level of, or change in, gender (in)equality, gender bias, or discrimination against women or girls. Secondary outcomes were the perceived level of inclusion, solidarity, awareness, empowerment, or equity. The research methods could include qualitative, quantitative, and mixed- or multi-methods. Eligible papers were published in peer-reviewed journals in English from 1990 to 2022. Whilst CEDAW was adopted in 1979, this timeframe was selected to ensure contemporaneity. A protocol for the review was developed a priori, but not registered.

Search Strategy and Eligibility Screening

As this was a review of research across multiple disciplines, three databases were used: Scopus, ProQuest, and psycINFO, in addition to reviewing reference lists and recommendations by experts. Search terms were adapted to each database. After screening the first search results it was evident that the terms were not broad enough, so a second search including additional terms was undertaken (see Supplementary Tables 1 and 2 for terms of both search strategies). All search results were uploaded to Covidence for eligibility screening and duplicate removal by reviewer one. Using Abstrackr, a second author screened a minimum of 10 percent of citations, consistent with rapid review methods (Plüddemann et al., 2018 ), or until < 50 percent of citations were predicted to be relevant. Abstrackr is a machine-learning program that generates predictions of the likely relevance of records based on judgements made by the reviewer (Wallace et al., 2012 ), which has been found to have excellent sensitivity and to generate significant workload savings (Giummarra et al., 2020 ). After titles and abstracts were screened, full text articles were assessed against the eligibility criteria, noting reasons for exclusion. Both reviewers met to discuss any conflicts; if consensus could not be reached a third author was consulted. The authors included experts in gender equality who provided significant input into the search strategy, identification of relevant literature, and synthesis.

Quality Assessment

The quality of research was assessed by the first author using a standard method (Kmet et al., 2004 ) with the added criterion of whether papers reported approval by a formally constituted human research ethics committee. Supplementary Tables 3–5 specify the quality criteria. Overall quality was classified as poor (studies meeting < 0.50 criteria), adequate (0.50–0.69), good (0.70–0.80), or strong (> 0.80) consistent with previous studies (Parsons et al., 2017 ).

Data Extraction and Synthesis

Data were extracted in three categories: The authors and publication year of the paper ; research aims, theoretical approach, methods, sample size, eligibility criteria, and sample characteristics; and, the intervention , aim, type, sector, geographic region, description, duration, targeted outcomes, effects, and short- and long-term impacts. Figures to summarise the proportion of studies from different geographic regions were generated using . Ten percent of the full-text articles were randomly selected, stratified by research method, for independent data extraction by a second author, consistent with rapid review methods (Plüddemann et al., 2018 ). The data extracted from both reviewers was cross-checked for accuracy and completeness. Sources of heterogeneity were noted, particularly variation in study samples, settings, contexts and intervention designs or aims. Given the heterogeneity of the interventions and the research, meta-analysis and meta-synthesis were not appropriate. Therefore, the findings were thematically synthesised according to intervention sector (e.g. education, employment etc.) and context (i.e., micro, meso and macro levels).

A total of 7,832 records were screened for eligibility with the last search conducted on 18 July 2022 (Fig.  1 ). Seventy-eight papers, each reporting a single intervention and using qualitative (n = 36), multi (19), or quantitative (23) methods, met the inclusion criteria. The characteristics of qualitative, quantitative, and multi-methods studies are summarised in Supplementary Tables 6, 7, and 8, respectively. The intervention effects for each study are summarised in Supplementary Tables 9 and 10.

figure 1

Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic review and Meta-Analysis Protocol (PRISMA) Flow Diagram

Five interventions were at the microlevel, 37 were at the mesolevel, and 17 were at the macrolevel. The final 19 interventions straddled micro-meso, meso-macro, or micro–macro. No intervention covered all three levels or took a systems thinking approach.

The overall quality of each paper is detailed in Supplementary Tables 6–8, and ratings for each quality domain are in Supplementary Tables 3–5. Studies using quantitative methods (range 0.58–1.00; median = 0.92, Q1 = 0.82, Q3 = 1.00) had significantly higher quality than qualitative (range 0.41–0.91; median = 0.73, Q1 = 0.67, Q3 = 0.79; χ2(1) = 13.71, p  < 0.001) and multi-method studies (range 0.48–0.94; median = 0.76, Q1 = 0.63, Q3 = 0.82; χ2(1) = 21.96, p  < 0.001). There was no difference in the quality of qualitative and multi-methods studies ( p  = 0.97).

All quantitative studies articulated the research question and reported the results adequately. Randomisation and blinding were used in most studies. While estimates of variance and controlling for confounding were not consistently reported, 18 studies using quantitative methods were considered to be strong quality, and seven had a perfect score.

In reports of qualitative studies, the study design, context, and conclusion were generally addressed well. However, only six studies used verification processes (see Table 1 for definition). No qualitative study received a perfect score; 20 studies were considered to be good quality.

For multi-method studies, the objective, context, data collection, analysis, and conclusion were generally reported well. Blinding was not applicable, and estimates of variance and control of confounding were generally not reported. No multi-method study received a perfect score although the quality of six of multi-methods papers was assessed as good.

Corresponding authors were contacted to confirm ethics approval; authors of two papers confirmed that the study did not receive ethics approval, and authors from 16 studies did not respond or confirm whether they had ethics approval. The omission of evidence of ethical approval is concerning and should be addressed in all future research with humans. The 18 studies with respect to which we either could not confirm ethics approval or did not receive ethics approval were all published in highly ranked journals. Furthermore, it was not, in general, clear in the majority of papers which agency or organisation conducted the intervention or undertook the study (e.g. government agency, NGO, academic researchers) making it difficult to assess reflexivity, and the prospect of future implementation.

Included Interventions

Intervention sectors.

Interventions were implemented and evaluated in various sectors: education (26 interventions); politics (10); employment (8); information, communications, and technology (6); legal (5); economics (6); health (3); sustainable development and land rights (3); sport (3); and women’s and girls’ rights (2). Interventions in the areas of conflict and of water, sanitation, and hygiene were reported in one paper each.

Intervention Settings

Interventions were set evenly throughout the Global South (35 papers) and the Global North (39 papers). Interventions were evaluated in Africa (15), Europe (12), North America (19), Asia (10), Latin America (6), the Middle East and North Africa (4), the United Kingdom (6), and the Pacific (4). Just under half of the Global South interventions were conducted in rural settings (16/35), whereas Global North interventions tended to be urban (22/39) (Fig.  2 ).

figure 2

Settings for interventions in Global North and South Countries

Research Participant Characteristics

Twenty-seven interventions included both women and men as participants, 30 included only women, and one intervention included only men. Thirteen studies did not report the gender of the sample, and in seven studies gender of the sample or population was not applicable (e.g. intervention sought to affect a broad population approach irrespective of gender, such as a new law that applied to the whole population in order to improve gender equality, or a collective political party that sought to influence gender issues in parliament). Thirty papers did not report other participant demographic characteristics. Where sample characteristics were reported, participants were 10–80 years of age, with education level ranging from none to post-graduate.

Study Characteristics

All papers but one (Devasia, 1998 ) were published after 2005. Most papers reported data gathered across years, with twelve interventions taking place over hours or weeks. The timeframe did not appear to be associated with whether or not the intervention had a significant beneficial effect on the aims of the intervention. For example, McGregor and Davies’ ( 2019 ) two year study of the effects of a pay equity campaign achieved its aim (legislation was enacted), but Hayhurst’s ( 2014 ) girls’ entrepreneurship study that ran for several years had harmful effects (girls income was taken by men). Similarly, Zawadzki et al., ( 2012 ) board game intervention that takes 60–90 min achieved its aims but Krishnan et al. ( 2014 ) conditional cash transfer study over a month had no effect on social change.

In the qualitative and multi-method studies, theoretical frameworks were rarely reported. The few papers that did report theoretical frameworks used feminist standpoint theory, post-structuralist feminist theory, or social constructivist theory. Qualitative data collection methods were diverse: interviews (41 studies), focus groups (19), document analysis (18), observations (15), case studies (2), and visual techniques (e.g. PhotoVoice) (2). Quantitative and multi-method studies predominantly used surveys and questionnaires (22), with one study each using of the following tools: Gender Equitable Men’s Scale (Gottert et al., 2016 ), the Knowledge of Gender Equity Scale, the Empathy Questionnaire (Spreng et al., 2009 ), the Feminist Identity Scale (Rickard, 1989 ), and the Gender Related System Justification scale (Jost & Kay, 2003 ).

Few interventions aimed to achieve gender equality per se. Rather, they aimed to achieve components of gender equality (see Table 1 for definition), which ranged from gender neutrality through to striving towards a feminist revolution. Overall aims included greater awareness, inclusion, empowerment, parity, equity, and substantive equality (Supplementary Tables 6–8, column 3). The evaluation of whether interventions achieved their aims was usually assessed through surveying participants. The most common aim was to enhance “empowerment” (n = 18), which was generally not clearly defined. The interventions had various levels of effectiveness, with 37 studies having a significant beneficial effect on the aim of the intervention (i.e., they achieved their aims); 31 having a partial beneficial impact on the aim of the intervention; four studies having no beneficial or harmful impact on the aim of the intervention; and six studies having a harmful effect on the aim of the intervention (e.g., the intervention led to increased discrimination, inequality, or abuse). Examples of harmful effects include the ‘Girl Effect’ program in Uganda which resulted in participants being abused or robbed of the money they had earned (Hayhurst, 2014 ), and a girls’ resiliency program in the USA that resulted in increased abuse from male peers (Brinkman et al., 2011 ).

Intervention Design and Effectiveness by Sector

Education and training interventions.

Evaluations of education and training interventions were reported in 18 papers (6 qualitative, 6 quantitative, 6 multi-methods). Education interventions covered a range contexts (3 micro-meso, 11 meso, 3 meso-macro, 1 macro). Most interventions (14) used awareness-raising workshops targeting individual change, and reported only partially achieving the aim of the interventions. Five workshops were assessed in randomised controlled trials. Two qualitative studies targeted increasing girls’ enrolment in formal education in Morocco (Eger et al., 2018 ) and India (Jain & Singh, 2017 ), both of which achieved the aims of the interventions. One qualitative study in the Democratic Republic of Congo targeted behaviour change in men only (Pierotti et al., 2018 ), which had a partial beneficial effect because men increased their willingness to contribute to household chores but maintained control over the broader gender system. This intervention was an eight-week long mesolevel men’s discussion group focused on “undoing gender” through social interaction (e.g. promoting a more equal division of labour in the household, improving intra-household relationship quality, and questioning existing gender norms).

Gender parity in schools did not signal an end to, or transformation of, gender inequities in the schools or communities studied (Ralfe, 2009 ). To bring about education policy reform, Palmén et al. ( 2020 ) found that top-down institutional commitment to gender equality was essential to create change. However, bottom-up strategies were also needed as teachers had to foster cooperative learning that encouraged working together and valuing different abilities across genders (Sánchez-Hernández et al., 2018 ). Sufficient resources, in addition to monitoring and evaluation of education initiatives, were found to be a key to intervention success (Palmén et al., 2020 ). Ultimately, social norms did not change beyond the school environment (Chisamya et al., 2012 ; Jain & Singh, 2017 ).

While interventions in traditional education contexts only partially achieved their aims, experiential learning was found to be a powerful process to deliver knowledge about gender equity in a nonthreatening way (Zawadzki et al., 2012a ). Zawadzki’s study was a mesolevel intervention that used a board game to teach participants the cumulative effect of subtle, nonconscious bias, to discuss how bias hinders women’s promotion in the workplace, and to find solutions for what can be done to reduce that bias. They found that the delivery of information was less effective when new knowledge did not promote self-efficacy or lead participants to resist perceived attempts to influence their beliefs or behaviours. Furthermore, they established that learning about gender inequity was not sufficient for knowledge retention. Rather, participants had to link the knowledge to their own experiences and be empowered to feel that they could act on that knowledge.

Awareness-raising interventions in education and training generally only partially achieved the aims of the interventions, and did not necessarily translate into behaviour change (Ralfe, 2009 ). In the strong quality (0.93) quantitative mesolevel study by Moss-Racusin et al. ( 2018 ), the Video Interventions for Diversity in STEM (VIDS) intervention was found to achieve significantly greater awareness of bias in participants compared to the non-intervention control condition; however, effects on behaviour were not assessed. This intervention presented participants with short videos about findings from gender bias research in one of three conditions. One condition illustrated findings using narratives (compelling stories), the second presented the same results using expert interviews (straightforward facts), and a hybrid condition included both narrative and expert interview videos.

A lack of awareness, knowledge, or understanding of women’s human rights was found to be a key barrier to the achievement of gender equality in education-based interventions (Murphy-Graham, 2009 ). Gervais ( 2010 ) reported that awareness-raising can have direct effects on participants by giving them confidence to speak up against violations of their rights, although they noted that this might anger violators. Similarly, education was found in some cases to enable women to negotiate power-sharing with their husbands, while other women were verbally abused and threatened because their husbands disapproved of the education program (Murphy-Graham, 2009 ). Similar to the study by Pierotti et al. ( 2018 ), Murphy-Graham ( 2009 ) sought to “undo gender” by encouraging students to rethink gender relations in their everyday lives (mesolevel). Including men together with women in education programs enabled women to gauge men’s reactions to social change in a safe environment (Cislaghi et al., 2019 ). Potential harmful effects of interventions are further summarised under the ‘The problem of hostile affect’ header below.

STEM Education

Among education interventions were a subset of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) education interventions. These specifically targeted secondary school girls as a pathway to tertiary STEM education, and were reported in eight papers (1 qualitative, 3 quantitative, 4 multi methods). The design of interventions varied from science clubs, outreach programs, after school sessions, residential camps and immersion days. Archer et al. ( 2014 ), however, took a multipronged approach. Their intervention included school excursions, visits from STEM Ambassadors and a researcher-in-residence, a STEM ‘speed networking’ event, and participation in a series of teacher-led sessions for girls aged 13–14 years. Despite this significant investment, the intervention did not significantly change students’ aspirations of studying science, although it did appear to have a beneficial effect on broadening students’ understanding of the range of science jobs.

All STEM education interventions were aimed at the mesolevel and were located in the urban Global North. While the long-term impact (e.g. increased enrolment of women into tertiary STEM education) were inconsistent among studies. Gorbacheva et al. ( 2014 ) found that secondary same-sex education had no influence on this objective. Alternatively, Hughes et al. ( 2013 ) found having role models was more critical than sex segregation. Finally, Lackey et al. ( 2007 ), Lang et al. ( 2015 ) and Watermeyer ( 2012 ) all established that a network of support (e.g. family, school, industry) made a positive difference to girls equality in STEM education.

Employment Interventions

Eight interventions focused on women’s employment: 4 qualitative, 2 quantitative, 2 multi-methods studies. They covered a range of contexts (1 micro/meso, 5 meso, 2 meso/macro). Three interventions addressed women’s promotion (Eriksson‐Zetterquist & Styhre, 2008 ; Grada et al., 2015 ; Smith et al., 2015 ). Two interventions evaluated microenterprise; one produced harmful effects (Hayhurst, 2014 ), and the other only partially achieved its aim (Strier, 2010 ). Hayhurst ( 2014 ) evaluated an intervention auspiced by the Nike Foundation and concluded that it had an unfair and deleterious effect by placing the burden of social change on girls. In this intervention, focusing on the mesolevel, girls were taught to be entrepreneurs to enable them to escape abuse, buy land, grow food, and work. In practice, this economic empowerment strategy led to increased abuse by men who wanted to take the girls’ money to pay their own taxes and fines. This study was good quality (0.73). Participants in the study by Strier ( 2010 ) thought that microenterprise promised self-realisation and escape from the slavery of the labour market, but they found it to be a false promise, characterising the informal sector as both a disappointment and a fraud. Overall, employment interventions led to unreliable and inconsistent outcomes.

Economic Interventions

Six interventions (1 qualitative, 2 quantitative, 3 multi-methods studies) addressed various contexts (1 micro, 1 micro/macro, 2 meso/macro, 2 macro interventions) that targeted economic empowerment. Overall, the interventions partially achieved their aims. For microfinance interventions, women benefited less than men because they were given smaller loans for less lucrative businesses (Haase, 2012 ). Krishnan et al. ( 2014 ) conducted a good quality (0.79) multi-method study of a micro–macro level intervention that provided conditional cash transfers in India, and found minimal positive effects from the implementation of this scheme to address social behaviours related to valuing girls. In this study, parents had to register the birth of their daughter in order to receive financial benefit, but this did not transform the social mindset that daughters are a burden. In another study, the size and frequency of cash transfers directly influenced outcomes: large but infrequent payments enabled investment that could facilitate economic transformation (Morton, 2019 ). Lump-sum payments also challenged stereotypes about what women could invest in, and could transform the gender asset gap. Institution of a social protection floor (e.g. welfare benefits) enhanced women’s power and control over household decision-making in financial matters and household spending in South Africa (Patel et al., 2013 ). While a social protection floor had benefits for women’s empowerment at the microlevel, it did not transform unequal and unjust gendered social relations of power at the macrolevel.

Legal Interventions

Five interventions (3 qualitative, 2 quantitative studies) in two contexts (1 meso/macro, 4 macro) reported on legal interventions. In Zartaloudis’s ( 2015 ) qualitative macrolevel study of an employment strategy in Greece and Portugal, legislation was found to have an important but not transformative effect on gender equality in employment. Three other studies found that changes in law must be accompanied by incentives and penalties in order to be effective (Kim & Kang, 2016 ; Palmén et al., 2020 ; Singh & Peng, 2010 ). While the decline in levels of discrimination was at first sharp after enacting anti-discrimination legislation, its implementation plateaued over time, calling into question the long-term sustainable effects of law reform without adequate enforcement mechanisms. In this macrolevel study by Singh and Peng ( 2010 ), the Ontario Pay Equity Act was effective because it was proactive in persuing pay equity, rather than being complaint based.

Legal opportunity and litigation were strategic choices in campaign strategies in one study, playing an important role in effecting change to prevent discriminatory pay for work typically performed by women (McGregor & Davies, 2019 ). The strong quality (0.92) macrolevel study by Mueller et al. ( 2019 ) increased access to legal services in order to improve legal knowledge in rural Tanzania. It found that, despite increased access to legal services, women still had moderate to low knowledge of marital laws, and only 2.7 percent of women would refer someone to a paralegal for problems with a widow’s assets, divorce, or marital disputes. Mueller et al. ( 2019 ) concluded that an increased investment in access to justice needed to be made through informal channels (mesolevel change) in addition to the macrolevel law reform.

Political Interventions

Ten papers (4 qualitative, 3 quantitative, 3 multi-methods studies) that covered a variety of contexts (1 micro/meso, 2 meso, 2 meso/macro, 5 macro) reported assessments of political interventions. Electing women to council increased other women’s access to councillors because women had greater heterosocial networks (i.e., comprising women and men), but did not affect men’s access to councillors (Benstead, 2019 ; Levy & Sakaiya, 2020 ). However, increasing the number of women in public office did not necessarily improve equality (McLean & Maalsen, 2017 ). For example, an evaluation of gendered outcomes of Hon. Julia Gillard’s tenure as Prime Minister of Australia saw increased gender-based denigration and vilification of her leadership (McLean & Maalsen, 2017 ).

A qualitative macro study using interviews and ethnography to explore the impact of political gender quotas in Mali (Johnson, 2019 ) found that savings groups, together with political gender quotas, were important for catalysing the first steps towards social and political transformation. In Mali, gender quota laws required political parties to field a minimum of 30 percent women candidates, and to include a woman within the first three places on a party’s candidate list. In this context, savings and credit associations developed women’s self-efficacy and increased their confidence to become political candidates (Johnson, 2019 ).

An example of discursive change based on political activism was found by Cowell-Meyers’ ( 2017 ) multi-method study examining the impact of a new feminist political party in Sweden. Near consensus by political parties that gender equality needed to be tackled through government intervention was achieved through the efforts of the small women’s rights party. However, another multi-method mesolevel study examining the effects of Transnational Advocacy Networks (TANs) in Europe found that they either ignored or subverted gender mainstreaming language (S. Lang, 2009 ). Gender mainstreaming policy interventions were found to have only partially achieved their aims, but were successful when law and policy detailed specific roles and responsibilities for action (Kim & Kang, 2016 ). Policymakers in two other studies were found to avoid the responsibility of implementation not because they opposed gender mainstreaming itself, but because they objected to being forced into it (Hwang & Wu, 2019 ; Kim & Kang, 2016 ). Therefore, the attitude of bureaucrats (microlevel) was considered to be an important factor in implementing gender equality initiatives at the macrolevel.

The strong (perfect quality score) quantitative study by Saguy and Szekeres ( 2018 ) reported on the effect on gender-based attitudes (microlevel) following exposure to the 2017 Women’s March across the US and worldwide in response to Donald Trump’s inauguration. The research found that large-scale collective action had a polarising effect on those exposed to it. Over time, men who identified more closely with their own gender increased the degree to which they justified gender inequality after exposure to the protests, suggesting a backlash reaction (mesolevel). People who were found to be positively affected by collective action were already in favour of the protesters’ cause. The backlash found for high-identifying men was explained by reactance theory (Brehm, 1966 ) whereby people become motivationally aroused by a threat to or elimination of a behavioral freedom (Brehm, 1989 ).

Barriers to Achieving Gender Equality: The Problem of Hostile Affect

No study accounted for men’s and boys’ emotions (microlevel change) as part of the aim and design of the intervention, but their significance became apparent in the results of several studies. Men and boys reported feeling hostility, resentment, fear and jealousy when social norms were challenged. Attempts at addressing gender inequality were found to threaten men’s sense of entitlement, and it was theorised that boys expected to be the centre of attention (Brinkman et al., 2011 ). In the meso study by MacPhail et al. ( 2019 ) that evaluated a men’s participation program in South Africa, participants reported equality as a zero-sum game that meant respecting women equated to disrespecting men. In that intervention, activities included intensive small group workshops, informal community dialogue through home visits, mural painting to stimulate discussions of key messages, informal theatre, soccer tournaments, and film screenings. In another study, women’s oppression was maintained by men because they feared losing control of ‘their’ women (Devasia, 1998 ). In several studies, men shared their fear of being perceived as weak or feminine in front of their peers or community (Bigler et al., 2019 ; McCarthy & Moon, 2018 ; Murphy-Graham, 2009 ; Pierotti et al., 2018 ; Singhal & Rattine-Flaherty, 2006 ). Male participants in the study by Pierotti et al. ( 2018 ) believed that allowing women to be leaders in households would disintegrate society. They believed that upholding men’s lack of accountability and position as ‘boss’ was important to maintaining the fabric of society.

In contrast, Cislaghi ( 2018 ) found that men in Senegal did not resist increased political participation of women. And a radio program in Afghanistan that addressed gender equality was found not to offend men’s cultural or religious beliefs, and ultimately succeeded in changing attitudes and behaviours towards women and girls (Sengupta et al., 2007 ). The outcome included changes in the community, such as giving permission to women to leave their home alone, to vote, to go to school, and to reject child marriage. While participants expressed increased empowerment (micro), they also acknowledged that they may have their rights, but can never make decisions pertaining to their rights (Sengupta et al., 2007 ). For example, women may have the right to vote (macro), but they cannot go to vote or decide who to vote for without male guardianship (meso). In that study, 15 h of civic education material was promoted by radio, focusing on peace, democracy, and women’s rights. At the community level, interviews and focus groups with participants revealed that there was no resistance to listening to the radio program from men or families. However, the Sengupta et al. study was not longitudinal and had a relatively small sample of 115 people (72.2% women), and the women in the study may not have been in a position that allowed them to admonish the men in their community.

It was found in one study that resistance and backlash can be ameliorated by including men and boys in the development and delivery of interventions (Sengupta et al., 2007 ). Behaviour change in men required an increase in empathy to achieve the aim of gender equality (Becker & Swim, 2011 ). Hadjipavlou ( 2006 ) and Vachhani and Pullen (2019) found that empathy was a viable alternative feminist strategy. In their qualitative study, Hwang and Wu ( 2019 ) in Taiwan found that trust-building between civil servants and advocates reduced resistance and hostility. Activists in this intervention used four strategies: (1) Giving praise and encouragement instead of criticism and blame; (2) Engaging civil servants on a personal level to create bonding; (3) Appeasing fears about being blamed by offering assistance; (4) Attempting to invoke their identification with the values of gender mainstreaming through informal educational efforts, all of which are mesolevel strategies.

Promoting Social Change to Reduce Gender Inequality

There was a wide array of types of change in different aspects of gender equality, with interventions varying in their success across settings and contexts. Table 2 summarises the types of change (e.g. legal, financial, behaviour, social) and the context (i.e., micro, meso, macro) that were identified and whether interventions aims were fully or partially achieved, or were not achieved, or had a harmful effect. Physical change, such as increased physical presence of women through inclusion or solidarity (meso) was the most consistently achieved beneficial outcome. Interventions targeting macrolevel social change, however, predominantly failed to achieve their aims or had harmful effects, reflecting how hard it is to realise social change, especially from a single, usually localised, intervention. Quotas could perhaps achieve their aim, although this finding was derived mostly from one good quality study (Johnson, 2019 ). The largest group of interventions were those implemented in education-based contexts, but these generally only partially achieved their aims, and focused mostly on physical changes (e.g., inclusion, solidarity). Most gender mainstreaming interventions did not achieved their aims.

Altogether, the findings confirm that social transformation is not automatic, easy, nor necessarily sustainable (Murphy-Graham, 2009 ). Furthermore, economic transformation is constrained if it is not supported by concurrent social transformation (Haase, 2012 ). One researcher, reporting a good quality meso-macro multi-method educational study in rural Bangladesh, claimed to have achieved social transformation (Sperandio, 2011 ). The appointment of women into roles that are traditionally occupied by men (in this case, teaching) led to widespread acceptance and normalisation of women in other non-traditional roles in a conservative village. Because the researcher did not interview or survey members of the community in which the intervention was evaluated, it is not clear whether broader social change was achieved.

It was found in several studies that dialogue was key to creating change in gender norms (Hwang & Wu, 2019 ; MacPhail et al., 2019 ; McGregor & Davies, 2019 ; Murphy-Graham, 2009 ; Sánchez-Hernández et al., 2018 ). However, Matich et al.’s ( 2019 ) qualitative study of the #freethenipple campaign and Boling’s ( 2020 ) study of the #ShePersisted campaign found that small steps bring about only small changes. For instance, in the #freethenipple campaign, women took control of how they were represented (microlevel) in order to challenge patriarchal gender norms (macrolevel). The authors noted that, despite good intentions, a hashtag cannot erase stereotyping. Pierotti et al. ( 2018 ) also found that small changes (micro) in quotidian tasks (e.g., participation in household chores) did not lead to substantive social change (macrolevel change). That is, while changes in tasks occurred with relative ease, social transformation through the cumulative effect of small steps towards egalitarianism did not occur.

In comparison, the qualitative study by McCarthy and Moon ( 2018 ) examined a women’s program in Ghana and found that changing everyday practices did matter, but becoming cognisant of the need for revolution led people to become overwhelmed and immune to change efforts. The researchers found that a key challenge in achieving social transformation was the need to bring about changes in daily interactions. For instance, one participant stated that if a person is not empowered at home, no matter how much money you give them, they are going to need more (McCarthy & Moon, 2018 ).

All genders need to participate to achieve a re-socialisation (Brinkman et al., 2011 ). Sengupta et al. ( 2007 ) concluded that their radio program would have alienated men if it had targeted only women. By including all genders, potential resistance to change can be neutralised (Devasia, 1998 ). In summary, social transformation is possible, but transformation is not likely to be universal or successful across all contexts (Sánchez-Hernández et al., 2018 ), particularly from any single monistic intervention. Holistic responses that take account of system thinking may create the change needed.

Overall, despite concerted effort, it seems that in the past thirty years we have not uncovered the keys to social change in order to enhance gender equality and non-discrimination against girls and women. Perhaps the reviewed interventions did not achieve macrolevel change because they did not simultaneously and explicitly address meso and micro change. Whilst CEDAW seeks the ‘elimination of all forms of discrimination’, achievement of that aim is far from complete, although it is not surprising that no single intervention could catalyse social change that achieves CEDAW’s objective. This review demonstrates that it will take time and a variety of endeavours to achieve gender equality.

To summarise the substantive lessons from this systematic review, we offer the following distillation as a summary of the findings to date. This distillation includes definitive statements that should be viewed only in the context of this review and may not generalise across all efforts towards gender equality in all societies.

What is Ineffective in Promoting Gender Equality

Small changes do not lead to big changes. Small concessions are granted to maintain peace, while big changes are often denied to maintain power.

Men and boys can feel the micro effects of fear, hostility, resentment, and jealousy when meso-macro gendered social norms are challenged.

Increased confidence, agency, empowerment, or individual leadership (micro) is not sufficient to promote the structural changes required to increase gender equality (macro).

A lack of change in mindsets (micro) and poor enforcement can mean that laws (macro) are not realised or have little effect at the community level (meso).

The overall focus on women ignores the real problem, and the need to engage with all members of society.

Education and awareness-raising may establish the right to education but do not necessarily create gender equality.

Raising awareness alone does not translate into behaviour change (meso to micro).

Transnational advocacy networks are not effective.

Protests in western democracies can have a polarising and backlash effect.

Gender mainstreaming efforts generally fail to achieve positive outcomes.

Economic transformation does not automatically lead to social transformation.

What is Effective in Promoting Gender Equality

Eliciting positive affect in interventions garners positive outcomes.

Empathy is a viable feminist strategy, although evidence is limited.

All genders need to participate in re-socialisation of gender norms.

Dialogue is a key to success.

A large number of women must behave differently for new behaviours to be accepted (micro to meso).

Experiential learning is a powerful way to embed knowledge about gender equity in a nonthreatening, lasting way.

Investment in access to justice must include informal channels of the justice system.

Social transformation can be achieved in households through daily interactions (meso to macro).

Enabling environments (macro) are more effective than individual empowerment (micro), but should include top-down and bottom-up approaches.

Quotas are effective.

Laws must be proactive as well as reactive or complaint based.

The contextual levels of analysis developed by Pettigrew ( 2021 ) has also been adapted from these lists into Fig. 3 . These distillations challenge our thinking about how to achieve gender equality and therefore require greater discussion amongst feminist activists, advocates, and the general population for ecological validation. The key findings of this review have implications for policy and practice because they call into question the type of change sought by feminist movements, the type of intervention used to achieve that change, and whether that intervention is likely to be effective in practice. Overall, this review gives pause for thought. We hope it will inform future decisions about how to achieve gender equality.

figure 3

Contextual levels of analysis for this review, adapted from Pettigrew ( 2021 )

Strengths and Limitations

Our broad inclusion criteria identified relevant interventions across a range of political, economic, social and cultural contexts, published over a thirty year period. Consistent with the recommendations by Garritty et al. ( 2021 ) we used rapid review methods; this may have led to the omission of some eligible studies. However, the use of a machine learning approach by reviewer two to rapidly screen a sample of the records predicted to be most relevant helped to limit the omission of relevant studies. Moreover, our restriction of literature to 1990 onwards may have omitted some studies conducted since the adoption of CEDAW in 1979. Given that only one study was published from 1990–2000, however, it is unlikely that this restricted timeframe had a significant impact on the review. Excluding papers not published in English is a limitation, and may have led to the omission of studies in some settings. We urge those who have non-peer-reviewed evaluations to submit them to peer-reviewed journals for future inclusion in reviews like the present one. The results of the large number of studies included in the review are difficult to generalise given the heterogenous study methods, intervention designs, populations, and settings. Because of a lack of reflexivity in most qualitative and multi-method studies, it is impossible to discern (for example) whether research undertaken in the Global South was conducted by Global North researchers. Moreover, there was no evidence of the ethical conduct of 16 studies and two studies did not have ethics approval. Together, these limitations may indicate potential problems with informed consent and implicit racial or other biases, although none were explicitly identifiable. There was insufficient evidence to assess whether and how culture played a part in attempts to achieve gender equality. Furthermore, while 86 percent of interventions predominantly or partially achieved their aims, this may inflate the effectiveness of such interventions because of reporting biases that favour publication of positive results (Sengupta et al., 2007 ; Sperandio, 2011 ).

This review has taken stock of successes and failures in seeking to promote gender equality. The findings reveal that undue reliance has been placed on the presumed efficacy of awareness raising, and that the race to achieve gender parity has not yet catalysed the desired social transformation. Entrepreneur programs can be exploitative, and legal actions have had limited effects, potentially failing because of men’s feelings about change. This review has shown that men can be fearful, resentful, jealous, and angry towards acts that disrupt the status quo . Until we adequately address these emotions and biases, the change that women (and potentially all genders) want, and the equality we all need will not be realised. Social context and systems thinking have shown us the importance of holism when tackling systemic discrimination. In this context, to be fully human is to be emotionally fulfilled. Ergo , human rights will be realised when there is dignity, humanity and positive emotionality among genders. Only then is the promise of CEDAW likely to be fulfilled.

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A qualitative study on gender inequality and gender-based violence in Nepal

  • Pranab Dahal 1 ,
  • Sunil Kumar Joshi 2 &
  • Katarina Swahnberg 1  

BMC Public Health volume  22 , Article number:  2005 ( 2022 ) Cite this article

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Gender inequality and violence are not mutually exclusive phenomena but complex loops affecting each other. Women in Nepal face several inequalities and violence. The causes are diverse, but most of these results are due to socially assigned lower positioning of women. The hierarchies based on power make women face subordination and violence in Nepal. The study aims to explore participants' understanding and experience to identify the status of inequality for women and how violence emerges as one of its consequences. Furthermore, it explores the causes of sex trafficking as an example of an outcome of inequality and violence.

The study formulated separate male and female groups using a purposive sampling method. The study used a multistage focus group discussion, where the same groups met at different intervals. Six focus group discussions, three times each with male and female groups, were conducted in a year. Thirty-six individuals, including sixteen males and twenty females, were involved in the discussions. The study used constructivist grounded theory for the data analysis.

The study participants identify that a power play between men and women reinforce inequality and increases the likelihood of violence for women. The findings suggest that the subjugation of women occurs due to practices based on gender differences, constricted life opportunities, and internalization of constructed differences among women. The study identifies that interpersonal and socio-cultural violence can result due to established differences between men and women. Sex trafficking, as an example of the outcome of inequality and violence, occurs due to the disadvantageous position of women compounded by poverty and illiteracy. The study has developed a concept of power-play which is identified as a cause and consequence of women's subordination and violence. This power play is found operative at various levels with social approval for men to use violence and maintain/produce inequality.

The theoretical concept of power play shows that there are inequitable power relations between men and women. The male-centric socio-cultural norms and practices have endowed men with privilege, power, and an opportunity to exploit women. This lowers the status of women and the power-play help to produce and sustain inequality. The power-play exposes women to violence and manifests itself as one of the worst expressions used by men.

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Violence against women is identified as an attempt by men to maintain power and control over women [ 1 ] and is manifested as a form of structural inequality. This structural inequality is apparent with greater agency among men [ 2 ]. The differences between sexes are exhibited in the attainment of education and professional jobs, ownership of assets, the feminization of poverty, etc., and these differences increase the risk of violence towards women [ 3 ]. The global estimate identifies that thirty percent of women experience physical and/or sexual violence during their lifetime, illustrating the enormity of this problem [ 4 ]. From a feminist perspective, lending ideas of patriarchy [ 5 ] and gender performativity [ 6 ], the understanding of gender roles prescribed by male-dominated social structures and processes helps further explore the violence and abuse faced by women [ 7 ]. According to Heise [ 8 ], men who adhere to traditional, rigid, and misogynistic views on gender norms, attitudes, and behaviors are more likely to use violence towards women. The individual and collective attitudes of men toward different established gender norms, and their reproduction explain men’s use of violence toward women [ 9 ]. It is known that gender norms influence violence, but at the same time violence also directs and dictates gender performance with fear, sanction, and corrective measures for enacting respective prescribed gender functions [ 10 ].

It is difficult for women subjected to violence to enjoy legitimate rights, as most of the infringement of their rights and violence takes place inside a private sphere of the home [ 11 , 12 ]. Violence against women is the major cause of death and disability for women [ 13 ] and globally a major public health concern [ 14 ]. Establishing gender equality is fundamental for fostering justice and attaining sustainable development [ 15 ]; moreover, violence against women has to be acknowledged as a fundamental abuse of human rights [ 16 ]. A report on global violence has identified that violence against women exists at all levels of the family, community, and state. The report recommended the development of frameworks for respecting, protecting, and fulfilling women’s rights [ 17 ]. Fifteen years later, a review of the same identifies that violence continues with impunity, reaffirming violence as a major obstacle to the attainment of justice [ 18 ].

The inclusion of the gender lens to violence against women has provided more contextual evidence to explore these processes of violence. This requires the identification of unequal power relationships and an inquiry into the differences-producing various gender stereotypes [ 19 ]. This analysis of violence requires an understanding of behaviors that promote women’s subordination and factors that favor men to sustain these malpractices [ 8 ]. A closer look at the male-centric structural arrangements embedded in the social, political, and economic organization of life reveals that these structures provide lesser access and lower accountability toward women, promote systemic subordination, and create hierarchies, resulting in the increase of violence against women [ 20 ]. This unequal gender power relationship reinforced and manifested by social approval of men’s authority over women is found operative at multiple levels and helps to produce diversities of inequalities and violence [ 21 , 22 ].

The inequalities faced by women in Nepal majorly stem from socio-cultural, economic, and religious factors and influencers that define traditional roles and responsibilities between men and women [ 23 ]. The inequalities are more evident and pronounced in settings exhibiting prominent patriarchal norms restricting advantages and opportunities for the majority of women [ 24 ]. Women in Nepal are restricted inside their homes, have lesser access to life opportunities, and have limited or no involvement in decision-making on important issues directly affecting their lives [ 25 , 26 ]. Figures indicative of women’s inequalities in Nepal suggest that one-third of women have no education, fifty-two percent of women are involved in non-paid jobs, and women are less likely than men to own a home or land [ 27 ]. The men in Nepalese society are positioned higher and are expected to be the breadwinner and protectors of their families. Most of these men intend to earn respect and obedience from women and are socially expected to discipline women to achieve it [ 28 ]. Many societies across the world including Nepal, recognizes violence as a private affair requiring discussion only within a family. This has led to a serious underreporting of violence committed toward women in Nepal [ 29 ]. The national gender data in Nepal is scarce, the available Nepal Demographic Health Survey 2016 identifies that since the age of fifteen, twenty-two percent of women and seven percent of women experience physical and sexual violence, respectively in the past twelve months [ 27 ].

The contributing factors for violence against women in Nepal include the lower social status of women, illiteracy, economic dependency, patriarchal society, sex trafficking, alcohol-related abuse, dowry-related violence, infidelity, extramarital affairs of husband, unemployment, and denial of sex with husband [ 30 , 31 , 32 ]. Nepalese women have been repressing violence with silence due to the fear of breaking relationships, receiving less love and affection from family, fear of social norms by going against men, lack of faith in the justice system, and the threat of increased violence [ 33 ]. Women and girls in Nepal are sex trafficked to various countries. Sex trafficking in Nepal is prevalent due to persistent gender inequality, violence, stigma, and discriminatory socio-cultural structures; however, the actual extent of sex trafficking is still undetermined [ 17 , 34 , 35 ].

The recent trends in Nepal with the increasing number of out-migration of men for employment have provided women with temporary autonomy, and a shift in the gender roles. Earlier research has identified that migration of male spouses has provided a resistance to the power dynamics for women on the other hand it has limited their mobility, required them to share decision-making with household structures, face continued social vigilance on the money received from remittance, and get central attention with their personal sexual lives [ 36 , 37 ].

Morang district lies in the eastern region of Nepal. A district profile report based on a census survey [ 38 ] identifies that the place is inhabited by a close to a million population, out of which ethnic groups ( close to forty percent) live in the district with a majority (seventy-eight percent) of its population living in the rural areas. Tharu an ethnic group is one of the dominant population in the study area and all study participants for this study were from same Tharu population. A close to thirty-six percent of women in the district are illiterate and the average age of marriage is eighteen years. The report identifies that only twenty-three percent of women engage in economic activities apart from agricultural work and less than fourteen percent of women head the household. Almost eighty percent of the population in the district practice Hinduism.

This study is a part of a large intervention project and it was focused to establish a qualitative baseline of the gender status in the study area. This study aimed to explore participants’ experiences and understanding of gender inequality, violence against women, and information on sex trafficking in the Morang district of eastern Nepal. The selection of sex trafficking topic was motivated to assess the respondents’ general understanding of one of the consequences of inequality and violence faced by women. The study focused to explore factors that help to produce and sustain the practice of gender inequality and violence against women in the local community.


This study was part of a larger control-comparison project that used Forum Theatre interventions to promote gender equality, reduce violence against women, and increase awareness of sex trafficking [ 39 , 40 ]. The participants for the focus group discussion included the intervention population from one of the randomly sampled intervention sites. A multistage focus group discussion [ 41 ] was used involving the same participants discussing various emerging topics at different periods. The participants were recruited voluntarily during an earlier quantitative data collection for the project. The study used a purposive sampling method for the selection of participants. The local field staff at the study site facilitated the recruitment of the participants. The study formulated separate male and female groups. A total of six focus groups, three each with male and female groups were conducted over twelve months. Two inclusion criteria were set for participation. First, the participants had to be part of the population of the larger study. Secondly, they had to witness and/or participate in the Forum Theatre interventions conducted in between the study. The set inclusion criteria served a dual purpose of understanding the causes of inequality and violence and further helped to develop and determine the efficacy of participatory Forum Theater intervention for awareness-raising among the study intervention groups [ 39 ].

A total of thirty-six participants consisting of sixteen males and twenty females joined the discussions. The first discussion consisted of eight participants each from groups while the second and the third discussion missed two female and four male participants respectively. The majority of the participants were 20–29 years old. Tharu, an ethnic community of Nepal, is a dominant population in the study area, and all the participants belonged to the same Tharu community. Only one female participant was unmarried, and a single married male participated in the discussions. All participants were literate, with four males completing a bachelor's level of education. Seven female participants had education below the high school level. The nuclear family with parents and their children was the major family type identified in both male and female groups. Table 1 provides the detail of the participants.

The focus group discussions were conducted in January 2017, April–May 2017, and January 2018. The discussions were conducted in a place recommended by the participants. An isolated place in an open setting at the premise of a local temple was used for conducting all discussions. The participants were briefed about the objectives of the discussion and written consent was obtained for their participation. Verbal consent was taken for the audio recording of the discussions. Each participant was assigned a unique numerical code before the discussions to ensure anonymity during recording, note-taking, and analysis. The discussions averaged ninety minutes during each session. The discussions were conducted with the same participants and no new participants were added during the follow-ups. A single male and female participant were missing in the second follow up and two male participants missed the final follow-up. The reason for missing participants was due to their unavailability as they were out of the village due to personal reasons.

The discussions were conducted in the Nepali language. The first author moderated all six discussions, a support field staff member took the notes, and the last author observed the discussions. The audio recordings were translated into English, and the transcriptions were checked with the recordings to verify accuracy. The field and the discussion notes were used during various stages of data analysis. The notes provided information on the discussion setting, as well as the verbal and nonverbal expressions of the participants. The notes helped to assess the impressions, emphasis, and feelings of the participants during the discussions.

The discussions used pre-formulated discussion guides with open-ended questions on inequalities, gender practices, violence, and sex trafficking. The guiding questions were based on the theoretical premise of discrimination, patriarchy, oppression, hegemony, and participation of women. Three separate discussion guides were developed for each of discussions. The guides were developed by the first and last authors. Probing was done on several occasions during the discussion to gain more clarity on the issue. Cross-checking among the participants and between the groups was done to triangulate received information. Any topic deemed appropriate for discussions and/or any unclear issues identified during the initial data analysis came up subsequently in the discussion guide during the follow-ups.

Data analysis

This study used the constructivist grounded theory method. This method adheres to a constructivist philosophical approach wherein both researchers and participants mutually co-construct the meaning of a phenomenon [ 42 ]. This interaction is important since it helps to impart the meaning of shared experiences [ 42 ]. The constructivist grounded theory made it possible to (re) discover gender issues, important for both the researcher and the study participants. This method allowed the study to progress with responsiveness to emerging issues with an in-depth exploration of the identified issues. This clarity was achieved through repeated interactive discussions, analysis of explanations, and sharing of emergent findings with the study participants.

The audio recordings were translated and transcribed into English. Six transcripts from discussions were initially analyzed using a line-by-line coding process. The coding process helped with the fragmentation of data through interactive comparisons. Fifty-two initial codes such as gender differences, restricting women, alcohol-related violence, underreporting of sexual violence, coping, etc. were identified. The later stage of focused coding helped to achieve categorized data, providing logical sense to the developed initial codes. Three focused codes, namely, the subjugation of women, violence, and chasing dreams were formulated during the analysis. The abductive reasoning from the codes, memos, and discussion notes helped to develop the theoretical concept. The development of conceptual abstraction involved an iterative comparison of the data, codes, categories, memos, and discussion notes.

The constant communication between the authors during the stages of data analysis such as the formulation of codes, explanations of concepts, and categories helped to refine the analysis. The shared experiences of the participants and the description of the data collection and analysis included substantial details, enabling comparisons for future research and application to other similar contexts. The reliability of the study is warranted by the theoretical saturation [ 42 ] achieved by this study. This is supported by prolonged engagement with the study participants with communication on the emerging findings, and triangulation.

Reflexivity has a greater significance for the constructivist approach. The first and the second author of Nepalese origin were aware of the socio-cultural norms, stereotypes, values, and stigmas associated with gender in the local context. This helped the study to ascertain the depth of inquiry within the acceptable local normative limits. The non-Nepalese author, familiar with the study participants and Nepalese contexts, witnessed the discussions as an observer. The prior knowledge of the authors helped to critically assess different schemas, perspectives, and explanations shared by the participants. The universality of gender inequality and violence against women and its re-examination in the local context helped the authors to build upon existing knowledge by providing contextual explanations. The diversities among the authors and research participants established a basis for co-creating the perceived and observed realities.

The section below describes the participants’ perceptions and understanding of inequality and violence. The section contains subheadings that were derived as themes in the data analysis. The first theme subjugation of women; discusses how norms, beliefs, and practices produce inferior status and positions for women. The second theme domestic and gender violence; provides a narrative of interpersonal and socio-cultural violence present in the study area. The theme of chasing dreams; discusses the process of sex trafficking as an outcome of violence. The theoretically abstracted concept of power-play identifies the cause for the generation of power imbalance producing inequality and the use of violence by men.

Subjugation of women

The subjugation of women reflected practices and beliefs imparting positional differences for women and their social situation compared to men. The participants shared a common understanding that belief systems adhering to male supremacy have positioned women in a lower status. They provided examples of social practices of male supremacy such as males being considered as the carrier of a family name, legacy, and heritage, while women were referred to as someone else’s property. The socialization of the idea that girls will be married off to a husband and relocate themselves to their homes was identified as the major reason for instilling and perpetuating early gender differences. The participants mentioned that discriminatory practices and seclusion have situated women at the bottom rung of the gender hierarchy, establishing them as socially incompetent individuals or groups. Moreover, they inferred that selective preferences provided preparatory grounds for inequalities, and they remain attached to women throughout their lives. The participants provided examples of unequal access to education and life opportunities as a practice of selective preferences occurring in the community. They mentioned that socialization with these discriminatory beliefs and their practice helped to develop specialized gender roles from an early age. The participants provided an example of how gender intersected with mobility and resource generation in the community, it was clear from the discussions that this has restricted women inside homes but provided freedom and opportunities for men. A female participant expressed,

A woman from a poor family is more than willing to work and support her family. But she is not allowed by the men in the family to work outside of the home.

The participants informed that differences between the sexes were visible for women from a young age. Sharing practical examples from the community, the participants from both groups stated that girls received education mostly in low-cost government and community schools, while boys were enrolled in expensive private schools. They raised concerns that this selective investment for education, cited as the ‘building block of life’ by the participants, installed lesser capacity, and negotiating abilities in girls. A female participant stated,

There are differences in educational opportunities for boys and girls in our community. Family provides more support for a boy’s education by enrolling him in private schools, while a girl mostly gets her education in a community school together with engagement in household work.

The discussions revealed that women required several male anchors for their survival during their various stages of life. The participants provided examples of the shift of anchors for women which traversed from a father to a husband during marriage and later to the male child during her old age. They believed that this tradition of transferring women’s identity established men as a higher social category and stripped women of their individuality and identity. A male participant added,

Women have to remain dependent on men throughout their lives, first with their fathers and later with their husbands. They remain completely dependent as they are not economically active. This makes men believe that they have higher authority.

The female participants provided an example of marriage to illustrate how someone else’s decision-making had been affecting women’s lives. A participant explained that women were held responsible for household activities after marriage and any support for career progression or education was restricted despite her desire for its continuation. It was inferred that women had to drop their hopes and aspirations as the husband and his family made decisions for them. The female participants agreed that this continuous exposure to the ideas of male supremacy makes them start to believe and internalize the idea that women have lesser cognitive abilities and intelligence compared to men. A female participant stated,

Men and women certainly have different mental abilities. Men think and act differently often in a smart way compared to women.

The participants from both groups expressed that youth in the community were developing flexible attitudes and beliefs towards gender roles and responsibilities. They agreed that both young men and women were observed altering their roles and responsibilities shifting from traditional gender ideologies. The participants expressed that instilling these fluidity and flexible approaches in the older generation was impossible as they strictly followed traditional beliefs and practices. Few of the female participants admitted that at times young women also fail to accommodate the situation and reap benefits from available opportunities. The discussions revealed that a few of the women in the community received opportunities for independence and economic empowerment. These women had received entrepreneurial training and various skill development activities for sustaining livelihoods with practical skill-based training in tailoring, beautician, and doll-making. The female participants expressed that opportunities for independence and growth slipped away from them due to a lack of family support, financial constraints, and self-passivity. They explained that starting a business required approval from a family which was difficult to obtain. Moreover, if women made a self-decision to start up on their own, they lacked the initial capital and had to rely on men for obtaining resources. The participants further explained that the denial of men to support women were majorly due to the fear that norms of staying indoors for women will be breached and economic independence may enable women to have a similar financial footing as men. The participants stated that self-passivity in women emerged due to their engagement in household multiple roles, dependency upon males, and lack of decision-making power and abilities. A female participant summed it up by stating,

Some of us women in the community have received entrepreneurial skills training, but we have not been able to use our skills for our growth and development. Once the training finishes, we get back to our household chores and taking care of the children.

The female participants admitted that acceptance of belief systems requiring women to be docile, unseen, and unheard were the reasons for this self-passivity. The female participants resonated that the external controlling and unfavorable environment influenced by practices of discriminatory norms and beliefs developed self-passivity for women. A female participant expressed the cause and consequence of self-passivity as,

Women have inhibitions to speaking their minds; something stops us from making our position clear, making us lose all the time.

The discussions identified that gender norms were deeply engraved in various social interactions and daily life, and any deviance received strict criticism. The participants shared common examples of sanctions for women based on rigid norms like restrictive movements for women, social gossiping when women communicated with outsider men, prohibition for opinion giving in public, and lesser involvement during key decision-making at home. The participants shared that norms dictating gender roles were in place for both men and women with social sanctions and approval for their performance. A male discussion participant who occasionally got involved with cooking which was a so-called “women’s job” faced outright disapproval from his female relatives and neighbors. The male participant stated,

If I cook or get engaged in any household jobs, it is mostly females from the home and neighborhood who make fun of me and remind me that I am a man and that I should not be doing a woman’s job.

The foreign migration of youth looking for job opportunities has affected the Tharu community. It was known that a large number of men were absent from the community. The participants stated that women in such households with absent men had gained authority and control over resources, moreover, these women have been taking some of the men’s roles. The participants disclosed that these women had greater access and control over resources and were involved in the key decision-making positioning them in a relatively higher position compared to other women. It was known that this higher position for women came with a price, they were under higher social vigilance and at higher risk of abuse and violence due to the absence of ‘protective men’. It was known that women's foreign employment was associated with myths and sexist remarks. The participants shared that women had to face strict social criticisms and that their plans for livelihood and independence were related to an issue of sexual immorality and chastity. The participants from both groups strictly opposed the norms that associated women with sexual immorality but lamented that it continues. A male participant provided an insight into the social remarks received by women if she dares to go for foreign employment,

If a woman wants to go for a foreign job, she is considered to be of loose character. The idea that she is corrupt and will get involved in bad work will be her first impression of anyone.

Although the participant did not explicitly describe what bad work referred to as but it was inferred that he was relating it to sex work.

Domestic and gender violence

The participants identified violence as control, coercion, and use of force against someone will occurring due to unequal status. They primarily identified men as the perpetrators and women as the victims of violence. They explained that two types of violence were observed in the community. The first type occurred in an interpersonal relationship identified as physical, emotional, and sexual violence. The second type, as explained by the participants had its roots in socio-cultural belief systems. They provided examples of dowry exchange and witchcraft accusations for the latter type. The participants identified women as primary victims and listed both men and women as the perpetrators of both types of violence. They reported that physical violence against women by men under the influence of alcohol was the most commonly occurring violence in the community. The participants from both groups confirmed that wife-beating, verbal abuse, and quarrel frequently occurred in the community. It was known from discussions that alcohol consumption among men was widespread, and its cultural acceptance was also increasing episodes of violence. One of the female participants clarified further,

The most common violence occurring in our society is wife-beating by a husband under the influence of alcohol. We see it every day.

The participants reported the occurrence of sexual violence in the community but also pointed out that people refrained from discussing it considering it a taboo and private affair. The participants had hesitation to discuss freely on sexual violence. During the discussions, participants from both groups informed only of rape and attempted rape of women by men as sexual violence present in the community. Despite repeated probing, on several occasions, none of the participants from either group brought up issues and discussions about any other forms of sexual violence. Participants from both groups confirmed that stories about incidents of rape or attempted rape emerged only after cases were registered with the local police. The participants presumed that incidents of rape and attempted rape were not known to the wider community. A female participant stated,

Sexual violence does occur in our community, but people mostly do not report or disclose it, but they tend to keep it amongst themselves and their families.

The participants explained the identity of the rape perpetrator and victim. They identified the perpetrator as a rich, influential, and relatively powerful man from the community. The victim was portrayed as a poor and isolated woman which lesser social ties. It was known from the discussions that most of the rape cases in the community were settled with financial negotiations and monetary compensations for the victim rather than finding legal remedies. It can be inferred that the victimization of women intersects with gender, wealth, social stature, and affluence. The participants feared that this practice of settlement of rape with money could make rape a commodity available for the powerful, rich, and affluent men to exploit and victimize women. A male participant clarifies,

Recently, a man in his sixties raped a young girl near our village. The victim's family was ready to settle with monetary compensation offered by the rapist, but the involvement of the community stopped it and the rapist was handed over to the police.

The participants shared available coping mechanisms against violence practiced in the community by women. It was learned that the victim of household violence mostly used community consultation and police reporting to evade further violence. They divulged that community consultation and police reporting resulted in decisions in favor of victim women, directing abusive husbands to show decency and stop committing violence. The fear of legal repercussions such as spending time in police custody and getting charged under domestic violence cases was understood as the reasons for husbands to stop abuse and violence. The discussions revealed that women who file a formal complaint about their husband’s violent behavior could face an increased risk of violence. The participants disclosed that sharing such incidents publicly brought shame to some of the men and increased their anger, and often backlashed with increased violence. The participants in both groups stated that not all women in the community reported violence. They identified that women tend to be quiet despite facing continuous violence due to the fear of encountering more violence and to keeping their families together. A female participant clarifies,

Lodging public complaints against the abusive husband can sometimes escalate the violence. The husband’s anger for being humiliated in public must be faced by the woman inside the closed doors of the house with more violence and the men’s threat of abandoning the relationship.

The participants stated that socio-cultural violence against women in dowry-related cases was widespread and increasing. The dowry exchange was explained as a traditional practice with the family of the bride paying cash and kind to the groom's family. The participants clarified that the practice of dowry in the earlier days must have been an emergency fund for the newly wedded bride in a newer setting. According to the participants, the system of dowry has now developed and evolved as a practice of forced involuntary transfer of goods and cash demanded by the groom’s family. The discussions disclosed that the demands for dowry were increasing with time and failing to provide as promised immediately resulted in violence for the newly wedded bride. The participants described that dowry-related violence starts with taunts and progresses to withholding of food, verbal abuse, and finally, physical violence. They added that perpetrators of such violence were both men and women from the groom’s family. They stated that due to poverty not all bride families in the community were able to supply all demanded dowry which has exposed a large number of women to face dowry-related abuse and violence. The discussions also informed of a newer trend among girls by demanding goods during their wedding. It was shared that this new emerging trend had increased a two-fold financial burden on the bride’s family with heavy marriage debts. The male participants when questioned about the dowry demands cunningly shifted the responsibilities towards family and stated that it was not the groom but their families who were making such dowry demands. The discussions verified that dowry practice was so engraved in the community that it was impossible to even imagine a marriage without any dowry. A male participant reflected,

If I marry without any dowry, my family, neighbors, and all whom I know would consider that I am insane.

The participants also discussed and identified harmful traditional practices present in the community. The participants informed a common practice of accusing women of as witches existed in the community. It was mentioned that women faced witchcraft allegations in different situations. They provided examples of witchcraft allegations in common situations such as when someone’s cow stops producing milk when a child has a sore eye, when someone is bedridden due to sickness for days, or when a woman undergoes a miscarriage, etc. The participants stated that women accused of witch were always elderly/single women living in seclusion, poverty, and with fewer social ties. They also shared that the witch doctors, who ascertain whether a woman is a witch or not, were surprisingly mostly always men and hold higher status, respect, and social recognition. The consequences of being labeled as a witch, as explained by the participants, haunted victim women with torture, name-calling, social boycott, and extremes of physical violence. The participants informed that inhumane practices such as forceful feeding of human excreta prevailed during the witch cleansing sessions. A female participant explaining the witchcraft situation stated,

Witchcraft accusation is very real in our community; I know someone who has tortured his mother, citing reasons for his wife being childless. The old woman was called names, beaten, and later thrown out of the home.

The participants felt that men’s use of violence and its legitimization primarily existed due to gender hierarchy and internalization of the belief that violence was the best method to resolve any conflict. They inferred that men’s use of violence was further reinforced by women's acceptance and belief that violence had occurred due to their faults and carelessness. The female participants shared examples of common household situations that could result in an episode of violence such as women cooking distasteful food, failing to provide timely care to children and the elderly due to workload, and forgetting to clean rooms. These incidents make women believe that violence majorly occurred due to their mistakes. Furthermore, the participants believed that this self-blaming of the victim resulted due to constant exposure to violence and a non-negotiable social positioning of women for raising questions. The participants stated that beliefs instilled by religion increased the likelihood of victimization for women. They explained that religious practices and ideologies required women to refer to their husbands as godly figures, and a religious belief that anything said or done against husbands was a disgrace bringing sin upon her and family positioned women in an inferior position. A male participant added,

We belong to a culture where females worship their husbands as a god, and this might be an important reason for men to feel powerful as a god to exploit and abuse women.

The discussions put forward the idea that the existence of discriminatory beliefs, reinforcement of such beliefs, and a blind following of such practices produced differences and violence. The male participants acknowledged that the idea of male supremacy not only produced violence but also established a belief system that considered violence as an indispensable way to treat deviated women. One male participant stated this idea of male supremacy and privilege as,

The language of the feet is essential when words fail.

The participants also discussed violence committed toward men by women. The male participants burst into laughter when they stated that some men were beaten by their wives when they were drunk. The male participants admitted that intoxication reduced their strength and they got beaten. The female participants, on the other hand, assumed that women hit intoxicated men due to frustration and helplessness. They further clarified that the act of husband beating was a situational reaction towards men who had spent all of their daily earnings on alcohol. They stated that women with the responsibility to cook and feed family find themselves in an utterly helpless situation by the irresponsible drinking behavior of men. The male participants shared incidences of violence against men due to foreign migration. It was revealed in the discussions that some of the migrating men’s wives had run away with remitted money, abandoning marriage, and breaking up the family. The male participants identified this as a form of victimization of men, furthermore, the spreading of rumors and gossip caused emotional instability in those men. The female participants confirmed that some returning men failed to find their homes, property, money, and/or their wives. The discussion participants in both groups identified that this practice was on the rise in the community. It became apparent from the discussions that this increasing trend of women running away with the money and breaking away from family was a personal issue requiring social remedies.

Chasing dreams

The participants referred to sex trafficking as the exploitation of women, arising from poverty, illiteracy, and deceit. Explaining the causes of trafficking, the participants stated that women living in poverty, having dreams of prosperity and abundance were tricked by the traffickers making them victims of sex trafficking. The participants mentioned that women who had dreams larger than life and yearned for a comfortable and luxurious life in a short time were at a greater risk for sex trafficking. The participants from both groups resonated that the traffickers had been manipulating the dreams of poor women and deceiving them into trafficking. A female participant elaborated,

Women in poverty can be fooled easily with dreams. She can be tricked by a trafficker by saying I will find you employment with good pay abroad, and she gets into the trap easily.

A male participant further clarified,

Women readily fall into fraud and trickery shown by the traffickers who assure of luxurious life with foreign employment and this bait often leads to sex trafficking.

They identified that false hopes for foreign jobs were primarily used as an entry point by the traffickers to trap potential victims. Besides, they stated that some traffickers tricked women with false romantic relationships and marriages to win over their trust enabling traffickers to maneuver women as they wished.

It was identified that traffickers were not always strangers but known and familiar faces from the community, allowing the traffickers to gain the victim’s trust. The discussions divulged that traffickers strategically chose women who were less educated and poor. The participants explained that sex trafficking mostly occurred among women from a lower caste (the caste system is hierarchy-based in Hindu society which is determined by birth and unchangeable). They further explained that if one of these lower caste women went missing, it seldom raised any serious concerns in society, making these women easy targets for the traffickers. The discussions revealed that life for the survivors of sex trafficking was difficult. They identified that the survivor had to face strong stigmas and stereotypes which further increased their risk for re-victimization. The participants explained that the social acceptance of the trafficking survivors was minimal and finding a job for survival was very difficult. It was reported that social beliefs, norms, and practices were rigid for sex trafficking survivors and provided lesser opportunities for complete social integration. A female participant stated,

The story of a sex-trafficked woman does not end after her rescue. It is difficult for her to live in society, and this increases her chances of being a further victim.

The discussions in both groups highlighted that education and awareness were important for reducing sex trafficking. The participants felt that securing a livelihood for women was essential, but they identified it as a major challenge. The female participants recommended the use of education and awareness for reducing sex trafficking. They demanded effective legal actions and stringent enforcement of the law with maximum punishment for offending sex traffickers. They mentioned that the fear of law with maximum punishment for culprits could help decrease cases of trafficking.

The theoretical concept of power play

The discussions identified that gender inequality and violence against women occurred as men possessed and exercised greater authority. The participants explained that the authority emerging from male-centric beliefs was reinforced through established socio-cultural institutions. It was known that oppressive practices toward women in both public and private life have led to the domination and devaluation of women. The differences between men and women were known to be instilled by evoking discriminatory beliefs and due to internalization of them as fundamental truths by women which further helps to sustain these created differences.

The concept of power-play developed from the study has its roots in the belief systems and was found constantly used by men to maintain created differences. The power-play rise due to patriarchy, guiding discriminatory norms and unequal gender practices. These norms and practices in the canopy of patriarchy positions women inferior to men and impose control and restrictions. The power play possessed multi-dimensional effects on women such as creating further barriers, restricted life opportunities, the need for men-centered anchoring systems, and exclusion from the public arena. The power play gains its strength from the strict enforcement of stereotypical practices and committed adherence to gender performances. This leads to internalization of subordination as a natural occurrence by women. These further isolate women putting them into several non-negotiating positions. The power play at an individual level provides restrictive movement for women, barring them from quality education and other life opportunities, and is exhibited in alcohol-related assault and sexual violence. At the structural level, this power play limits women from economic opportunities, access to resources, and decision-making, and induces socio-cultural inequality exhibited in dowry and cases of witchcraft. The socio-cultural acceptance of power-play allows men to use violence as a misuse of power and use it as an effort to maintain authority. The use of power-play for committing violence was identified as the worst display of exercised power play.

Figure  1 describes the concept of power-play developed from the study. The power-play model is based on discussions and inferences made from data analysis. The model provides a description and explanation of how women are subjected to inequality and face violence. The concept of power play derives its strength from the subjugated status of women which are based on selective treatment, self-embodiment of inferiority, imposed restrictions and due to lesser life opportunities. The power play gain legitimacy through social approval of the status differences between men and women and through social systems and institutions majorly developed and favoring men. The status difference between men and women and its approval by developed social institutions and processes give rise to the concept of powerplay. It identifies that status differences allow men to gain and (mis)use power play not only to maintain differences but also enable men to use violence. The use of power-play exists at both interpersonal and cultural levels. Further, the model elaborates on influencers causing subjugation of women, display of power-play, and violence. The model identified that lodging public complaints and seeking legal remedies are the influencers that suppress violence against women. The influence of Forum Theater was perceived to have greater influence for victim, perpetrator, and bystanders. The influencers that aggravate violence are fear of further violence, the nature of the interpersonal relationship, alcohol-related abuse, and remaining silent especially on sexual violence. The cultural violence mentioned in the model refers to dowry and witchcraft-related violence and stands as systemic subordination. In the model, sex trafficking is depicted as one of the outcomes of inequality and violence faced by women majorly occurring due to deceit and fraud.

figure 1

The theoretical concept of power-play developed in this study identifies that inequality produces violence and violence further reinforces inequality, creating a vicious circle. The power play situates hierarchy based on gender as the primary cause and identifies violence as an outcome of this power asymmetry. The authority to use power by men is received by social approval from embedded structures and institutions. The functioning of associated structures and norms is designed and run by men helping to perpetuate the dominance and subjugation of women. The study identifies that both interpersonal and socio-cultural violence emerges due to the positional differences and use of power. The study found that an element of control exists in interpersonal violence. The findings show that few victim women in the community took advantage of consultations and rely on the law to evade and /or cope during the occurrence of interpersonal violence. A large number of victims women however suffer silently as they are unable and unwilling to take a stand on violence due to their perceived positional differences and strict norms following. The study finds that violence originating from socio-cultural systems is widely accepted and no established means of control exists. The practice of heinous acts against a fellow human during witchcraft allegations and dowry exchanges is prohibited by the law of Nepal but is widespread. This situates that practices which are based on belief systems are more effective than prevailing national laws which try to stop them. Sex trafficking as a form of sexual violence use deceit and fraud against women. Poverty and illiteracy compel women to search for alternatives, and they become easy victims of sex trafficking when their dreams of a better life are manipulated by the traffickers. The false promise of a better life and highly paid job put women in a non-negotiating position with traffickers. The cherished dream of escaping the prevailing status-quo of oppression, subordination, violence, and poverty mesmerizes women to take risky decisions, falling into the risk and trap of sex trafficking.

The socio-cultural norms are the unwritten script of social operatives and functioning. These social norms function as codes of operation and are a major determinant for behavior and interactions between people [ 43 ]. The study has found that these norms were skewed, and most favored men, giving rise to status differences and producing inequalities for women. This is observed with lesser life opportunities, lower participation in decision-making, and a constant need to anchor women. This further helps men to maintain their hierarchical positional status and use violence. The subjugation of women does not occur in a linear process, it is influenced by the internalization of discrimination resulting in lower self-esteem, suppression, and domination of women based on norms and unequal practices. Earlier research has identified that norms and beliefs encourage men to control women, and direct them to use force to discipline women which increases the risk of violence occurrence [ 44 , 45 ]. An earlier study shows that traits of masculinity require men to become controlling, aggressive, and dominant over women to maintain status differences [ 46 ]. The study confirms that men upon receiving both normative and social approval for using violence against women can do so without hesitation.

Violence against women in Nepal mostly occurs inside the home and is only reported when it reaches higher levels of severity. The acceptance of violence as a private affair has restricted women from seeking support and discourages them from communicating their problems with outsiders [ 47 ] this increases more likelihood for men to use violence. The study finds issues related to sex and sexual violence is a taboo and are seldom reported. The study could only identify cases of sexual assault registered with the police and other cases known to the wider community as sexual violence. A community with known incidents of rape may have other cases of abuse, harassment, incest, forceful sexual contact, etc. Failure to report incidents of sexual violence infer that a large number of women could be suffering in silence. Earlier research identifies that increased stigmatization associated with sexual violence, and fear of seclusion cause reluctance in victims to report or seek support [ 48 ]. This silencing of victims provides men with greater sexual control over women [ 49 ] increasing more likelihood of use of violence. Gender-based inequality and violence intersect structures, institutions, and socio-cultural processes, making inequality and violence visible at all levels. The dowry-related violence and witchcraft allegation intersect interpersonal and structural violence. This cultural violence forces women to be a victim of lifelong abuse and trauma. The intersecting relationship between gender norms, social structures, and individual is so closely knitted that it produces varieties of inequality and violence at all levels [ 50 ]. Emotional violence in this study only emerged as a type of violence, during discussions in both groups. It did not emerge as a major concern for the participants except for dowry-related violence and violence against men. The intertwined nature of emotional violence and its occurrence with each abusive, exploitative, and violent situation may have influenced the participants understand it as a result, rather than as a specific type of violence.

The power play between sexes was found in synchronicity with the established norms and prevailing stereotypes, helping to perpetuate gender power imbalance. The gender system is influenced and governed by norms and the social arena becomes the site of its reproduction through the interaction and engagement of people. This interaction provides approval to the institutions and processes that are based on constructed differences between men and women [ 51 ]. The power, as identified by Fricker [ 52 ], controls a social group and operates and operates through the agent or established social structures. A man can actively use the vested power to either patronize and/or abuse women while passively women’s internalization of social settings and embedded norms can put them docile. The social controls as reported by Foucault [ 53 ] work with the embedded systems of internalization, discipline, and social monitoring and uses coercion rather than inflicting pain. The internalization of status differences among women as indicated by the study confirms this schema of social control. The dominance of men over women with patriarchal beliefs establishes the significance of male-centered kinship. This requires women to constantly anchor with men providing grounds for inequalities to perpetuate further. This idealizes men and reinforces the belief that women are non-existent without their presence. The requirement for male anchorage has an attachment to prevailing structural inequality. The family property and resources are mostly controlled by men and it usually transfers from father to son limiting inheritance to women [ 51 ]. These glorified idealizations of men's competence as described by Ridgeway [ 54 ] idealize men as individuals with abilities, status, power, and influences. The need for women to rely on men as anchors, fear of going against the norms and social sanctions explains the positional difference and show that men possess greater competencies. The internalization of men-centric superior beliefs by women occurs due to self-passivity and devalues women creating false impressions of their abilities. The gender roles and responsibilities were strict for both sexes but provided greater flexibility, privilege, and opportunity for men. Earlier studies in congruence with this study find that socio-cultural expectations limit women from deviation, and strictly adhere to their prescribed role and expectations [ 55 , 56 ] providing an upper hand to the men. The unequal social positioning of women, as defined by a few of the participants, can help define men's use of violence. As inferred by Kaufman [ 57 ], the disadvantageous position of women and support from the established structures enable men to use aggression and violence with considerable ease. The concept of power-play derived from this study also reflects that inequalities not only create hierarchies, putting women into a subordinating position but also legitimize norms of harmful masculinity and violence [ 57 , 58 , 59 , 60 ] creating a vicious cycle of inequality and violence. The concept of power-play developed by this study requires further exploration of gender relations, injustice, and patriarchy to identify multiple operatives of power with an outcome of inequality and violence.

Strengths and limitations of the study

The study followed the same participants over a period, which helped the study to achieve clarity on the topics through constant engagement. The data collection and the initial data analysis of the study were conducted by the same person, which reduced the risk of misrepresented findings. The study used follow-up discussions, which provided an opportunity to meet the participants again to resolve any ambiguities. The constant engagement with the participants helped to develop rapport and trust, which is essential to enable meaningful discussions. The study gathered rich data for developing the theory of power play in the Nepalese context. The study has attempted to explain the interplay of men’s use of power play, gender inequality, and violence against women, which, in itself, is a complex, but important issue. The study helped to develop a platform by identifying a level of awareness and needs for a Forum Theatre intervention study, a first of its kind in Nepal.

The major limitation of the study is that it was conducted with only one of the ethnic populations of Nepal; thus, the findings from this study cannot be generalized to a completely different setting. However, the transferability of the study is possible in a similar setting. The incidences of inequality and violence shared by the participants were self-reported, and no other means of verification were available to crosscheck those claims. The differences among the participants both in and between groups based on education and marital status might have influenced the study participants to understand, observe, and experience the phenomenon. The possibility of social desirability bias remains with the study, as a constant engagement with the study participants might have influenced them to answer differently. Furthermore, the discussions were conducted in groups, and participants might have had hesitation to bring up any opposing views. The study relied on collecting information on social norms and individual experiences and the perceptions of the study participants. It cannot be claimed that the study is devoid of any data rigidity as participants were free to choose what they wanted to share and express.

Study implications

The study explains gender practices, norms, violence against women, and sex trafficking in Nepal. The study helps to increase the understanding of how gender systems are operative in the daily lives of the Tharu community in the Morang district of Nepal. Future studies can explore the established linkages of interpersonal and socio-cultural violence. Like the complex link existing between gender inequality and violence against women, interpersonal violence and socio-cultural violence cannot be studied in isolation. The study provides an opportunity for future research on exploring how changing norms have been altering the position and victimization of women. The study finds that changing gender norms and responsibilities have, on the one hand, provided agency and empowerment for women, but on the other hand, they have also increased their risk of being a victim, an area that requires further exploration. The study has identified that constant engagement with the study participants through follow-up studies ensures the richness of data, which can be useful information for a future research study design. The study can be helpful for policy development, social activists, leaders, and researchers as it discusses prevalent gender oppressions and victimization, which need to be addressed. The findings from the study can be helpful for dialogue imitation and for designing intervention projects aimed at providing justice and equality to women.

The study identifies the presence of gender inequalities and violence against women in the study area. The positional differences based on norms, institutions, and practices have assigned greater privileges to men. The concept of power-play devised by the study ascertains the maintenance of gender hierarchy to produce inequality further and victimization of women. The subjugation of women based on the social-cultural process, embedded belief systems, and norms prevent women from life opportunities and dignified life. It situates men at the highest rung of the gender and social ladder providing a comparative advantage for men to use power. Violence emerges as men’s use of power play and as a strategy for the continued subjugation of women. Sex trafficking as a consequence of inequality and violence has its origins in illiteracy and poverty with women falling prey to the deceit of traffickers. It is important that dreams for progression provide motivation for women to develop further but at the same time, dreams should not be exchanged with trickery and fraud offered by the traffickers. Awareness and attitudinal changes are imperative to challenge unequal norms, and practices, and reduce the risks of sex trafficking. This can help to develop negotiations for power-sharing which helps to reduce inequality, violence, and preparedness in chasing dreams. Changes at both individual and societal levels are necessary to develop a collective action for establishing belief systems and practices providing women with an equal position and reducing the risk of violence.

Availability of data and materials

The datasets generated and/or analyzed during the current study are not publicly available due to privacy but are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

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The authors are grateful to all the focus group discussion participants. The authors are indebted to Bhojraj Sharma, Deekshya Chaudhary, Subham Chaudhary, and Dev Kala Dhungana for their coordination and facilitation in reaching the discussion participants.

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Research Article

Justifying gender discrimination in the workplace: The mediating role of motherhood myths

Contributed equally to this work with: Catherine Verniers, Jorge Vala

Roles Conceptualization, Formal analysis, Funding acquisition, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing

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Affiliations Paris Descartes University, Sorbonne Paris Cité, Paris, France, Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon, Lisbon, Portugal

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Roles Conceptualization, Funding acquisition, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing

Affiliation Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon, Lisbon, Portugal

  • Catherine Verniers, 


  • Published: January 9, 2018
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18 Jul 2018: Verniers C, Vala J (2018) Correction: Justifying gender discrimination in the workplace: The mediating role of motherhood myths. PLOS ONE 13(7): e0201150. View correction

Table 1

The issue of gender equality in employment has given rise to numerous policies in advanced industrial countries, all aimed at tackling gender discrimination regarding recruitment, salary and promotion. Yet gender inequalities in the workplace persist. The purpose of this research is to document the psychosocial process involved in the persistence of gender discrimination against working women. Drawing on the literature on the justification of discrimination, we hypothesized that the myths according to which women’s work threatens children and family life mediates the relationship between sexism and opposition to a mother’s career. We tested this hypothesis using the Family and Changing Gender Roles module of the International Social Survey Programme. The dataset contained data collected in 1994 and 2012 from 51632 respondents from 18 countries. Structural equation modellings confirmed the hypothesised mediation. Overall, the findings shed light on how motherhood myths justify the gender structure in countries promoting gender equality.

Citation: Verniers C, Vala J (2018) Justifying gender discrimination in the workplace: The mediating role of motherhood myths. PLoS ONE 13(1): e0190657.

Editor: Luís A. Nunes Amaral, Northwestern University, UNITED STATES

Received: October 6, 2017; Accepted: December 18, 2017; Published: January 9, 2018

Copyright: © 2018 Verniers, Vala. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License , which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Data Availability: All relevant data are available from the GESIS Data Archive (doi: 10.4232/1.2620 and doi: 10.4232/1.12661 ).

Funding: This work was conducted at the Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon, Portugal, and supported by a travel grant of the European Association for Social Psychology, , and a travel grant of the Association pour la Diffusion de la Recherche en Psychologie Sociale, , attributed to the first author. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


The latest release from the World Economic Forum—the Gender Gap Report 2016 [ 1 ]–indicates that in the past 10 years, the global gender gap across education and economic opportunity and politics has closed by 4%, while the economic gap has closed by 3%. Extrapolating this trajectory, the report underlines that it will take the world another 118 years—or until 2133 –to close the economic gap entirely. Gender inequalities are especially blatant in the workplace. For instance, on average women are more likely to work part-time, be employed in low-paid jobs and not take on management positions [ 2 , 3 ].

There is evidence that gender inequalities in the workplace stem, at least in part, from the discrimination directed against women. Indeed, several studies have documented personal discrimination against women by decision makers (for meta-analyses see [ 4 , 5 ], some of them having more specifically examined the role of the decision makers’ level of sexist attitudes on discriminatory practices. For instance, Masser and Abrams [ 6 ] found in an experimental study that the higher the participants scored in hostile sexism, the more they were likely to recommend a male candidate rather than a female one for a managerial position. In spite of consistent evidence that higher sexism is related to greater bias toward working women [ 7 ], little is known regarding the underlying processes linking sexism to discrimination. This question remains an important one, especially because the persistence of gender discrimination contradicts the anti-discrimination rules promoted in modern societies. In fact, the issue of gender equality in employment has given rise to numerous policies and institutional measures in advanced industrial countries, all aimed at tackling gender discrimination with respect to recruitment, promotion and job assignment. In the USA, for instance, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1963 Equal Pay Act provided the legal foundation for the implementation of anti-discrimination laws within the workplace. The Treaty on the European Union and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, all contain provisions relating to the promotion of equality between women and men in all areas, and the prohibition of discrimination on any ground, including sex. The member states of the European Union must comply with these provisions [ 8 ]. In this respect, some countries have incorporated legislation on equal treatment of women and men into general anti-discrimination laws (e.g., Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Slovenia, Sweden, Great Britain), while other countries have opted for a specific gender equality act (e.g., Spain). Comparable policies have been implemented in the Asian-Pacific area, with countries including gender equality into broad anti-discrimination laws (e.g., Australia), and other countries having passed laws especially dedicated to addressing discrimination against women (e.g., Japan, the Philippines). The purpose of this research is to further explore the psychosocial process involved in the stubborn persistence of gender discrimination in the workplace, using a comparative and cross-sectional perspective of national representative samples.

Psychosocial processes involved in justified discrimination

According to several lines of research [ 9 – 13 ], the expression of prejudice in contexts where social and political anti-discrimination values are prevalent implies justifications. Crandall and Eshleman [ 10 ] defined justifications as “any psychological or social process that can serve as an opportunity to express genuine prejudice without suffering external or internal sanction”. According to social dominance theory, justification of practices that sustain social inequality arises through the endorsement of legitimizing myths [ 13 ]. Moreover, research conducted in the field of system justification theory has extensively documented an increased adherence to legitimizing ideologies (including social stereotypes, meritocracy, political conservatism, etc.) in contexts where motivation to justify unequal social arrangements is heightened [ 14 – 17 ]. Relying on this literature Pereira, Vala and Costa-Lopes [ 18 ] provided evidence of the mediational role of myths about social groups on the prejudice-support for discriminatory measures relationship. Specifically, they demonstrated that the myths according to which immigrants take jobs away from the host society members and increase crime rates mediated the relationship between prejudice and opposition to immigration (see also [ 19 ]). We assume that an equivalent mediational process underlies the justification of gender discrimination in the workplace or, put differently, that the sexism-opposition to women’s career relationship is mediated by legitimizing myths. Glick and Fiske [ 20 ] conceptualised sexism as a multidimensional construct that encompasses hostile and benevolent sexism, both of which having three components: paternalism, gender differentiation and heterosexuality. We suspect that the gender differentiation component of sexism in particular may be related to gender discrimination in the workplace, because the maintenance of power asymmetry through traditional gender roles is at the core of this component [ 20 ]. Accordingly, it is assumed that the higher the endorsement of sexist attitudes regarding gender roles in the family, the higher the opposition to women’s work. In support of this assumption, Glick and Fiske [ 21 ] stated that gender roles are part of the more general interdependence between women and men occurring in the context of family relationships and, importantly, that these traditional, complementary gender roles shape sex discrimination. However, given that the expression of hostility towards women became socially disapproved [ 22 , 23 ] and that gender discrimination in the workplace is subjected to sanctions (see for instance [ 24 ]), the release of sexism with regard to women’s role in the family and women’s professional opportunities may require justification [ 10 , 19 ].

Motherhood myths as a justification for gender discrimination

Compared with other intergroup relations, gender relations present some unique features (e.g., heterosexual interdependence; [ 25 , 26 ] and accordingly comprise specific myths and ideologies aimed at maintaining the traditional system of gender relations [ 27 – 29 ]. For instance, the belief that marriage is the most meaningful and fulfilling adult relationship appears as a justifying myth, on which men and women rely when the traditional system of gender relations is challenged by enhanced gender equality measured at the national level [ 30 ]. Drawing on this literature, we propose that beliefs that imbue women with specific abilities for domestic and parental work ensure that the traditional distribution of gender roles is maintained. In particular, we suggest that motherhood myths serve a justification function regarding gender discrimination against women in the workplace. Motherhood myths include the assumptions that women, by their very nature, are endowed with parenting abilities, that at-home mothers are bonded to their children, providing them unrivalled nurturing surroundings [ 31 , 32 ]. Conversely, motherhood myths pathologised alternative mothering models, depicting employed mothers as neglecting their duty of caring, threatening the family relationships and jeopardizing mother-children bondings (see [ 33 ] for a critical review of these myths). Motherhood myths have the potential to create psychological barriers impairing women’s attempt to seek power in the workplace [ 34 ] and men’s involvement in child care [ 35 – 37 ]. We suggest that beyond their pernicious influence at the individual level of parental choices, motherhood myths might operate more broadly as justifications for gender discrimination regarding career opportunity. This question is of particular relevance given that equal treatment in the workplace appears even more elusive for women with children—the maternal wall [ 38 ] (see also [ 39 – 45 ]). At the same time, recognizing the pervasive justifying function of motherhood myths may help understand the psychosocial barriers faced not only by women who are mothers, but by women as a whole since "women are expected to become mothers sooner or later" (Dambrin & Lambert [ 46 ], p. 494; see also [ 47 ]). Relying on previous work documenting the mediational role of legitimizing myths on the prejudice—discrimination relationship [ 18 , 19 ] we suggest that the myths according to which women pursuing a career threaten the well-being of the family mediates the relationship between sexist attitudes regarding gender roles and opposition to women’s work.

Exploring gender and time as possible moderators of the hypothesized mediation

Besides the test of the main mediational hypothesis, the present research sought to explore time and gender as possible moderators of the assumed relationship between sexism, motherhood myths and discrimination. A review of the historical development of gender equality policies confirms that the implementation of laws and regulations aimed at eliminating gender discrimination in the workplace is a lengthy process (e.g., for the European countries see [ 48 ]; for the USA see [ 49 ]). In fact, although the basic principle of anti-discrimination has been enacted by many countries in the second half of the 20 th century, some measures are still adopted nowadays, such as the obligation for employers to publish information by 2018 about their bonuses for men and women as part of their gender pay gap reporting, a provision recently taken by the UK government. As egalitarian principles have gradually progressed in societies, it is likely that the expression of intergroup bias has become steadily subjected to social sanction. Thus, “as with racism, normative and legislative changes have occurred in many industrialized societies that make it less acceptable to express sexist ideas openly” (Tougas, Brown, Beaton, & Joly, [ 50 ], p. 843; see also [ 51 ]). Accordingly, gender discrimination within organizations became less intense and more ambiguous [ 52 – 54 ]. In line with this reasoning, the use of motherhood myths as a justification for unequal career opportunities may have increased over time. Conversely, it has been suggested that along with the increasing female participation in the labour market over the last decades, a positive attitude regarding the government-initiated women-friendly policies now coexists with an adherence to traditional family values and norms [ 55 ]. There is a possibility that the coexistence of contradictory norms in the same culture may leave some room for the expression of gender bias (i.e., a normative compromise, [ 56 ]), reducing slightly the need to rely on justifications to discriminate against working women. The present research will examine these possibilities by studying the role of motherhood myths on the sexism—discrimination relationship in 1994 and 2012.

Another possible moderator examined in the present study is the respondents' gender. Basically, the reason why people rely on justifications is to express their genuine prejudices without appearing biased. Consistent evidence, however, suggests that the perpetrator’s gender affects people’s perception of sexism towards women: given that sexism is generally conceived as involving a man discriminating against a woman, men are perceived as prototypical of the perpetrator [ 57 , 58 ]. As a consequence, sexist behaviours carried out by males are perceived as more sexist than the same behaviours enacted by females [ 59 , 60 ]. Moreover, the expression of sexism by women may go undetected due to the reluctance of women to recognize that they might be harmed by a member of their own gender group [ 22 ]. Taken together, these findings suggest that a woman is more likely than a man to express sexist bias without being at risk of appearing sexist. In line with this reasoning, one could assume that men need to rely on justifications to discriminate to a greater extent than women do. Alternatively, women expressing sexism against their ingroup members are at risk of being negatively evaluated for violating the prescription of feminine niceness [ 61 , 62 ]. As a consequence, women might be inclined to use justifications to discriminate in order to maintain positive interpersonal evaluations. An additional argument for assuming that women may rely on motherhood myths lies in the system justification motive. According to system justification theory [ 63 , 64 ], people are motivated to defend and justify the status quo, even at the expense of their ingroup. From this perspective, the belief that every group in society possesses some advantages and disadvantages increases the belief that the system is balanced and fair [ 29 , 65 ]. Motherhood myths imbue women with a natural, instinctual and biologically rooted capacity to raise children that men are lacking [ 66 ]. In addition, they convey gender stereotype describing women in positive terms (e.g., considerate, warm, nurturing) allowing a women-are-wonderful perception [ 27 ]. As a consequence, women are likely to rely on motherhood myths to restore the illusion that, despite men structural advantage [ 67 , 68 ], women as a group still possess some prerogatives [ 34 ].

The aim of the present study is to test the main hypothesis (H1) that motherhood myths are a justification that mediates the relationship between sexism and opposition to women’s work following the birth of a child. Additionally, two potential moderators of this mediational process are considered. The present research tests the exploratory hypotheses that (H2) the assumed mediational process is moderated by time and (H3) by participants’ gender. We tested these hypotheses using the Family and Changing Gender Roles module of the International Social Survey Programme [ 69 , 70 ]. This international academic project, based on a representative probabilistic national sample, deals with gender related issues, including attitudes towards women’s employment and household management. Hence this database enables a test of the proposed mediational model on a large sample of female and male respondents and data gathered 18 years apart.

We used the 2012 and 1994 waves of the ISSP Family and Changing Gender Roles cross-national survey [ 69 , 70 ]. The ISSP published fully anonymized data so that individual survey participants cannot be identified. The two databases slightly differed regarding the involved countries, some of which did not participate in the two survey waves. In order to maintain consistency across the analyses, we selected 18 countries that participated in both survey waves (i.e., Austria, Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Norway, Philippines, Poland, Russia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the USA). The data file for the 2012 survey wave included 24222 participants (54.4% female participants), mean age = 49.38, SD = 17.54, and the data file for the 1994 survey wave included 27410 participants (54.4% female participants), mean age = 44.26, SD = 17.07.

The main variables used in this study are the following:

One indicator was used to capture sexism: “A man's job is to earn money; a woman's job is to look after the home and family”. This item taps into the gender differentiation component of sexism [ 20 , 25 ]. Participants answered on a 5 point likert scale ranging from 1 = strongly agree to 5 = strongly disagree. Data was recoded so that the higher scores reflected higher sexism.

Motherhood myths.

Two indicators were used that capture the myths about the aversive consequence of mother’s work for her child and the family: “A preschool child is likely to suffer if his or her mother works” and “All in all, family life suffers when the woman has a full-time job”. Participants answered on a 5 point likert scale ranging from 1 = strongly agree to 5 = strongly disagree. Data was recoded so that the higher scores reflected higher endorsement of motherhood myths.

Opposition to women’s career.

Two indicators were used to capture the opposition to women’s professional career following the birth of a child: “Do you think that women should work outside the home full-time, part-time or not at all when there is a child under school age?” and “Do you think that women should work outside the home full-time, part-time or not at all after the youngest child starts school?” Participants answered on a scale ranging from 1 = work full time, 2 = work part-time, 3 = stay at home.

In addition, the first step of our analyses involved the following control variables: participant’s gender and age, partnership status, educational level, subjective social status, attendance of religious services and political orientation.

The following section presents the results of a four-step analysis: The first step consists of a preliminary hierarchical regression analysis to establish the respective contributions of demographical variables, sexism and motherhood myths to opposition to women’s work. The second step is dedicated to a test of the construct validity of the proposed measurement model using Confirmatory Factor Analyses. The third step involves a test of the hypothesized mediation. Finally, the last step is a test of the hypothesized moderated mediations.

Step 1: Hierarchical regression analysis

Inspection of the correlation matrix ( Table 1 ) indicates that all the correlations are positive, ranging from moderate to strong. The pair of items measuring motherhood myths presents the strongest correlation ( r (48961) = .633), followed by the pair of items measuring opposition to women’s career ( r (45178) = .542).


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We conducted a hierarchical regression analysis to establish the respective contributions of demographical variables, sexism and motherhood myths to opposition to women’s work. In block 1, participant’s gender (male = -1, female = 1) and partnership (no partner = -1, partner = 1) were entered together with standardized scores of age, years of schooling, subjective social status, attendance of religious services and political orientation. Block 2 included sexism, the myths about the aversive consequence of mother’s work for her child and for family (all standardized). Predictors in block 1 accounted for 9% of the variance, F (7, 10140) = 157.89, p < .001. The analysis revealed the significant effects of participant’s gender ( B = -.033, SE = .006, p < .001), age ( B = .058, SE = .006, p < .001), years of schooling ( B = -.135, SE = .007, p < .001), subjective social status ( B = -.057, SE = .007, p < .001), religiosity ( B = .076, SE = .006, p < .001) and political orientation ( B = .04, SE = .006, p < .001). Partnership was unrelated to opposition to women’s career ( B = .002, SE = .006, p = .77). Taken together the results indicate that the higher the time of education and the subjective social status, the lower the opposition to women’s work. Conversely, the higher the age, religiosity and political conservatism, the higher the opposition to women’s work. Finally, results indicate that opposition to women’s work is more pronounced amongst men than amongst women. When entered in block 2, sexism and motherhood myths accounted for an additional 18% of the variance, indicating that these variables significantly improved the model’s ability to predict opposition to women’s work, over and above the contributions of gender, partnership, education, social status, religiosity and political orientation (Δ R 2 = .18), Δ F (3, 10137) = 854.04, p < .001. Specifically, the analysis revealed the significant effects of sexism ( B = .151, SE = .006, p < .001), myth about the aversive consequence of mother’s work for her child ( B = .10, SE = .007, p < .001) and myth about the aversive consequence of women’s work for family ( B = .09, SE = .007, p < .001). It should be noted that the effect of participant’s gender virtually disappeared after controlling for sexism and motherhood myths ( Table 2 ). In addition, we performed this hierarchical regression analysis separately for the two waves and consistently found that the variables of our model (sexism and the motherhood myths) explained more variance than the demographical variables.


Step 2: Confirmatory factor analyses

We conducted a CFA to check the construct validity of the proposed measurement model. CFA and subsequent analyses were all performed using R. 3.4.1 and the Lavaan package [ 71 ]. The loading of the single indicator of the sexism variable and the loading of the first indicator of the motherhood myths and opposition variables were constrained to 1.00 [ 72 ], and the three variables were allowed to correlate. Results show a good fit to the data, χ 2 (3, N = 42997) = 400.36, p < .001, CFI = .993, RMSEA = .05 [90% CI = .05, .06], SRMR = .01, AIC = 540804. In addition, we estimated an alternative model in which all items loaded on a unique latent variable. This alternative model shows a poorer fit to the data, χ 2 (5, N = 42997) = 8080.28, p < .001, CFI = .867, RMSEA = .19 [90% CI = .19, .19], SRMR = .07, AIC = 548480. The comparison of the two models indicates that the proposed measurement model fits the data better than the alternative one, Δ χ 2 (2, 42997) = 7679.9, p < .001. We repeated this comparison in each country and results confirm that the proposed measurement model fits better in all countries (see S1 Table for comparative test of the goodness of fit of the hypothesized measurement model vs. alternative measurement model in each country).

We tested the measurement invariance of the CFA model across the two survey waves. To do this, we conducted a model comparison to test for configural and metric invariances. Results indicate that the configural invariance can be retained, χ 2 (6, N = 42997) = 513.05, p < .001, CFI = .991, RMSEA = .06 [90% CI = .05, .06], SRMR = .01, AIC = 537580. When constraining the loadings to be equal across waves fit indices remain satisfactory, χ 2 (8, N = 42997) = 679.58, p < .001, CFI = .989, RMSEA = .06 [90% CI = .05, .06], SRMR = .02, AIC = 537743. The change in CFI is below the cutpoint of .01, indicating that the metric invariance can be retained and that further comparisons of the relationships between constructs across survey waves can be performed [ 73 , 74 ]. Furthermore, we repeated this comparison in each country and results support the configural invariance of the CFA model across survey waves in all countries. In addition, the full metric invariance is obtained in all but three countries—Poland, Slovenia and the USA. In these countries, the CFIs are larger than the cutpoint of .01, indicating a lack of full metric invariance. Nonetheless, we were able to retain a partial metric invariance of the CFA model across the survey waves by setting free one non-invariant loading [ 75 ], (see S2 Table for the test of the invariance of the measurement model across survey waves by country).

We tested the measurement invariance of the CFA model across gender groups using the same procedure as for the test of the measurement invariance across survey waves. The baseline model constraining the factor structure to be equal in the two gender groups shows good fit to the data, χ 2 (6, N = 42943) = 440.95, p < .001, CFI = 0.993, RMSEA = .05 [90% CI = .05, .06], SRMR = .01, AIC = 539573, indicating that the configural invariance is achieved for the two groups. Then we fitted a more restricted model in which the factor loadings were constrained to be equal across groups. This model allows testing for the metric invariance (equal loadings) of the model across gender. Once again, the results indicate that this constrained model show good fit to the data, χ 2 (8, N = 42943) = 469.14, p < .001, CFI = 0.992, RMSEA = .05 [90% CI = .04, .05], SRMR = .01, AIC = 539598. Furthermore, the Δ CFI is below the cutpoint of .01, indicating that the metric invariance can be retained [ 75 ]. This result confirms that cross gender comparisons of the relationships between constructs can reasonably be performed. Furthermore, we repeated this procedure in each country. Once again, the Δ CFIs are below the cutpoint of .01, indicating that the configural invariance of the CFA model across gender groups is achieved in all countries (see S3 Table for the test of the invariance of the measurement model across gender groups by country).

Step 3. Mediation analysis

Overview of the analysis strategy..

This study main hypothesis is that (H1) the more people hold sexist attitude regarding gender roles, the more they endorse motherhood myths, which in turn enhances the opposition to women’s career after the birth of a child. In order to test this assumption, we ran mediational analyses using structural equation modelling. First, we examined the goodness of fit of the hypothesized mediational model and compared it with the goodness of fit of two alternative models. In the first alternative model, motherhood myths predict sexism that, in turn, predicts opposition. In the second alternative model, opposition to women’s career predicts motherhood myths. After having established that the hypothesized model adequately fit the data, we examined the coefficients for the hypothesized relationships between variables.

Goodness of fit of the models.

Inspection of the fit indices indicates that the hypothesized model fits the data better than the first alternative model in 16 out of the 18 analysed countries ( Table 3 ). Thus, in these countries the data is better accounted for by a model stating motherhood myths as a mediator of the sexism-opposition to women’s career relationship, rather than by a model stating sexism as a mediator of the myths-opposition to women’s career relationship. The comparison of the fit indices indicates that the two models fit the data to almost the same extent in the two remaining countries (i.e., Czech Republic, and Philippines). Finally, the second alternative model—where opposition to women’s career predicted motherhood myths and sexism—shows very poor fit to the data in all countries. This result suggests that endorsement of motherhood myths is not a mere consequence of discrimination.


Test of the relationships between variables.

The goodness of fit of the proposed mediational model having been established in 16 countries out of 18, we next examined the coefficients for the hypothesized relationships in these countries. Table 4 shows the results of the mediation analysis in the 16 retained countries. The total effect of sexism on opposition to women’s career is positive and significant in all countries. The direct effect is reduced in all countries when controlling for the indirect effect through motherhood myths. As recommended in the literature, the indirect effects were subjected to follow-up bootstrap analyses using 1000 bootstrapping resamples [ 76 ]. The null hypothesis is rejected and the indirect effect is considered significant if the 95% confidence intervals (CI) do not include zero. All bias corrected 95% CI for the indirect effect excluded zero, indicating that in line with H1, endorsement of motherhood myths is a significant mediator of the relationship between sexism and opposition to women’s career in all countries.


In order to provide an overview of the proposed mediational model, we next present the analyses conducted on the total of the 16 countries retained. The hypothesized mediational model shows acceptable fit to the data, χ 2 (4, N = 38178) = 971.09, p < .001, CFI = .983, RMSEA = .08 [90% CI = .07, .08], SRMR = .04, AIC = 473476. Inspection of the fit indices of the first alternative model where endorsement of motherhood myths predicted sexism that, in turn, predicted opposition confirms that this alternative model shows poorer fit to the data than the proposed model, χ 2 (4, N = 38178) = 7583.1, p < .001, CFI = .870, RMSEA = .22 [90% CI = .21, .22], SRMR = .13, AIC = 480088. The second alternative model, where opposition to women’s career predicted motherhood myths shows poor fit to the data, χ 2 (5, N = 38178) = 14224.61, p < .001, CFI = .756, RMSEA = .27 [90% CI = .26, .27], SRMR = .21, AIC = 486728, and accordingly fits the data less well than the proposed mediational model, Δ χ 2 (1, 38178) = 13254 p < .001. As can be seen in Fig 1 , the standardized regression coefficient for the direct effect of sexism on opposition to women’s career is significant ( β = .16, p < .001). In addition, the unstandardized estimate for the indirect effect excludes zero (.13, SE = 0.003, bias corrected 95% CI [.12, .13]) and, therefore, is significant. Taken together, analyses conducted on the whole sample, as well as on each country separately, support our main assumption that endorsement of motherhood myths is a significant mediator of the relationship between sexism and opposition to women’s career.


The coefficient in parentheses represents parameter estimate for the total effect of prejudice on opposition to women’s career. *** p < .001.

Step 4. Moderated mediation analyses

Indirect effect through survey waves..

The moderated mediation model was estimated using a multiple group approach. This model exhibits good fit to the data, χ 2 (6, N = 38178) = 438.88, p < .001, CFI = .992, RMSEA = .06 [90% CI = .05, .06], SRMR = .01. The standardized coefficients for the total effect are .50 in the 2012 survey, and .52 in the 1994 survey. The unstandardized estimates for the indirect effect is .10, SE = 0.003, bias corrected 95% CI [.10, .11] in the 2012 survey, and .11, SE = 0.003, bias corrected 95% CI [.10, .11] in the 1994 survey. The intervals do not include zero, indicating that motherhood myths are a significant mediator of the relationship between sexism and opposition to women’s career in both survey waves. The difference between the indirect effect in 2012 and 1994 is not significant (-.003, SE = 0.004, bias corrected 95% CI [.-.01, .00]). We repeated the moderated mediation analysis in each country. As can be seen in Table 5 , the indirect effect reaches significance in each survey wave in all countries. The indirect effect is not moderated by the survey year, except in Great Britain where the indirect effect, although still significant, decreased between 1994 and 2012, and Bulgaria, Poland, and Russia where the indirect effect slightly increased between 1994 and 2012.


Indirect effect as a function of the respondents’ gender.

The moderated mediation model exhibits good fit to the data, χ 2 (6, N = 38124) = 402.46, p < .001, CFI = .993, RMSEA = .06 [90% CI = .05, .06], SRMR = .01. The total effect of sexism on opposition to women’s career is positive and significant for both men ( β = .52, p < .001) and women ( β = .50, p < .001). The standardized indirect effect of sexism on opposition to women’s career through motherhood myths is .27 in the male subsample, and .29 in the female subsample. The unstandardized estimates for the indirect effect is .11, SE = 0.003, bias corrected 95% CI [.10, 12] in the male sample, and .10, SE = 0.003, bias corrected 95% CI [.09, .10] in the female sample. The intervals do not include zero, indicating that motherhood myths are a significant mediator of the relationship between sexism and opposition to women’s career among both men and women respondents. The difference between the indirect effect among men and women is not statistically significant (.01, SE = 0.004, bias corrected 95% CI [.00, .01]). We repeated this analysis in each country separately (see Table 6 ). Results confirm that the indirect effect of sexism on opposition to women’s career through motherhood myths is not moderated by the respondents’ gender in 15 out of the 16 countries. The only exception is Poland. In this country, the indirect effect is stronger for the female than for the male respondents.


Using a large representative sample of respondents from various countries the present research documented a psychosocial process of justification of discrimination against working women with children. As a preliminary step, hierarchical regression analysis established that sexism and motherhood myths predict opposition to women’s work, over and above gender, partnership, education, social status, religiosity and political orientation. Furthermore, structural equation modellings on the whole sample, as well as on each country separately, confirmed our main hypothesis that endorsement of motherhood myths mediates the relationship between sexism and opposition to women’s career following a birth. In addition, test of the moderated mediation indicated that the indirect effect reaches significance in each survey wave in almost all countries examined without substantial difference. Only in Bulgaria, Poland, and Russia did the indirect effect slightly increase between 1994 and 2012, suggesting that motherhood myths is more a justification for the expression of sexism nowadays than in the late 20 th century. Great Britain shows a reverse pattern with a slight decrease of the indirect effect between the two waves. However, besides these minor variations, it should be noted that motherhood myths remain a significant mediator of the sexism-opposition to women’s career relationship in all countries. The present research also considered participants' gender as a potential moderator of the indirect effect, and results indicated that the process of justification of discrimination against working women does not differ as a function of the respondents' gender. The only exception to this finding is Poland where the indirect effect is indeed stronger among women than among men. An examination of the specific features of female employment in this country sheds some light on this result. Young women in Poland are better educated than young men and are more likely to have permanent employment than men [ 77 ]. At the same time however, working women spend on average two and a half hours per day on unpaid work more than men—which is reflected by the fact that more than 1 in 3 women reduce their paid hours to part-time, while only 1 in 10 men do the same—and are predominant users of parental leave [ 3 ]. It is noteworthy that reduced working hours (and long periods of leave) hinders female career progression through less training, fewer opportunities for advancement, occupational segregation, and lower wages [ 78 , 79 ]. Accordingly, in Poland women earn 9% less than men (one of the lowest gender pay gap in OECD) but the pay gap reaches 22% by presence of children (above the OECD average of 16%; [ 77 ]). The fact that women appear even more inclined than men to rely on motherhood myths to justify gender discrimination is consistent with a system justification perspective [ 63 ]. Drawing on the logic of cognitive dissonance theory, system justification theory in its strong form posits that members of disadvantaged groups may be even more likely than members of advantaged groups to support existing social inequalities [ 64 ]. The rational is that members of disadvantaged groups would experience psychological discomfort stemming from the concurrent awareness of their ingroup's inferiority within the system, and of their ingroup's contribution to that system. Justification of the status quo would therefore reduce dissonance [ 80 ]. The finding that women strongly rely on motherhood myths to justify gender discrimination precisely in a country with strong motherhood penalty can be regarded as an expression of this system justification motive.

The present research sheds new light on the effect of macrolevel inequality on the justification of discrimination, and more broadly on the process of legitimation of gender inequalities [ 9 , 81 ]. In a recent study, Yu and Lee [ 82 ] found a negative association between women’s relative status in society and support for gender equality at home. More specifically, the authors found that although respondents in countries with smaller gender gaps express greater support for women’s participation in the labour force, they still exhibit less approval for egalitarian gender roles within the household, in particular regarding the share of domestic chores and childcare. As an explanation, the authors argued that the less traditional the gender division of labour is in a society, the more people need to express their freedom of maintaining these roles and to defend the gender system, leading to the endorsement of gender differentiation in the private sphere. However, the present research allows an alternative explanation for this seemingly paradoxical finding to be suggested. At a macrolevel, higher gender equality conveys strong suppressive factors (which reduce the expression of prejudice) by demonstrating that the society promotes egalitarianism between women and men. In parallel, the gender specialization in the division of the household responsibilities and especially regarding childcare provides a strong justifying factor (which releases prejudice) by emphasising essential differences between gender groups [ 26 ]. Thus, the counterintuitive finding that the more egalitarian a society is, the less people support gender equality at home may indeed reflect an attempt to justify the release of genuine sexism. Conversely, it is likely that a less egalitarian society brings with it some degree of tolerance towards gender discrimination, reducing the need to rely on justifications to express sexism. A closer look at our results regarding Norway and Japan supports this view. Norway and Japan appears as especially contrasted regarding gender equality, in particular with regard to economic participation and opportunity [ 1 ]. According to the World Economic Forum, Norway has the second smallest gender gap in the world. In addition, gender equality promotion is frequently mobilised both in political debates and in mainstream society [ 55 ]. For its part, Japan ranks 101 st on the overall gender gap index, which makes Japan well below average compared to other advanced industrial countries [ 83 ]. Besides this gender gap, consistent research reports a unique trivialisation of anti-gender equality discourses in the media [ 84 ] and of gender-based discriminatory behaviours in the workplace, including sexual harassment [ 85 ]. Comparing the strength of the indirect effect of sexism on opposition to women’s career through motherhood myths in these two countries ( Table 4 ), it is noteworthy that the coefficient is larger in Norway than in Japan. This result gives support to the assumption that macrolevel gender (in)equality affects the psychological process of justification at the individual level. Future studies should clarify how macrolevel inequalities impact societal norms, which in turn influence legitimation processes.

It is also worth noting that the justifying function of motherhood myths is established in all analysed countries despite some notable differences between parental leaves policies and practices. For instance, the United States are the only OECD country to offer no nationwide entitlement to paid leave, neither for mothers nor for fathers [ 86 ]. On the other hand, the Nordic nations, with Norway and Sweden in the lead, are in the vanguard of progressive policy-making regarding shared parental leave entitlement: Sweden was the first country in the world in 1974 to offer fathers the possibility of taking paid parental leave, quickly joined by Norway in 1978 [ 87 ]. More recently in 2007, Germany introduced a new law aiming at encouraging shared parental leave. In practice, the length of the financial support for parental leave can increase from 12 to 14 months provided that fathers use the parental benefit for at least 2 months. Recent research aiming at investigating whether German men who take parental leave are judged negatively in the workplace revealed that, in contrast with women who experience penalty for motherhood [ 40 ], fathers do not face backlash effect when they take a long parental leave [ 88 ]. The authors concluded that "gender role attitudes have changed". Tempering this view, the present study indicates that even in countries promoting incentives for fathers to take parental leave, motherhood myths—and specifically the belief that mother's work threatens the family—are still a justification for gender discrimination in the workplace. With regard to practices, it should be noted that shared parental leave policies, whose purpose is to foster gender equality in the labor market, often fail to meet this objective, with the majority of fathers actually taking the minimum length of leave entitlement, or no parental leave at all, and the majority of mothers still facing the majority of childcare [ 88 ]. Once again, more research is needed to document the process of mutual influences between changing family policies and the maintenance of the gender status quo via justifying beliefs.

Limitations and future directions

Although the hypothesized mediational process is supported by the data, and is in line with previous experimental findings [ 19 ], conclusion regarding causality are necessarily limited due to the correlational nature of the research. We hope that these preliminary findings will open the way to experimental studies allowing for a conclusion on the direction of causality between variables and the further documenting of the behavioural consequences of the endorsement of motherhood myths. For instance, future studies should consider the extent to which motherhood myths interact with organizational norms to constrain the hiring and promotion of women. Castilla and Benard [ 89 ] showed that when an organization explicitly values meritocracy, managers favour a male employee over an equally qualified female employee. One explanation for this seemingly paradoxical results lies in the legitimation function of meritocracy [ 17 ] which is likely to release the expression of sexism. We suggest that when organizations promote egalitarian norms, or put differently, when organizations set suppression factors, then motherhood myths may serve as a justification for unequal gender treatment regarding career outcomes.

Due to constraints related to the availability of data in the ISSP base, only one indicator was used to capture sexism. This can be regarded as a limitation providing that sexism is typically defined as a complex construct [ 20 ]. We argue that measuring the gender differentiation component of sexism through a single item represents a valid approach, as suggested by previous research indicating that single-item measures may be as reliable as aggregate scales [ 90 – 94 ]. However, using a multiple-item measure of sexism in future studies would provide a more comprehensive examination of the relations between the different components of sexism and opposition to gender equality in the workplace.

The present research focused on opposition to mothers' work as an indicator of gender discrimination. However, evidence suggests that motherhood myths may justify discrimination towards women as a whole rather than mothers only. First, as previously mentioned social roles create gender expectations [ 95 ] so that all women are expected to become mothers [ 47 ]. Furthermore, research using implicit association test indicate that people automatically associate women with family role [ 96 ]. As a consequence, it is plausible that employers rely on motherhood myths to discriminate against women in general regarding recruitement, performance evaluation, and rewards, arguing that women will sooner or later be less involved in work and less flexible for advancement than men [ 97 ]. This justification is compatible with the employers' reluctance to hire women and promote them to the highest positions even in the absence of productivity differences [ 98 ].

Practical implications

In this study we were able to document that motherhood myths are a widespread justification for gender discrimination in the workplace, including in countries with anti-discrimination laws and advanced family policies. From this regard, the present findings help understand the paradoxical effects of family-friendly policies on women's economic attainment. Mandel and Semyonov [ 99 ], using data from 20 countries, found evidence that family policies aimed at supporting women's economic independence, and including provision of childcare facilities and paid parental leaves, increase rather than decrease gender earning gaps. This unexpected effect is due to the fact that family policies are disproportionally used by mothers rather than fathers, with the consequence that mothers are concentrated in part-time employment, female-typed occupations, yet underrepresented in top positions. The authors concluded that "there are distinct limits to the scope for reducing gender wage inequality in the labor market as long as women bear the major responsibility for household duties and child care" (p. 965). We would add that there are strong barriers to the scope for attaining gender equality at home as long as motherhood myths are uncritically accepted and used as justification for unequal gender arrangements. Recent works provided evidence of the efficiency of interventions aimed at reducing sexist beliefs [ 100 ] and at recognizing everyday sexism [ 101 ]. In the same vain, interventions aimed at informing people that motherhood myths are socially constructed and maintained [ 33 ], and that they affect women's advancement and fathers' involvement [ 35 ], would represent a first step towards the reduction of discrimination by depriving individuals of a justification for gender inequalities.

The present research builds on and extends past findings by demonstrating that men and women rely on the belief that women’s work threatens the well-being of youth and family to justify discrimination against working women. If, at an individual level, this process allows discrimination to be exhibited without appearing prejudiced [ 10 ], at the group and societal levels, such a process may contribute to the legitimation and reinforcement of the hierarchical power structure [ 63 ]. By documenting a pervasive process by which people invoke motherhood myths to hinder women’s economic participation, the present research emphasizes the need to be vigilant about any attempts to promote a return to traditional gender roles, an issue of central importance given the contemporary rollback of women’s rights in advanced industrial countries [ 102 ].

Supporting information

S1 table. comparative test of the goodness of fit of the hypothesized measurement model vs. alternative measurement model..

All differences are significant at p < .001.

S2 Table. Test of the invariance of the measurement model across survey waves by country.

In Poland and Slovenia partial metric invariance of the measurement model was attained by setting free the loading of the item “ Do you think that women should work outside the home full-time , part-time or not at all after the youngest child starts school ?” on the “opposition” latent variable. This partly constrained model show good fit indices in Poland, χ 2 (7, N = 2248) = 36.18, p = .006, CFI = .990, RMSEA = .06 [90% CI = .04, .08], and Slovenia, χ 2 (7, N = 1867) = 12.92, p = .058, ns , CFI = .999, RMSEA = .03 [90% CI = .00, .05]. In the USA, partial metric invariance of the measurement model was attained by setting free the loading of the item “ All in all , family life suffers when the woman has a full-time job ” on the “motherhood myths” latent variable, χ 2 (7, N = 2117) = 11.08, p = .069, ns , CFI = .999, RMSEA = .02 [90% CI = .00, .04].

S3 Table. Test of the invariance of the measurement model across gender groups by count.

S1 Supplementary Information. Additional details concerning the way the research was conducted.


The authors are grateful to Virginie Bonnot, Cícero Pereira, and several anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.

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  • Published: 28 April 2020

The impact a-gender: gendered orientations towards research Impact and its evaluation

  • J. Chubb   ORCID: 1 &
  • G. E. Derrick   ORCID: 2  

Palgrave Communications volume  6 , Article number:  72 ( 2020 ) Cite this article

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A Correction to this article was published on 19 May 2020

This article has been updated

Using an analysis of two independent, qualitative interview data sets: the first containing semi-structured interviews with mid-senior academics from across a range of disciplines at two research-intensive universities in Australia and the UK, collected between 2011 and 2013 ( n  = 51); and the second including pre- ( n  = 62), and post-evaluation ( n  = 57) interviews with UK REF2014 Main Panel A evaluators, this paper provides some of the first empirical work and the grounded uncovering of implicit (and in some cases explicit) gendered associations around impact generation and, by extension, its evaluation. In this paper, we explore the nature of gendered associations towards non-academic impact (Impact) generation and evaluation. The results suggest an underlying yet emergent gendered perception of Impact and its activities that is worthy of further research and exploration as the importance of valuing the ways in which research has an influence ‘beyond academia’ increases globally. In particular, it identifies how researchers perceive that there are some personality traits that are better orientated towards achieving Impact; how these may in fact be gendered. It also identifies how gender may play a role in the prioritisation of ‘hard’ Impacts (and research) that can be counted, in contrast to ‘soft’ Impacts (and research) that are far less quantifiable, reminiscent of deeper entrenched views about the value of different ‘modes’ of research. These orientations also translate to the evaluation of Impact, where panellists exhibit these tendencies prior to its evaluation and describe the organisation of panel work with respect to gender diversity.


The management and measurement of the non-academic impact Footnote 1 (Impact) of research is a consistent theme within the higher education (HE) research environment in the UK, reflective of a drive from government for greater visibility of the benefits of research for the public, policy and commercial sectors (Chubb, 2017 ). This is this mirrored on a global scale, particularly in Australia, where, at the ‘vanguard’ (Upton et al., 2014 , p. 352) of these developments, methods were first devised (but were subsequently abandoned) to measure research impact (Chubb, 2017 ; Hazelkorn and Gibson, 2019 ). What is broadly known in both contexts as an ‘Impact Agenda’—the move to forecast and assess the ways in which investment in academic research delivers measurable socio-economic benefit—initially sparked broad debate and in some instances controversy, among the academic community (and beyond) upon its inception (Chubb, 2017 ). Since then, the debate has continued to evolve and the ways in which impact can be better conceptualised and implemented in the UK, including its role in evaluation (Stern, 2016 ), and more recently in grant applications (UKRI, 2020 ) is robustly debated. Notwithstanding attempts to better the culture of equality and diversity in research, (Stern, 2016 ; Nature, 2019 ) in the broader sense, and despite the implementation of the Impact agenda being studied extensively, there has been very little critical engagement with theories of gender and how this translates specifically to more downstream gendered inequities in HE such as through an impact agenda.

The emergence of Impact brought with it many connotations, many of which were largely negative; freedom was questioned, and autonomy was seen to be at threat because of an audit surveillance culture in HE (Lorenz, 2012 ). Resistance was largely characterised by problematising the agenda as symptomatic of the marketisation of knowledge threatening traditional academic norms and ideals (Merton, 1942 ; Williams, 2002 ) and has led to concern about how the Impact agenda is conceived, implemented and evaluated. This concern extends to perceptions of gendered assumptions about certain kinds of knowledge and related activities of which there is already a corpus of work, i.e., in the case of gender and forms of public engagement (Johnson et al., 2014 ; Crettaz Von Roten, 2011 ). This paper explores what it terms as ‘the Impact a-gender’ (Chubb, 2017 ) where gendered notions of non-academic, societal impact and how it is generated feed into its evaluation. It does not wed itself to any feminist tradition specifically, however, draws on Carey et al. ( 2018 ) to examine, acknowledge and therefore amend how the range of policies within HE and how implicit power dynamics in policymaking produce gender inequalities. Instead, an impact fluidity is encouraged and supported. For this paper, this means examining how the impact a-gender feeds into expectations and the reward of non-academic impact. If left unchecked, the propagation of the impact a-gender, it is argued, has the potential to guard against a greater proportion of women generating and influencing the use of research evidence in public policy decision-making.

Scholars continue to reflect on ‘science as a gendered endeavour’ (Amâncio, 2005 ). The extensive corpus of historical literature on gender in science and its originators (Merton, 1942 ; Keller et al., 1978 ; Kuhn, 1962 ), note the ‘pervasiveness’ of the ‘masculine’ and the ‘objective and the scientific’. Indeed, Amancio affirmed in more recent times that ‘modern science was born as an exclusively masculine activity’ ( 2005 ). The Impact agenda raises yet more obstacles indicative of this pervasiveness, which is documented by the ‘Matthew’/‘Matilda’ effect in Science (Merton, 1942 ; Rossiter, 1993 ). Perceptions of gender bias (which Kretschmer and Kretschmer, 2013 hypothesise as myths in evaluative cultures) persist with respect to how gender effects publishing, pay and reward and other evaluative issues in HE (Ward and Grant, 1996 ). Some have argued that scientists and institutions perpetuate such issues (Amâncio, 2005 ). Irrespective of their origin, perceptions of gendered Impact impede evaluative cultures within HE and, more broadly, the quest for equality in excellence in research impact beyond academia.

To borrow from Van Den Brink and Benschop ( 2012 ), gender is conceptualised as an integral part of organisational practices, situated within a social construction of feminism (Lorber, 2005 ; Poggio, 2006 ). This article uses the notion of gender differences and inequality to refer to the ‘ hierarchical distinction in which either women and femininity and men and masculinity are valued over the other ’ (p. 73), though this is not precluding of individual preferences. Indeed, there is an emerging body of work focused on gendered associations not only about ‘types’ of research and/or ‘areas and topics’ (Thelwall et al., 2019 ), but also about what is referred to as non-academic impact. This is with particular reference to audit cultures in HE such as the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which is the UK’s system of assessing the quality of research (Morley, 2003 ; Yarrow and Davies, 2018 ; Weinstein et al., 2019 ). While scholars have long attended to researching gender differences in relation to the marketisation of HE (Ahmed, 2006 ; Bank, 2011 ; Clegg, 2008 ; Gromkowska-Melosik, 2014 ; Leathwood et al., 2008 ), and the gendering of Impact activities such as outreach and public engagement (Ward and Grant, 1996 ), there is less understanding of how far academic perceptions of Impact are gendered. Further, how these gendered tensions influence panel culture in the evaluation of impact beyond academia is also not well understood. As a recent discussion in the Lancet read ‘ the causes of gender disparities are complex and include both distal and proximal factors ’. (Lundine et al., 2019 , p. 742).

This paper examines the ways in which researchers and research evaluators implicitly perceive gender as related to excellence in Impact both in its generation and in its evaluation. Using an analysis of two existing data sets; the pre-evaluation interviews of evaluators in the UK’s 2014 Research Excellence Framework and interviews with mid-senior career academics from across the range of disciplines with experience of building impact into funding applications and/ or its evaluation in two research-intensive universities in the UK and Australia between 2011 and 2013, this paper explores the implicitly gendered references expressed by our participants relating to the generation of non-academic, impact which emerged inductively through analysis. Both data sets comprise researcher perceptions of impact prior to being subjected to any formalised assessment of research Impact, thus allowing for the identification of unconscious gendered orientations that emerged from participant’s emotional and more abstract views about Impact. It notes how researchers use loaded terminology around ‘hard’, and ‘soft’ when conceptualising Impact that is reminiscent of long-standing associations between epistemological domains of research and notions of masculinity/femininity. It refers to ‘hard’ impact as those that are associated with meaning economic/ tangible and efficiently/ quantifiably evaluated, and ‘soft’ as denoting social, abstract, potentially qualitative or less easily and inefficiently evaluated. By extending this analysis to the gendered notions expressed by REF2014 panellists (expert reviewers whose responsibility it is to review the quality of the retrospective impact articulated in case studies for the purposes of research evaluation) towards the evaluation of Impact, this paper highlights how instead of challenging these tendencies, shared constructions of Impact and gendered productivity in academia act to amplify and embed these gendered notions within the evaluation outcomes and practice. It explores how vulnerable seemingly independent assessments of Impact are to these widespread gendered- associations between Impact, engagement and success. Specifically, perceptions of the excellence and judgements of feasibility relating to attribution, and causality within the narrative of the Impact case study become gendered.

The article is structured as follows. First, it reviews the gender-orientations towards notions of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ excellence in forms of scholarly distinction and explores how this relates to the REF Impact evaluation criteria, and the under-representation of women in the academic workforce. Specifically, it hypothesises the role of how gendered notions of excellence that construct academic identities contribute to a system that side-lines women in academia. This is despite associating the generation of Impact as a feminised skill. We label this as the ‘Impact a-gender’. The article then outlines the methodology and how the two, independent databases were combined and convergent themes developed. The results are then presented from academics in the UK and Australia and then from REF2014 panellists. This describes how the Impact a-gender currently operates through academic cultural orientations around Impact generation, and in its evaluation through peer-review panels by members of this same academic culture. The article concludes with a recommendation that the Impact a-gender be explored more thoroughly as a necessary step towards guiding against gender- bias in the academic evaluation, and reward system.

Literature review

Notions of impact excellence as ‘hard’ or ‘soft’.

Scholars have long attempted to consider the commonalities and differences across certain kinds of knowledge (Becher, 1989 , 1994 ; Biglan, 1973a ) and attempts to categorise, divide and harmonise the disciplines have been made (Biglan, 1973a , 1973b ; Becher, 1994 ; Caplan, 1979 ; Schommer–Aikins et al., 2003 ). Much of this was advanced with a typology of the disciplines from (Trowler, 2001 ), which categorised the disciplines as ‘hard’ or ‘soft’. Both anecdotally and in the literature, ‘soft’ science is associated with working more with people and less with ‘things’ (Cassell, 2002 ; Thelwall et al., 2019 ). These dichotomies often lead to a hierarchy of types of Impact and oppose valuation of activities based on their gendered connotations.

Biglan’s system of classifying disciplines into groups based on similarities and differences denotes particular behaviours or characteristics, which then form part of clusters or groups—‘pure’, ‘applied’, ‘soft’, ‘hard’ etc. Simpson ( 2017 ) argues that Biglan’s classification persists as one of the most commonly referred to models of the disciplines despite the prominence of some others (Pantin, 1968 ; Kuhn, 1962 ; Smart et al., 2000 ). Biglan ( 1973b ) classified the disciplines across three dimensions; hard and soft, pure and applied, life and non-life (whether the research is concerned with living things/organisms) . This ‘taxonomy of the disciplines’ states that ‘pure-hard’ domains tend toward the life and earth sciences,’pure-soft’ the social sciences and humanities, and ‘applied hard’ focus on engineering and physical science with ‘soft-applied’ tending toward professional practice such as nursing, medicine and education. Biglan’s classification looked at levels of social connectedness and specifically found that applied scholars Footnote 2 were more socially connected, more interested and involved in service activities, and more likely to publish in the form of technical reports than their counterparts in the pure (hard) areas of study. This resonates with how Impact brings renewed currency and academic prominence to applied researchers (Chubb, 2017 ). Historically, scholars inhabiting the ‘hard’ disciplines had a greater preference for research; whereas, scholars representing soft disciplines had a greater preference for teaching (Biglan, 1973b ). Further, Biglan ( 1973b ) also found that hard science scholars sought out greater collaborative efforts among colleagues when teaching as opposed to their soft science counterparts.

There are also long-standing gendered associations and connotations with notions of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ (Storer, 1967 ). Typically used to refer to skills, but also used heavily with respect to the disciplines and knowledge domains, gendered assumptions and the mere use of ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ to describe knowledge production carries with it assumptions, which are often noted in the literature; ‘ we think of physics as hard and of political science as soft ’, Storer explains, adding how ‘hard seems to imply tough, brittle, impenetrable and strong, while soft on the other hand calls to mind the qualities of weakness, gentleness and malleability’ (p. 76). As described, hard science is typically associated with the natural sciences and quantitative paradigms whereas normative perceptions of feminine ‘soft’ skills or ‘soft’ science are often equated with qualitative social science. Scholars continue to debate dichotomised paradigms or ‘types’ of research or knowledge (Gibbons, 1999 ), which is emblematic of an undercurrent of epistemological hierarchy of the value of different kinds of knowledge. Such debates date back to the heated back and forth between scholars Snow (Snow, 2012 ) and literary critic Leavis who argued for their own ‘cultures’ of knowledge. Notwithstanding, these binary distinctions do few favours when gender is then ascribed to either knowledge domain or related activity (Yarrow and Davies, 2018 ). This is particularly pertinent in light of the current drive for more interdisciplinary research in the science system where there is also a focus on fairness, equality and diversity in the science system.

Academic performance and the Impact a-gender

Audit culture in academia impacts unfairly on women (Morley, 2003 ), and is seen as contributory to the wide gender disparities in academia, including the under-representation of women as professors (Ellemers et al., 2004 ), in leadership positions (Carnes et al., 2015 ), in receiving research acknowledgements (Larivière et al., 2013 ; Sugimoto et al., 2015 ), or being disproportionately concentrated in non-research-intensive universities (Santos and Dang Van Phu, 2019 ). Whereas gender discrimination also manifests in other ways such as during peer review (Lee and Noh, 2013 ), promotion (Paulus et al., 2016 ), and teaching evaluations (Kogan et al., 2010 ), the proliferation of an audit culture links gender disparities in HE to processes that emphasise ‘quantitative’ analysis methods, statistics, measurement, the creation of ‘experts’, and the production of ‘hard evidence’. The assumption here is that academic performance and the metrics used to value, and evaluate it, are heavily gendered in a way that benefits men over women, reflecting current disparities within the HE workforce. Indeed, Morely (2003) suggests that the way in which teaching quality is female dominated and research quality is male dominated, leads to a morality of quality resulting in the larger proportion of women being responsible for student-focused services within HE. In addition, the notion of ‘excellence’ within these audit cultures implicitly reflect images of masculinity such as rationality, measurement, objectivity, control and competitiveness (Burkinshaw, 2015 ).

The association of feminine and masculine traits in academia (Holt and Ellis, 1998 ), and ‘gendering its forms of knowledge production’ (Clegg, 2008 ), is not new. In these typologies, women are largely expected to be soft-spoken, nurturing and understanding (Bellas, 1999 ) yet often invisible and supportive in their ‘institutional housekeeping’ roles (Bird et al., 2004 ). Men, on the other hand are often associated with being competitive, ambitious and independent (Baker, 2008 ). When an individual’s behaviour is perceived to transcend these gendered norms, then this has detrimental effects on how others evaluate their competence, although some traits displayed outside of these typologies go somewhat ‘under the radar’. Nonetheless, studies show that women who display leadership qualities (competitiveness, ambition and decisiveness) are characterised more negatively than men (Rausch, 1989 ; Heilman et al., 1995 ; Rossiter, 1993 ). Incongruity between perceptions of ‘likeability’ and ‘competence’ and its relationship to gender bias is present in evaluations in academia, where success is dependent on the perceptions of others and compounded within an audit culture (Yarrow and Davis, 2018). This has been seen in peer review, reports for men and women applicants, where women were disadvantaged by the same characteristics that were seen as a strength on proposals by men (Severin et al., 2019 ); as well as in teaching evaluations where women receive higher evaluations if they are perceived as ‘nurturing’ and ‘supportive’ (Kogan et al., 2010 ). This results in various potential forms of prejudice in academia: Where traits normally associated with masculinity are more highly valued than those associated with femininity (direct) or when behaviour that is generally perceived to be ‘masculine’ is enacted by a woman and then perceived less favourably (indirect/ unconscious). That is not to mention direct sexism, rather than ‘through’ traits; a direct prejudice.

Gendered associations of Impact are not only oversimplified but also incredibly problematic for an inclusive, meaningful Impact agenda and research culture. Currently, in the UK, the main funding body for research in the UK, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) uses a broad Impact definition: ‘ the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy ’ (UKRI website, 2019 ). The most recent REF, REF2014, Impact was defined as ‘ …an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia ’. In Australia, the Australian Research Council (ARC) proposed that researchers should ‘embed’ Impact into the research process from the outset. Both Australia and the UK have been engaged in policy borrowing around the evaluation of societal impact and share many similarities in approaches to generating and evaluating it. Indeed, Impact has been deliberately conceptualised by decision-makers, funders and governments as broad in order to increase the appearance of being inclusivity, to represent a broad range of disciplines, as well as to reflect the ‘diverse ways’ that potential beneficiaries of academic research can be reached ‘beyond academia’. The adoption of societal impact as a formalised criterion in the evaluation of research excellence was initially perceived to be potentially beneficial for women, due to its emphasis on concepts such as ‘public engagement’; ‘duty’ and non-academic ‘cooperation/collaboration’ (Yarrow and Davies, 2018 ). In addition, the adoption of narrative case studies to demonstrate Impact, rather than adopting a complete metrics-focused exercise, can also be seen as an opportunity for women to demonstrate excellence in the areas where they are over-represented, such as teaching, cultural enrichment, public engagement (Andrews et al., 2005 ), informing public policy and improving public services (Schatteman, 2014 ; Wheatle and BrckaLorenz, 2015). However, despite this, studies highlight how for the REF2014, only 25% of Impact Case Studies for business and management studies were from women (Davies et al., 2020 ).

With respect to Impact evaluation, previous research shows that there is a direct link between notions of academic culture, and how research (as a product of that culture) is valued and evaluated (Leathwood and Reid, 2008 ; p. 120). Geertz ( 1983 ) argues that academic membership is a ‘cultural frame that defines a great part of one’s life’ influences belief systems around how academic work is orientated. This also includes gendered associations implicit in the academic reward system, which in turn influences how academics believe success is to be evaluated, and in what form that success emerges. This has implications in how academic associations of the organisation of research work and the ongoing constructions of professional identity relative to gender, feeds into how these same academics operate as evaluators within a peer review system evaluation. In this case, instead of operating to challenge these tendencies, shared constructions of gendered academic work are amplified to the extent that they unconsciously influence perceptions of excellence and the judgements of feasibility as pertaining to the attribution and causality of the narrative argument. As such, in an evaluation of Impact with its ambiguous definition (Derrick, 2018 ), and the lack of external indicators to signal success independent of cultural constructions inherent in the panel membership, effects are assumed to be more acute. In this way, this paper argues that the Impact a-gender can act to further disadvantage women.

The research combines two existing research data sets in order to explore implicit notions of gender associated with the generation and evaluation of research Impact beyond academia. Below the two data sets and the steps involved in analysing and integrating findings are described along with our theoretical positioning within the feminist literature Where verbatim quotation is used, we have labelled the participants according to each study highlighting their role and gender. Further, the evaluator interviews specify the disciplinary panel and subpanel to which they belonged, as well as their evaluation responsibilities such as: ‘Outputs only’; ‘Outputs and Impact’; and ‘Impacts only’.

Analysis of qualitative data sets

This research involved the analysis and combination of two independently collected, qualitative interview databases. The characteristics and specifics of both databases are outlined below.

Interviews with mid-senior academics in the UK and Australia

Fifty-one semi-structured interviews were conducted between 2011 and 2013 with mid-senior academics at two research-intensive universities in Australia and the UK. The interviews were 30–60 min long and participants were sourced via the research offices at both sites. Participants were contacted via email and invited to participate in a study concerning resistance towards the Impact agenda in the UK and Australia and were specifically asked for their perceptions of its relationship with freedom, value and epistemic responsibility and variations across discipline, career stage and national context. Mostly focused on ex ante impact, some interviewees also described their experiences of Impact in the UK and Australia, in relation to its formal assessment as part of the Excellence Innovation Australia (EIA) for Australia and the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK.

Participants comprised mid to senior career academics with experience of winning funding from across the range of disciplines broadly representative of the arts and humanities, social sciences, physical science, maths and engineering and the life and earth sciences. For the purposes of this paper, although participant demographic information was collected, the relationship between the gender of the participants, their roles, disciplines/career stage was not explicitly explored instead, such conditions were emergent in the subsequent inductive coding during thematic analysis. A reflexive log was collected in order to challenge and draw attention to assumptions and underlying biases, which may affect the author, inclusive of their own gender identity. Further information on this is provided in Chubb ( 2017 ).

Pre- and post-evaluation interviews with REF2014 evaluators

REF2014 in the UK represented the world’s first formalised evaluation of ex-post impact, comprising of 20% of the overall evaluation. This framework served as a unique experimental environment with which to explore baseline tendencies towards impact as a concept and evaluative object (Derrick, 2018 ).

Two sets of semi-structured interviews were conducted with willing participants: sixty-two panellists were interviewed from the UK’s REF2014 Main Panel A prior to the evaluation taking place; and a fifty-seven of these were re-interviewed post-evaluation. Main Panel A covers six Sub-panels: (1) Clinical Medicine; (2) Public Health, Health Services and Primary Care; (3) Allied Health Professions, Dentistry, Nursing and Pharmacy; (4) Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience; (5) Biological Sciences; and (6) Agriculture, Veterinary and Food Sciences. Again, the relationship between the gender of the participants and their discipline is not the focus for the purposes of this paper.

Database combination and identification of common emergent themes

The inclusion of data sets using both Australian and UK researchers was pertinent to this study as both sites were at the cusp of implementing the evaluation of Impact formally. These researcher interviews, as well as the evaluator interviews were conducted prior to any formalised Impact evaluation took place, but when both contexts required ex ante impact in terms of certain funding allocation, meaning an analysis of these baseline perceptions between databases was possible. Further, the inclusion of the post-evaluation interviews with panellists in the UK allowed an exploration of how these gendered perceptions identified in the interviews with researchers and panellists prior to the evaluation, influenced panel behaviour during the evaluation of Impact.

Initially, both data sets were analysed using similar, inductive, grounded-theory-informed approaches inclusive of a discourse and thematic analysis of the language used by participants when describing impact, which allowed for the drawing out of metaphor (Zinken et al., 2008 ). This allowed data combination and analysis of the two databases to be conducted in line with the recommendations for data-synthesis as outlined in Weed ( 2005 ) as a form of interpretation. This approach guarded against the quantification of qualitative findings for the purposes of synthesis, and instead focused on an initial dialogic approach between the two authors (Chubb and Derrick), followed by a re-analysis of qualitative data sets (Heaton, 1998 ) in line with the outcomes of the initial author-dialogue as a method of circumventing many of the drawbacks associated with qualitative data-synthesis. Convergent themes from each, independently analysed data set were discussed between authors, before the construction of new themes that were an iterative analysis of the combined data set. Drawing on the feminist tradition the authors did not apply feminist standpoint theory, instead a fully inductive approach was used to unearth rich empirical data. An interpretative and inductive approach to coding the data using NVIVO software in both instances was used and a reflexive log maintained. The availability of both full, coded, qualitative data sets, as well as the large sample size of each, allowed this data-synthesis to happen.

Researcher’s perceptions of Impact as either ‘hard’ or ‘soft’

Both UK and Australian academic researchers (researchers) perceive a guideline of gendered productivity (Davies et al., 2017 ; Sax et al., 2002 ; Astin, 1978 ; Ward and Grant, 1996 ). This is where men or women are being dissuaded (by their inner narratives, their institutions or by colleagues) from engaging in Impact either in preference to other (more masculine) notions of academic productivity, or towards softer (for women) because they consider themselves and are considered by others to be ‘good at it’. Participants often gendered the language of Impact and introduced notions of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’. On the one hand, this rehearses and resurfaces long-standing views about the ‘Matthew Effect’ because often softer Impacts were seen as being of less value by participants, but also indicates that the word impact itself carries its own connotations, which are then weighed down further by more entrenched gender associations.

Our research shows that when describing Impact, it was not necessarily the masculinity or femininity of the researcher that was emphasised by participants, rather researchers made gendered presumptions around the type of Impact, or the activity used to generate it as either masculine or feminine. Some participants referred to their own research or others’ research as either ‘hard’ or as ‘soft and woolly’. Those who self-professed that their research was ‘soft’ or woolly’ felt that their research was less likely to qualify as having ‘hard’ impact in REF terms Footnote 3 ; instead, they claimed their research would impact socially, as opposed to economically; ‘ stuff that’s on a flaky edge — it’s very much about social engagement ’ (Languages, Australia, Professor, Male) . One researcher described Impact as ‘a nasty Treasury idea,’ comparing it to: a tsunami, crashing over everything which will knock out stuff that is precious ’ . (Theatre, Film and TV, UK, Professor, Male) . This imagery associates the concept of impact with force and weight (or hardness as mentioned earlier) particularly in disciplines where the effect of their research may be far more nuanced and subtle. One Australian research used force to depict the impact of teaching and claimed Impact was like a footprint, and teaching was ‘ a pretty heavy imprint ’ (Environment, UK, Professor, Male) . Participants characterised ‘force and weight’ as masculine, suggesting that some connotations of Impact and the associated activities may be gendered. The word ‘Impact’ was inherently perceived by many researchers as problematic, bound with linguistic connotations and those imposed by the official definitions, which in many cases are perceived as negative or maybe even gendered (Chubb, 2017 ): ‘ The etymology of a word like impact is interesting. I’ve always seen what I do as being a more subtle incremental engagement, relevance, a contribution ’. (Theatre, Film and TV, UK, Professor, Male) .

Researchers associated the word ‘impact’ with hard-ness, weight and force; ‘ anything that sorts of hits you ’ (Languages, UK, Senior Lecturer, Female) . One researcher suggested that Impact ‘ sounds kind of aggressive — the poor consumer! ’ (History, Australia, Professor, Female) . Talking about her own research in the performing arts, one Australian researcher commented: ‘ It’s such a pain in the arse because the Arts don’t fit the model. But in a way they do if you look at the impact as being something quite soft ’ (Music, Australia, Professor, Female) . Likewise, a similar comparison was seen by a female researcher from the mechanical engineering discipline: ‘ My impact case study wasn’t submitted mainly because I’m dealing with that slightly on the woolly side of things ’ (Mechanical Engineering, Australia, Professor, Female) . Largely, gender related comments hailed from the ‘hard’ science and from arts and humanities researchers. Social scientists commented less, and indeed, one levelled that Impact was perhaps less a matter of gender, and more a matter of ability (Chubb, 2017 ): ‘ It’s about being articulate! Both guys and women who are very articulate and communicate well are outward looking on all of these things ’ ( Engineering Education, Australia, Professor, Female).

Gendered notions of performativity were also very pronounced by evaluators who were assessing the outputs only, suggesting how these panel cultures are orientated around notions of gender and scientific outputs as ‘hard’ if represented by numbers. The focus on numbers was perceived by the following panellist as ‘ a real strong tendency particularly amongst the Alpha male types ’ within the panel that relate to findings about the association of certain traits—risk aversion, competitiveness, for example, with a masculinised market logic in HE;

And I like that a lot because I think that there is a real strong tendency particularly amongst the Alpha male types of always looking at the numbers, like the numbers and everything. And I just did feel that steer that we got from the panel chairs, both of them were men by the way, but they were very clear, the impact factors and citations and the rank order of a journal is this is information that can be useful, but it’s not your immediate first stop. (Panel 1, Outputs and Impact, Female)

However, a metric-dominant approach was not the result of a male-dominated panel environment and instead, to the panels credit, evaluators were encouraged not to use one-metric as the only deciding factor between star-rating of quality. However, this is not to suggest that metrics did not play a dominant role. In fact, in order to resolve arguments, evaluators were encouraged to ‘ reflect on these other metrics ’ (Panel 3, Outputs only, Male) in order to rectify arguments where the assessment of quality was in conflict. This use of ‘other metrics’ was preferential to a resolution of differences that are based on more ‘soft’ arguments that are based on understanding where differences in opinion might lie in the interpretation of the manuscript’s quality. Instead, the deciding factor in resolving arguments would be the responsibility, primarily, of a ‘hard’ concept of quality as dictated by a numerical value;

Read the paper, judge the quality, judge the originality, the rigour, the impact — if you have to because you’re in dispute with another assessor, then reflect on these other metrics. So I don’t think metrics are that helpful actually if and until you’ve got a real issue to be able to make a decision. But I worry very much that metrics are just such a simple way of making the process much easier, and I’m worried about that because I think there’s a bit of game playing going on with impact factors and that kind of thing. (Panel 3, Outputs Only, Male)

Table 1 outlines the emergent themes, which, through inductive coding participants broadly categorised domains of research, their qualities and associations, types of activities and the gendered assumption generally made by participants when describing that activity. The table is intended only to provide an indicative overview of the overall tendencies of participants toward certain narratives as is not exhaustive, as well as a guide to interpret the perceptions of Impact illustrated in the below results.

Table one describes the dichotomous views that seemed to emerge from the research but it’s important to note that researchers associated Impact as related to gender in subtle, and in some cases overt ways. The data suggests that some male participants felt that female academics might be better at Impact, suggesting that female academics might find it liberating, linked it to a sense of duty or public service, implying that it was second nature. In addition, some male participants associated types of Impact domains as female-orientated activity and the reverse was the case with female and male-orientated ‘types’ of Impact. For example, at one extreme, a few male researchers seemed to perceive public engagement as something, which females would be particularly good at, generalising that they are not competitive ‘ women are better at this! They are less competitive! ’ (Environment, UK, Professor, Male) . Indeed, one male researcher suggested that competitiveness actually helps academics have an impact and does not impede it:

I get a huge buzz from trying to communicate those to a wider audience and winning arguments and seeing them used. It’s not the use that motivates me it’s the process of winning, I’m competitive! (Economics, UK, Professor, Male)

Analysis also revealed evidence that some researchers has gendered perceptions of Impact activities just as evaluators did. Here, women were more likely to promote the importance of engaging in Impact activities, whereas men were focused on producing indicators with hard, quantitative indicators of success. Some researchers implied that public engagement was not something entirely associated with the kinds of Impact needed to advance one’s career and for a few male researchers, this was accordingly associated with female academics. Certain female researchers in the sciences and the arts suggested similarly that there was a strong commitment among women to carry out public engagement, but that this was not necessarily shared by their male counterparts who, they perceived, undervalued this kind of work:

I think the few of us women in the faculty will grapple with that a lot about the relevance of what we’re doing and the usefulness, but for the vast majority of people it’s not there… [She implies that]…I think there is a huge gender thing there that every woman that you talk to on campus would consider that the role of the university is along the latter statement (*to communicate to the public). The vast majority of men would not consider that’s a role of the university. There’s a strong gender thing. (Chemical Engineering, Australia, Professor, Female)

Notwithstanding, it is important to distinguish between engagement and Impact. This research shows that participants perceive Impact activities to be gendered. There was a sense from one arts female researcher that women might be more interested in getting out there and communicating their work but that crucially, it is not the be-all and end- all of doing research: ‘ Women feel that there’s something more liberating, I can empathise with that, but that couldn’t be the whole job ’. Music, Australia, Professor, Female Footnote 4 . When this researcher, who was very much orientated towards Impact, asked if there were enough interviewees, she added ‘ mind you, you’ve probably spoken to enough men in lab coats ’. This could imply that inward-facing roles are associated with male-orientated activity and outward facing roles as perceived as more female orientated. Such sentiments perhaps relate to a binary delineation of women as more caring, subjective, applied and of men as harder, scientific and theoretical/ rational. This links to a broader characterisation of HE as marketised and potentially, more ‘male’ or at least masculinised—where increasing competitiveness, marketisation and performativity can be seen as linked to an increasingly macho way of doing business (Blackmore, 2002 ; Deem, 1998 ; Grummell et al., 2009 ; Reay, n.d. ). The data is also suggestive of the attitude that communication is a ‘soft’ skill and the interpersonal is seen as a less masculine trait. ‘ This is a huge generalisation but I still say that the profession is so dominated by men, undergraduates are so dominated by men and most of those boys will come into engineering because they’re much more comfortable dealing with a computer than with people ’ (Chemical Engineering, Australia, Professor, Female) . Again, this suggests women are more likely to pursue those scientific subjects, which will make a difference or contribute to society (such as nursing or environmental research, certainly those subjects that would be perceived as less ‘hard’ science domains).

There was also a sense that Impact activity, namely in this case public engagement and community work, was associated with women more than men by some participants (Amâncio, 2005 ). However, public engagement and certain social impact domains appeared to have a lower status and intellectual worth in the eyes of some participants. Some inferred that social and ‘soft’ impacts are seen as associated. With discipline. For instance, research concerning STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) subjects with females. They in turn may be held in low esteem. Some of the accounts suggest that soft impacts are perceived by women as not ‘counting’ as Impact:

‘ At least two out of the four of us who are female are doing community service and that doesn’t count, we get zero credit, actually I would say it gets negative credit because it takes time away from everything else ’. (Education Engineering, Australia, Professor, Female)

This was intimated again by another female UK computer scientist who claimed that since her work was on the ‘woolly side’ of things, and her impacts were predominantly in the social and public domain, she would not be taken seriously enough to qualify as a REF Impact case study, despite having won an award for her work:

‘ I don’t think it helps that if I were a male professor doing the same work I might be taken more seriously. It’s interesting, why recently? Because I’ve never felt that I’ve not been taken seriously because I’m a woman, but something happened recently and I thought, oh, you’re not taking me seriously because I’m a woman. So I think it’s a part ’. (Computer Science, UK, Professor, Female)

Researchers also connect the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ associations with Impact described earlier to male and female traits. The relationship between Impact and gender is not well understood and it is not clear how much these issues are directly relatable to Impact or more symptomatic of the broader picture in HE. In order to get a broader picture, it is important to examine how these gendered notions of Impact translate into its evaluation. Some participants suggested that gender is a factor in the securing of grant money—certainly this comment reveals a local speculation that ‘the big boys’ get the grants, in Australia, at least: ‘ ARC grants? I’ve had a few but nothing like the big boys that get one after the other ,’ (Chemical Engineering, Australia, Professor, Female) . This is not dissimilar to the ‘alpha male’ comments from the evaluators described below who note a tendency for male evaluators to rely on ‘hard’ numbers whose views are further examined in the following section.

Gendered excellence in Impact evaluation

In the pre-evaluation interviews, panellists were asked about what they perceived to be ‘excellent’ research and ‘excellent’ Impact. Within this context, are mirrored conceptualisations of impacts as either ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ as was seen with the interviews with researchers described above. These conceptualisations were captured prior to the evaluation began. They can therefore be interpreted as the raw, baseline assumptions of Impact that are free from the effects of the panel group, showed that there were differences in how evaluators perceived Impact, and that these perceptions were gendered.

Although all researchers conceptualised Impact as a linear process for the purposes of the REF2014 exercise (Derrick, 2018 ), there was a tendency for female evaluators to be open to considering the complexity of Impact, even in a best-case scenario. This included a consideration that Impact as dictated within the narrative might have different indicators of value to different evaluators; ‘ I just think that that whole framing means that there is a form of normative standard of perfect impact ’ (Main Panel, Outputs and Impacts, Female) . This evaluator, in particular, went further to state how that their impression of Impact would be constructed from the comparators available during the evaluation;

‘ Given that I’m presenting impact as a good story, it would be like you saying to me; ‘Can you describe to me a perfect Shakespearean play?’…. well now of course, I can’t. You can give me lots of plays but they all have different kinds of interesting features. Different people would say that their favourite play was different. To me, if you’re taking interpretivist view, constructivist view, there is no perfect normative standard. It’s just not possible ’. (Panel 1, Outputs and Impacts, Female)

Female evaluators were also more sensitive to other complex factors influencing the evaluation of Impact, including time lag; ‘ …So it takes a long time for things like that to be accepted…it took hundreds of studies before it was generally accepted as real ’ (Panel 1, Outputs and Impacts, Female ); as well as the indirect way that research influences policy as a form of Impact;

‘ I don’t think that anything would get four stars without even blinking. I think that is impossible to answer because you have to look at the whole evidence in this has gone on, and how that does link to the impact that is being claimed, and then you would then have to look at how that impact, exactly how that research has impacted on the ways of the world, in terms of change or in terms of society or whatever. I don’t think you can see this would easily get four stars because of the overall process is being looked at, as well as the actual outcome ’ . (Panel 3, Outputs and Impact, Female)

Although these typologies were not absolute, there was a lack of complexity in the nuances around Impact. There was also heavily gendered language around Impacts as measurable, or not, that mirrored the association of Impact as being either ‘hard’, and therefore measurable, or ‘soft, and therefore more nuanced in value. In this way, male evaluators expressed Impact as a causal, linear event that occurred ‘ in a very short time ’ (P2, Outputs and Impact, Male) and involved a single ‘ star ’ (P3, Impacts only, Male) or ‘ impact champion ’ (Main Panel, Outputs and Impacts, Male) that drove it from start (research), to finish (Impact). These associations about Impact being ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ made by evaluators, mirror the responses from researchers in the above sections. In the example below, the evaluator used words such as ‘ strong ’ and ‘ big way ’ to describe Impact success, as well as emphasises causality in the argument;

‘ …if it has affected a lot of people or affected policy in a strong way or created change in a big way, and it can be clearly linked back to the research, and it’s made a difference ’. (Panel 2, Outputs and Impact, Male)

These perhaps show disciplinary differences as much as gendered differences. Further, there was a stronger tendency for male evaluators to strive towards conceptualisations of excellence in Impact as measurable or ‘ it’s something that is decisive and actionable ’ (Panel 6, Impacts, Male) . One male evaluator explained his conceptualised version of Impact excellence as ‘ straightforward ’ and therefore ‘ obviously four-star ’ due to the presence of metrics with which to measure Impact. This was a perception more commonly associated with male evaluators;

‘ …if somebody has been able to devise a — let’s say pancreatic cancer — which is a molecular cancer, which hasn’t made any progress in the last 40 years, and where the mortality is close to 100% after diagnosis, if someone devised a treatment where now suddenly, after diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, 90 percent of the people are now still alive 5 years later, where the mortality rate is almost 0%, who are alive after 5 years. That, of course, would be a dramatic, transformative impact ’. (Panel 1, Outputs and Impact, Male)

In addition, his tendency to seek various numeric indicators for measuring, and therefore assessing Impact (predominantly economic impact), as well as compressing its realisation to a small period of time ( ‘ suddenly ’ ) in a causal fashion, was more commonly expressed in male evaluators. This tendency automatically indicates the association of impacts as either ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ and divided along gendered norms, but also expresses Impact in monetary terms;

‘ Something that went into a patient or the company has pronounced with…has spun out and been taken up by a commercial entity or a clinical entity ’ (Panel 3, Outputs and Impacts, Male) , as well as impacts that are marketised; ‘ A new antimicrobial drug to market ’. (Panel 6, Outputs and Impact, Male) .

There was also the perception that female academics would be better at engagement (Johnson et al., 2014 ; Crettaz Von Roten, 2011 ) due to its link with notions of ‘ duty ’ (as a mother), ‘ engagement ’ and ‘ public service ’ are reflected in how female evaluators were also more open to the idea that excellent Impact is achieved through productive, ongoing partnerships with non-academic stakeholders. Here, the reflections of ‘duty’ from the evaluators was also mirrored by in interviews with researchers. Indeed, the researchers merged perceptions of parenthood, an academic career and societal impact generation. One female researcher drew on her role as a mother as supportive of her ability to participate in Impact generation, ‘ I have kids that age so… ’ (Biology, UK, Senior Lecturer, Female) . Indeed, parenthood emerged from researchers of both genders in relation to the Impact agenda. Two male participants spoke positively about the need to transfer knowledge of all kinds to society referencing their role as parents: ‘ I’m all for that. I want my kids to have a rich culture when they go to school ’ (Engineering, Australia, Professor, Male, E2) , and ‘ My children are the extension of my biological life and my students are an extension of my thoughts ’ (Engineering, Australia, Professor, Male, E1) . One UK female biologist commented that she indeed enjoys delivering public engagement and outreach and implies a reference to having a family as enabling her ability to do so: ‘ It’s partly being involved with the really well-established outreach work ,’ (Biology, UK, Senior Lecturer, Female) .

For the evaluators, the idea that ‘public service’ as second nature for female academics, was reflected in how female evaluators perceived the long, arduous and serendipitous nature of Impact generation, as well as their commitment to assessing the value of Impact as a ‘pathway’ rather than in line with impact as a ‘product’. Indeed, this was highlighted by one male evaluator who suggested that the measurement and assessment of Impact ‘ …needs to be done by economists ’ and that

‘ you [need] to put in some quantification one everything…[that] puts a negative value on being sick and a positive large value on living longer. So, yeah, the greatest impact would be something that saves us money and generates income for the country but something broad and improves quality of life ’. (Panel 2, Impacts, Male)

Since evaluators tend to exercise cognitive bias in evaluative situations (Langfeldt, 2006 ), these preconceived ideas about Impact, its generation and the types of people responsible for its success are also likely to permeate the evaluative deliberations around Impact during the peer review process. What is uncertain is the extent that these messages are dominant within the panel discourse, and therefore the extent that they influence the formation of a consensus within the group, and the ‘dominant definition’ of Impact (Derrick, 2018 ) that emerges as a result.

Notions of gender from the evaluators post-evaluation

Similar notions of gender-roles in academia pertaining to notions of scientific productivity were echoed by academics who were charged with its evaluation as part of the UK’s 2014 Research Excellence Framework. Interviews with evaluators revealed not only that the panel working-methods and characteristics about what constituted a ‘good’ evaluator were implicitly along gendered norms, but also that the assumed credit assumptions of performativity were also based on gender.

In assessments of the Impact criterion, an assessment that is not as amenable to quantitative representation requiring panels to conceptualise a very complex process, with unstandardised measures of significance and reach, there was still a gendered perception of Impact being ‘women’s work’ in academia. This perception was based on the tendency towards conceptualising Impact as ‘slightly grubby’ and ‘not very pure’, which echoes previously reported pre-REF2014 tensions that Impact is a task that an academic does when they cannot do real research (de Jong et al., 2015 );

But I would say that something like research impact is — it seems something slightly grubby. It’s not seen as not — by the academics, as not very pure. To some of them, it seems women’s work. Talking to the public, do you see what I mean? (Main Panel, Outputs and Impact, Female)

In addition, gendered roles also relate to how the panel worked with the assessment of Impact. Previous research has outlined how the equality and diversity assessment of panels for REF2014 were not conducted until after panellists were appointed (Derrick, 2018 ), leading to a lack of equal-representation of women on most panels. Some of the female panellists reflected that this resulted not only in a hyper-awareness of one’s own identity and value as a woman on the panel, but also implicitly associating the role that a female panellist would play in generating the evaluation. One panellist below, reflected that she was the only female in a male-dominated panel, and that the only other females in the room were the panel secretariat. The panellist goes further to explain how this resulted in a gendered-division of labour surrounding the assessment of Impact;

I mean, there’s a gender thing as well which isn’t directing what you’re talking about what you’re researching, but I was the only woman on the original appointed panel. The only other women were the secretariat. In some ways I do — there was initially a very gendered division of perspective where the women were all the ones aggregate the quantitative research, or typing it all up or talking about impact whereas the men were the ones who represented the big agenda, big trials. (Main Panel, Outputs and Impact, Female)

In addition, evaluators expressed opinions about what constituted a good and a bad panel member. From this, the evaluation showed that traits such as the ability to work as a ‘team’ and to build on definitions and methods of assessment for Impact through deliberation and ‘feedback’ were perceived along gendered lines. In this regard, women perceived themselves as valuable if they were ‘happy to listen to discussions’, and not ‘too dogmatic about their opinion’. Here, women were valued if they played a supportive, supplementary role in line with Bellas ( 1999 ), which was in clear distinction to men who contributed as creative thinkers and forgers of new ideas. As one panellist described;

A good panel member is an Irish female. A good panel member was someone who was happy to — someone who is happy to listen to discussions; to not be too dogmatic about their opinion, but can listen and learn, because impact is something we are all learning from scratch. Somebody who wasn’t too outspoken, was a team player. (Panel 3, Outputs and Impact, Female)

Likewise, another female evaluator reflected on the reasons for her inclusion as a panel member was due to her ‘generalist perspective’ as opposed to a perspective that is over prescribed. This was suggestive of how an overly specialist perspective would run counter to the reasons that she was included as a panellist which was, in her opinion, due to her value as an ethnic and gender ‘token’ to the panel;

‘ I think it’s also being able to provide some perspective, some general perspective. I’m quite a generalist actually, I’m not a specialist……So I’m very generalist. And I think they’re also well aware of the ethnic and gender composition of that and lots of reasons why I’m asked on panels. (Panel 1, Outputs and Impact, Female)

Women perceived their value on the panel as supportive, as someone who is prepared to work on the team, and listen to other views towards as a generalist, and constructionist, rather than as an enforced of dogmatic views and raw, hard notions of Impact that were represented through quantitative indicators only. As such, how the panel operated reflects general studies of how work can be organised along gender lines, as well as specific to workload and power in the academy. The similarity between the gendered associations towards conceptualising Impact from the researchers and evaluators, combined with how the panel organises its work along gendered lines, suggests how panel culture echoes the implicit tendencies within the wider research community. The implications of this tendency in relation to the evaluation of non-academic Impact is discussed below.

Discussion: an Impact a-gender?

This study shows how researchers and evaluators in two, independent data sets echoed a gendered orientation towards Impact, and how this implies an Impact a-gender. That gendered notions of Impact emerged as a significant theme from two independent data sets speaks to the importance of the issue. It also illustrates the need for policymakers and funding organisations to acknowledge its potential effects as part of their efforts towards embedding a more inclusive research culture around the generation and evaluation of research impact beyond academia.

Specifically, this paper has identified gendered language around the generation of, and evaluation of Impact by researchers in Australia and the UK, as well as by evaluators by the UK’s most recent Research Excellence Framework in 2014. For the UK and Australia, the prominence of Impact, as well as the policy borrowing between each country (Chubb, 2017 ) means that a reliable comparison of pre-evaluation perceptions of researchers and evaluators can be made. In both data sets presumptions of Impact as either ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ by both researchers and evaluators were found to be gendered. Whereas it is not surprising that panel culture reflects the dominant trends within the wider academic culture, this paper raises the question of how the implicit operation of gender bias surrounding notions of scientific productivity and its measurement, invade and therefore unduly influence the evaluation of those notions during peer-review processes. This negates the motivation behind a broad Impact definition and evaluation as inclusive since unconscious bias towards women can still operate if left unchecked and unmanaged.

Gendered notions of excellence were also related to the ability to be ‘competitive’, and that once Impact became a formalised, countable and therefore competitive criterion, it also become masculine where previously it existed as a feminised concept related to female academic-ness. As a feminised concept, Impact once referred to notions of excellence requiring communication such as public engagement, or stakeholder coordination—the ‘softer’ impacts. However, this association only remains ‘soft’ insofar as Impact remains unmeasurable, or more nuanced in definition. This is especially pertinent for the evaluation of societal impact where already conceived ideas of engagement and ‘ women’s work ’ influence how evaluators assess the feasibility of impact narratives for the purposes of its assessment. This paper also raises the question that notions of gender in relation to Impact persist irrespective of the identities assumed for the purposes of its evaluation (i.e., as a peer reviewer). This is not to say that academic culture in the UK and Australia, where Impact is increasingly being formalised into rewards systems, is not changing. More that there is a tendency in some evaluations for the burden of evidence to be applied differently to genders due to tensions surrounding what women are ‘good’ at doing: engagement, versus what ‘men’ are good at doing regarding Impact. In this scenario, quantitative indicators of big, high-level impacts are to be attributable to male traits, rather than female. This has already been noted in student evaluations of teaching (Kogan et al., 2010 ) and of academic leadership performance where the focus on the evaluation is on how others interpret performance based on already held gendered views about competence based on behaviours (Williams et al., 2014 ; Holt and Ellis, 1998 ). As such, when researchers transcend these gendered identities that are specific to societal impact, there is a danger of an Impact-a-gender bias arising in the assessment and forecasting of Impact. This paper extends this understanding and outlines how this may also be the case for assessments of societal impact.

By examining perceptions, as well as using an inductive analysis, this study was able to unearth unconsciously employed gendered notions that would not have been prominent or possible to pick up if we asked the interviewees about gender directly. This was particularly the case for the re-analysis of the post-evaluation interviews. However, future studies might consider incorporating a disciplinary-specific perspective as although the evaluators were from the medical/biomedical disciplines, researchers were from a range of disciplines. This would identify any discipline-specific risk towards an Impact a-gender. Nonetheless, further work that characterises the impact a-gender, as well as explores its wider implications for gender inequities within HE is currently underway.

How research evidence is labelled as excellent and therefore trustworthy, is heavily dictated by an evaluation process that is perceived as impartial and fair. However, if evaluations are compounded by gender bias, this confounds assessments of excellence with gendered expectation of non-academic impact. Consequently, gendered expectations of excellence for non-academic impact has the potential to: unconsciously dissuade women from pursuing more masculinised types of impact; act as a barrier to how female researchers mobilise their research evidence; as well as limit the recognition female researchers gain as excellent and therefore trustworthy sources of evidence.

The aim of this paper was not to criticise the panellists and researchers for expressing gendered perspectives, nor to present evidence about how researchers are unduly influenced by gender bias. The results shown do not support either of these views. However, the aim of this paper was to acknowledge how gender bias in research Impact generation can lead to a panel culture dominated by academics that translate the implicit and explicit biases within academia that influence its evaluation. This paper raises an important question regarding what we term the ‘Impact a-gender’, which outlines a mechanism in which gender bias feeds into the generation and evaluation of a research criterion, which is not traditionally associated with a hard, metrics-masculinised output from research. Along with other techniques used to combat unconscious bias in research evaluation, simply by identifying, and naming the issue, this paper intends to combat its ill effects through a community-wide discussions as a mechanism for developing tools to mitigate its wider effect if left unchecked or merely accepted as ‘acceptable’. In addition, it is suggested that government and funding organisations explicitly refer to the impact a-gender as part of their wider EDI (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) agendas towards minimising the influence of unconscious bias in research impact and evaluation.

Data availability

Data is available upon request subject to ethical considerations such as consent so as not to compromise the individual privacy of our participants.

Change history

19 may 2020.

An amendment to this paper has been published and can be accessed via a link at the top of the paper.

For the purposes of this paper, when the text refers to non-academic, societal impact, or the term ‘Impact’ we are referring to the change and effect as defined by REF2014/2021 and the larger conceptualisation of impact that is generated through knowledge exchange and engagement. In this way, the paper refers to a broad conceptualisation of research impact that occurs beyond academia. This allows a distinction between Impact as central to this article’s contribution, as opposed to academic impact, and general word ‘impact’.

Impact scholars or those who are ‘good at impact’ are often equated with applied researchers.

One might interpret this as meaning ‘economic impact’.

This is described in the next section as ‘women’s work’ by one evaluator.

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This research was funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Future Research Leaders Programme (ES/K008897/2). We would also like to acknowledge their peers for offering their views on the paper in advance of publication and in doing so thank Dr. Richard Watermeyer, University of Bath, Professor Paul Wakeling, University of York and Dr. Gabrielle Samuel, Kings College London.

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Chubb, J., Derrick, G.E. The impact a-gender: gendered orientations towards research Impact and its evaluation. Palgrave Commun 6 , 72 (2020).

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Gender inequalities in the workplace: the effects of organizational structures, processes, practices, and decision makers’ sexism

Gender inequality in organizations is a complex phenomenon that can be seen in organizational structures, processes, and practices. For women, some of the most harmful gender inequalities are enacted within human resources (HRs) practices. This is because HR practices (i.e., policies, decision-making, and their enactment) affect the hiring, training, pay, and promotion of women. We propose a model of gender discrimination in HR that emphasizes the reciprocal nature of gender inequalities within organizations. We suggest that gender discrimination in HR-related decision-making and in the enactment of HR practices stems from gender inequalities in broader organizational structures, processes, and practices. This includes leadership, structure, strategy, culture, organizational climate, as well as HR policies. In addition, organizational decision makers’ levels of sexism can affect their likelihood of making gender biased HR-related decisions and/or behaving in a sexist manner while enacting HR practices. Importantly, institutional discrimination in organizational structures, processes, and practices play a pre-eminent role because not only do they affect HR practices, they also provide a socializing context for organizational decision makers’ levels of hostile and benevolent sexism. Although we portray gender inequality as a self-reinforcing system that can perpetuate discrimination, important levers for reducing discrimination are identified.


The workplace has sometimes been referred to as an inhospitable place for women due to the multiple forms of gender inequalities present (e.g., Abrams, 1991 ). Some examples of how workplace discrimination negatively affects women’s earnings and opportunities are the gender wage gap (e.g., Peterson and Morgan, 1995 ), the dearth of women in leadership ( Eagly and Carli, 2007 ), and the longer time required for women (vs. men) to advance in their careers ( Blau and DeVaro, 2007 ). In other words, workplace discrimination contributes to women’s lower socio-economic status. Importantly, such discrimination against women largely can be attributed to human resources (HR) policies and HR-related decision-making. Furthermore, when employees interact with organizational decision makers during HR practices, or when they are told the outcomes of HR-related decisions, they may experience personal discrimination in the form of sexist comments. Both the objective disadvantages of lower pay, status, and opportunities at work, and the subjective experiences of being stigmatized, affect women’s psychological and physical stress, mental and physical health ( Goldenhar et al., 1998 ; Adler et al., 2000 ; Schmader et al., 2008 ; Borrel et al., 2010 ),job satisfaction and organizational commitment ( Hicks-Clarke and Iles, 2000 ), and ultimately, their performance ( Cohen-Charash and Spector, 2001 ).

Within this paper, we delineate the nature of discrimination within HR policies, decisions, and their enactment, as well as explore the causes of such discrimination in the workplace. Our model is shown in Figure ​ Figure1 1 . In the Section “Discrimination in HR Related Practices: HR Policy, Decisions, and their Enactment,” we explain the distinction between HR policy, HR-related decision-making, and HR enactment and their relations to each other. Gender inequalities in HR policy are a form of institutional discrimination. We review evidence of institutional discrimination against women within HR policies set out to determine employee selection, performance evaluations, and promotions. In contrast, discrimination in HR-related decisions and their enactment can result from organizational decision makers’ biased responses: it is a form of personal discrimination. Finally, we provide evidence of personal discrimination against women by organizational decision makers in HR-related decision-making and in the enactment of HR policies.

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Object name is fpsyg-06-01400-g001.jpg

A model of the root causes of gender discrimination in HR policies, decision-making, and enactment .

In the Section “The Effect of Organizational Structures, Processes, and Practices on HR Practices,” we focus on the link between institutional discrimination in organizational structures, processes, and practices that can lead to personal discrimination in HR practices (see Figure ​ Figure1 1 ). Inspired by the work of Gelfand et al. (2007) , we propose that organizational structures, processes, and practices (i.e., leadership, structure, strategy, culture, climate, and HR policy) are interrelated and may contribute to discrimination. Accordingly, gender inequalities in each element can affect the others, creating a self-reinforcing system that can perpetuate institutional discrimination throughout the organization and that can lead to discrimination in HR policies, decision-making, and enactment. We also propose that these relations between gender inequalities in the organizational structures, processes, and practices and discrimination in HR practices can be bidirectional (see Figure ​ Figure1 1 ). Thus, we also review how HR practices can contribute to gender inequalities in organizational structures, processes, and practices.

In the Section “The Effect of Hostile and Benevolent Sexism on How Organizational Decision Makers’ Conduct HR Practices,” we delineate the link between organizational decision makers’ levels of sexism and their likelihood of making gender-biased HR-related decisions and/or behaving in a sexist manner when enacting HR policies (e.g., engaging in gender harassment). We focus on two forms of sexist attitudes: hostile and benevolent sexism ( Glick and Fiske, 1996 ). Hostile sexism involves antipathy toward, and negative stereotypes about, agentic women. In contrast, benevolent sexism involves positive but paternalistic views of women as highly communal. Whereas previous research on workplace discrimination has focused on forms of sexism that are hostile in nature, we extend this work by explaining how benevolent sexism, which is more subtle, can also contribute in meaningful yet distinct ways to gender discrimination in HR practices.

In the Section “The Effect of Organizational Structures, Processes, and Practices on Organizational Decision Makers’ Levels of Hostile and Benevolent Sexism,” we describe how institutional discrimination in organizational structures, processes, and practices play a critical role in our model because not only do they affect HR-related decisions and the enactment of HR policies, they also provide a socializing context for organizational decision makers’ levels of hostile and benevolent sexism. In other words, where more institutional discrimination is present, we can expect higher levels of sexism—a third link in our model—which leads to gender bias in HR practices.

In the Section “How to Reduce Gender Discrimination in Organizations,” we discuss how organizations can reduce gender discrimination. We suggest that, to reduce discrimination, organizations should focus on: HR practices, other closely related organizational structures, processes, and practices, and the reduction of organizational decision makers’ level of sexism. Organizations should take such a multifaceted approach because, consistent with our model, gender discrimination is a result of a complex interplay between these factors. Therefore, a focus on only one factor may not be as effective if all the other elements in the model continue to promote gender inequality.

The model we propose for understanding gender inequalities at work is, of course, limited and not intended to be exhaustive. First, we only focus on women’s experience of discrimination. Although men also face discrimination, the focus of this paper is on women because they are more often targets ( Branscombe, 1998 ; Schmitt et al., 2002 ; McLaughlin et al., 2012 ) and discrimination is more psychologically damaging for women than for men ( Barling et al., 1996 ; Schmitt et al., 2002 ). Furthermore, we draw on research from Western, individualistic countries conducted between the mid-1980s to the mid-2010s that might not generalize to other countries or time frames. In addition, this model derives from research that has been conducted primarily in sectors dominated by men. This is because gender discrimination ( Mansfield et al., 1991 ; Welle and Heilman, 2005 ) and harassment ( Mansfield et al., 1991 ; Berdhal, 2007 ) against women occur more in environments dominated by men. Now that we have outlined the sections of the paper and our model, we now turn to delineating how gender discrimination in the workplace can be largely attributed to HR practices.

Discrimination in HR Related Practices: HR Policy, Decisions, and their Enactment

In this section, we explore the nature of gender discrimination in HR practices, which involves HR policies, HR-related decision-making, and their enactment by organizational decision makers. HR is a system of organizational practices aimed at managing employees and ensuring that they are accomplishing organizational goals ( Wright et al., 1994 ). HR functions include: selection, performance evaluation, leadership succession, and training. Depending on the size and history of the organization, HR systems can range from those that are well structured and supported by an entire department, led by HR specialists, to haphazard sets of policies and procedures enacted by managers and supervisors without formal training. HR practices are critically important because they determine the access employees have to valued reward and outcomes within an organization, and can also influence their treatment within an organization ( Levitin et al., 1971 ).

Human resource practices can be broken down into formal HR policy, HR-related decision-making, and the enactment of HR policies and decisions. HR policy codifies practices for personnel functions, performance evaluations, employee relations, and resource planning ( Wright et al., 1994 ). HR-related decision-making occurs when organizational decision makers (i.e., managers, supervisors, or HR personnel) employ HR policy to determine how it will be applied to a particular situation and individual. The enactment of HR involves the personal interactions between organizational decision makers and job candidates or employees when HR policies are applied. Whereas HR policy can reflect institutional discrimination, HR-related decision-making and enactment can reflect personal discrimination by organizational decision makers.

Institutional Discrimination in HR Policy

Human resource policies that are inherently biased against a group of people, regardless of their job-related knowledge, skills, abilities, and performance can be termed institutional discrimination. Institutional discrimination against women can occur in each type of HR policy from the recruitment and selection of an individual into an organization, through his/her role assignments, training, pay, performance evaluations, promotion, and termination. For instance, if women are under-represented in a particular educational program or a particular job type and those credentials or previous job experience are required to be considered for selection, women are being systematically, albeit perhaps not intentionally, discriminated against. In another example, there is gender discrimination if a test is used in the selection battery for which greater gender differences emerge, than those that emerge for job performance ratings ( Hough et al., 2001 ). Thus, institutional discrimination can be present within various aspects of HR selection policy, and can negatively affect women’s work outcomes.

Institutional discrimination against women also occurs in performance evaluations that are used to determine organizational rewards (e.g., compensation), opportunities (e.g., promotion, role assignments), and punishments (e.g., termination). Gender discrimination can be formalized into HR policy if criteria used by organizational decision makers to evaluate job performance systematically favor men over women. For instance, “face time” is a key performance metric that rewards employees who are at the office more than those who are not. Given that women are still the primary caregivers ( Acker, 1990 ; Fuegen et al., 2004 ), women use flexible work arrangements more often than men and, consequently, face career penalties because they score lower on face time ( Glass, 2004 ). Thus, biased criteria in performance evaluation policies can contribute to gender discrimination.

Human resource policies surrounding promotions and opportunities for advancement are another area of concern. In organizations with more formal job ladders that are used to dictate and constrain workers’ promotion opportunities, women are less likely to advance ( Perry et al., 1994 ). This occurs because job ladders tend to be divided by gender, and as such, gender job segregation that is seen at entry-level positions will be strengthened as employees move up their specific ladder with no opportunity to cross into other lines of advancement. Thus, women will lack particular job experiences that are not available within their specific job ladders, making them unqualified for advancement ( De Pater et al., 2010 ).

In sum, institutional discrimination can be present within HR policies set out to determine employee selection, performance evaluations, and promotions. These policies can have significant effects on women’s careers. However, HR policy can only be used to guide HR-related decision-making. In reality, it is organizational decision-makers, that is, managers, supervisors, HR personnel who, guided by policy, must evaluate job candidates or employees and decide how policy will be applied to individuals.

Personal Discrimination in HR-Related Decision-Making

The practice of HR-related decision-making involves social cognition in which others’ competence, potential, and deservingness are assessed by organizational decision makers. Thus, like all forms of social cognition, HR-related decision-making is open to personal biases. HR-related decisions are critically important because they determine women’s pay and opportunities at work (e.g., promotions, training opportunities). Personal discrimination against women by organizational decision makers can occur in each stage of HR-related decision-making regarding recruitment and selection, role assignments, training opportunities, pay, performance evaluation, promotion, and termination.

Studies with varying methodologies show that women face personal discrimination when going through the selection process (e.g., Goldberg, 1968 ; Rosen and Jerdee, 1974 ). Meta-analyses reveal that, when being considered for male-typed (i.e., male dominated, believed-to-be-for-men) jobs, female candidates are evaluated more negatively and recommended for employment less often by study participants, compared with matched male candidates (e.g., Hunter et al., 1982 ; Tosi and Einbender, 1985 ; Olian et al., 1988 ; Davison and Burke, 2000 ). For example, in audit studies, which involve sending ostensibly real applications for job openings while varying the gender of the applicant, female applicants are less likely to be interviewed or called back, compared with male applicants (e.g., McIntyre et al., 1980 ; Firth, 1982 ). In a recent study, male and female biology, chemistry, and physics professors rated an undergraduate science student for a laboratory manager position ( Moss-Racusin et al., 2012 ). The male applicant was rated as significantly more competent and hireable, offered a higher starting salary (about $4000), and offered more career mentoring than the female applicant was. In summary, women face a distinct disadvantage when being considered for male-typed jobs.

There is ample evidence that women experience biased performance evaluations on male-typed tasks. A meta-analysis of experimental studies reveals that women in leadership positions receive lower performance evaluations than matched men; this is amplified when women act in a stereotypically masculine, that is, agentic fashion ( Eagly et al., 1992 ). Further, in masculine domains, women are held to a higher standard of performance than men are. For example, in a study of military cadets, men and women gave their peers lower ratings if they were women, despite having objectively equal qualifications to men ( Boldry et al., 2001 ). Finally, women are evaluated more poorly in situations that involve complex problem solving; in these situations, people are skeptical regarding women’s expertise and discredit expert women’s opinions but give expert men the benefit of the doubt ( Thomas-Hunt and Phillips, 2004 ).

Sometimes particular types of women are more likely to be discriminated against in selection and performance evaluation decisions. Specifically, agentic women, that is, those who behave in an assertive, task-oriented fashion, are rated as less likeable and less hireable than comparable agentic male applicants ( Heilman and Okimoto, 2007 ; Rudman and Phelan, 2008 ; Rudman et al., 2012 ). In addition, there is evidence of discrimination against pregnant women when they apply for jobs ( Hebl et al., 2007 ; Morgan et al., 2013 ). Further, women who are mothers are recommended for promotion less than women who are not mothers or men with or without children ( Heilman and Okimoto, 2008 ). Why might people discriminate specifically against agentic women and pregnant women or mothers, who are seemingly very different? The stereotype content model, accounts for how agentic women, who are perceived to be high in competence and low in warmth, will be discriminated against because of feelings of competition; whereas, pregnant women and mothers, who are seen as low in competence, but high in warmth, will be discriminated against because of a perceived lack of deservingness ( Fiske et al., 1999 , 2002 ; Cuddy et al., 2004 ). Taken together, research has uncovered that different forms of bias toward specific subtypes of women have the same overall effect—bias in selection and performance evaluation decisions.

Women are also likely to receive fewer opportunities at work, compared with men, resulting in their under-representation at higher levels of management and leadership within organizations ( Martell et al., 1996 ; Eagly and Carli, 2007 ). Managers give women fewer challenging roles and fewer training opportunities, compared with men ( King et al., 2012 ; Glick, 2013 ). For instance, female managers ( Lyness and Thompson, 1997 ) and midlevel workers ( De Pater et al., 2010 ) have less access to high-level responsibilities and challenges that are precursors to promotion. Further, men are more likely to be given key leadership assignments in male-dominated fields and in female-dominated fields (e.g., Maume, 1999 ; De Pater et al., 2010 ). This is detrimental given that challenging roles, especially developmental ones, help employees gain important skills needed to excel in their careers ( Spreitzer et al., 1997 ).

Furthermore, managers rate women as having less promotion potential than men ( Roth et al., 2012 ). Given the same level of qualifications, managers are less likely to grant promotions to women, compared with men ( Lazear and Rosen, 1990 ). Thus, men have a faster ascent in organizational hierarchies than women ( Cox and Harquail, 1991 ; Stroh et al., 1992 ; Blau and DeVaro, 2007 ). Even minimal amounts of gender discrimination in promotion decisions for a particular job or level can have large, cumulative effects given the pyramid structure of most hierarchical organizations ( Martell et al., 1996 ; Baxter and Wright, 2000 ). Therefore, discrimination by organizational decision makers results in the under-promotion of women.

Finally, women are underpaid, compared with men. In a comprehensive US study using data from 1983 to 2000, after controlling for human capital factors that could affect wages (e.g., education level, work experience), the researchers found that women were paid 22% less than men ( U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2003 ). Further, within any given occupation, men typically have higher wages than women; this “within-occupation” wage gap is especially prominent in more highly paid occupations ( U.S. Census Bureau, 2007 ). In a study of over 2000 managers, women were compensated less than men were, even after controlling for a number of human capital factors ( Ostroff and Atwater, 2003 ). Experimental work suggests that personal biases by organizational decision makers contribute to the gender wage gap. When participants are asked to determine starting salaries for matched candidates that differ by gender, they pay men more (e.g., Steinpreis et al., 1999 ; Moss-Racusin et al., 2012 ). Such biases are consequential because starting salaries determine life-time earnings ( Gerhart and Rynes, 1991 ). In experimental studies, when participants evaluate a man vs. a woman who is matched on job performance, they choose to compensate men more ( Marini, 1989 ; Durden and Gaynor, 1998 ; Lips, 2003 ). Therefore, discrimination in HR-related decision-making by organizational decision makers can contribute to women being paid less than men are.

Taken together, we have shown that there is discrimination against women in decision-making related to HR. These biases from organizational decision makers can occur in each stage of HR-related decision-making and these biased HR decisions have been shown to negatively affect women’s pay and opportunities at work. In the next section, we review how biased HR practices are enacted, which can involve gender harassment.

Personal Discrimination in HR Enactment

By HR enactment, we refer to those situations where current or prospective employees go through HR processes or when they receive news of their outcomes from organizational decision makers regarding HR-related issues. Personal gender discrimination can occur when employees are given sexist messages, by organizational decision makers, related to HR enactment. More specifically, this type of personal gender discrimination is termed gender harassment, and consists of a range of verbal and non-verbal behaviors that convey sexist, insulting, or hostile attitudes about women ( Fitzgerald et al., 1995a , b ). Gender harassment is the most common form of sex-based discrimination ( Fitzgerald et al., 1988 ; Schneider et al., 1997 ). For example, across the military in the United States, 52% of the 9,725 women surveyed reported that they had experienced gender harassment in the last year ( Leskinen et al., 2011 , Study 1). In a random sample of attorneys from a large federal judicial circuit, 32% of the 1,425 women attorneys surveyed had experienced gender harassment in the last 5 years ( Leskinen et al., 2011 , Study 2). When examining women’s experiences of gender harassment, 60% of instances were perpetrated by their supervisor/manager or a person in a leadership role (cf. Crocker and Kalemba, 1999 ; McDonald et al., 2008 ). Thus, personal discrimination in the form of gender harassment is a common behavior; however, is it one that organizational decision makers engage in when enacting HR processes and outcomes?

Although it might seem implausible that organizational decision makers would convey sexist sentiments to women when giving them the news of HR-related decisions, there have been high-profile examples from discrimination lawsuits where this has happened. For example, in a class action lawsuit against Walmart, female workers claimed they were receiving fewer promotions than men despite superior qualifications and records of service. In that case, the district manager was accused of confiding to some of the women who were overlooked for promotions that they were passed over because he was not in favor of women being in upper management positions ( Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 2004/2011 ). In addition, audit studies, wherein matched men and women apply to real jobs, have revealed that alongside discrimination ( McIntyre et al., 1980 ; Firth, 1982 ; Moss-Racusin et al., 2012 ), women experience verbal gender harassment when applying for sex atypical jobs, such as sexist comments as well as skeptical or discouraging responses from hiring staff ( Neumark, 1996 ). Finally, gender harassment toward women when HR policies are enacted can also take the form of offensive comments and denying women promotions due to pregnancy or the chance of pregnancy. For example, in Moore v. Alabama , an employee was 8 months pregnant and the woman’s supervisor allegedly looked at her belly and said “I was going to make you head of the office, but look at you now” ( Moore v. Alabama State University, 1996 , p. 431; Williams, 2003 ). Thus, organizational decision makers will at times convey sexist sentiments to women when giving them the news of HR-related decisions.

Interestingly, whereas discrimination in HR policy and in HR-related decision-making is extremely difficult to detect ( Crosby et al., 1986 ; Major, 1994 ), gender harassment in HR enactment provides direct cues to recipients that discrimination is occurring. In other words, although women’s lives are negatively affected in concrete ways by discrimination in HR policy and decisions (e.g., not receiving a job, being underpaid), they may not perceive their negative outcomes as due to gender discrimination. Indeed, there is a multitude of evidence that women and other stigmatized group members are loath to make attributions to discrimination ( Crosby, 1984 ; Vorauer and Kumhyr, 2001 ; Stangor et al., 2003 ) and instead are likely to make internal attributions for negative evaluations unless they are certain the evaluator is biased against their group ( Ruggiero and Taylor, 1995 ; Major et al., 2003 ). However, when organizational decision makers engage in gender harassment during HR enactment women should be more likely to interpret HR policy and HR-related decisions as discriminatory.

Now that we have specified the nature of institutional gender discrimination in HR policy and personal discrimination in HR-related decision-making and in HR enactment, we turn to the issue of understanding the causes of such discrimination: gender discrimination in organizational structures, processes, and practices, and personal biases of organizational decision makers.

The Effect of Organizational Structures, Processes, and Practices on HR Practices

The first contextual factor within which gender inequalities can be institutionalized is leadership. Leadership is a process wherein an individual (e.g., CEOs, managers) influences others in an effort to reach organizational goals ( Chemers, 1997 ; House and Aditya, 1997 ). Leaders determine and communicate what the organization’s priorities are to all members of the organization. Leaders are important as they affect the other organizational structures, processes, and practices. Specifically, leaders set culture, set policy, set strategy, and are role models for socialization. We suggest that one important way institutional gender inequality in leadership exists is when women are under-represented, compared with men—particularly when women are well-represented at lower levels within an organization.

An underrepresentation of women in leadership can be perpetuated easily because the gender of organizational leaders affects the degree to which there is gender discrimination, gender supportive policies, and a gender diversity supportive climate within an organization ( Ostroff et al., 2012 ). Organizational members are likely to perceive that the climate for women is positive when women hold key positions in the organization ( Konrad et al., 2010 ). Specifically, the presence of women in key positions acts as a vivid symbol indicating that the organization supports gender diversity. Consistent with this, industries that have fewer female high status managers have a greater gender wage gap ( Cohen and Huffman, 2007 ). Further, women who work with a male supervisor perceive less organizational support, compared with those who work with a female supervisor ( Konrad et al., 2010 ). In addition, women who work in departments that are headed by a man report experiencing more gender discrimination, compared with their counterparts in departments headed by women ( Konrad et al., 2010 ). Some of these effects may be mediated by a similar-to-me bias ( Tsui and O’Reilly, 1989 ), where leaders set up systems that reward and promote individuals like themselves, which can lead to discrimination toward women when leaders are predominantly male ( Davison and Burke, 2000 ; Roth et al., 2012 ). Thus, gender inequalities in leadership affect women’s experiences in the workplace and their likelihood of facing discrimination.

The second contextual factor to consider is organizational structure. The formal structure of an organization is how an organization arranges itself and it consists of employee hierarchies, departments, etc. ( Grant, 2010 ). An example of institutional discrimination in the formal structure of an organization are job ladders, which are typically segregated by gender ( Perry et al., 1994 ). Such gender-segregated job ladders typically exist within different departments of the organization. Women belonging to gender-segregated networks within organizations ( Brass, 1985 ) have less access to information about jobs, less status, and less upward mobility within the organization ( Ragins and Sundstrom, 1989 ; McDonald et al., 2009 ). This is likely because in gender-segregated networks, women have less visibility and lack access to individuals with power ( Ragins and Sundstrom, 1989 ). In gender-segregated networks, it is also difficult for women to find female mentors because there is a lack of women in high-ranking positions ( Noe, 1988 ; Linehan and Scullion, 2008 ). Consequently, the organizational structure can be marked by gender inequalities that reduce women’s chances of reaching top-level positions in an organization.

Gender inequalities can be inherent in the structure of an organization when there are gender segregated departments, job ladders, and networks, which are intimately tied to gender discrimination in HR practices. For instance, if HR policies are designed such that pay is determined based on comparisons between individuals only within a department (e.g., department-wide reporting structure, job descriptions, performance evaluations), then this can lead to a devaluation of departments dominated by women. The overrepresentation of women in certain jobs leads to the lower status of those jobs; consequently, the pay brackets for these jobs decrease over time as the number of women in these jobs increase (e.g., Huffman and Velasco, 1997 ; Reilly and Wirjanto, 1999 ). Similarly, networks led by women are also devalued for pay. For example, in a study of over 2,000 managers, after controlling for performance, the type of job, and the functional area (e.g., marketing, sales, accounting), those who worked with female mangers had lower wages than those who worked with male managers ( Ostroff and Atwater, 2003 ). Thus, gender inequalities in an organization’s structure in terms of gender segregation have reciprocal effects with gender discrimination in HR policy and decision-making.

Another contextual factor in our model is organizational strategy and how institutional discrimination within strategy is related to discrimination in HR practices. Strategy is a plan, method, or process by which an organization attempts to achieve its objectives, such as being profitable, maintaining and expanding its consumer base, marketing strategy, etc. ( Grant, 2010 ). Strategy can influence the level of inequality within an organization ( Morrison and Von Glinow, 1990 ; Hunter et al., 2001 ). For example, Hooters, a restaurant chain, has a marketing strategy to sexually attract heterosexual males, which has led to discrimination in HR policy, decisions, and enactment because only young, good-looking women are considered qualified ( Schneyer, 1998 ). When faced with appearance-based discrimination lawsuits regarding their hiring policies, Hooters has responded by claiming that such appearance requirements are bona fide job qualifications given their marketing strategy (for reviews, see Schneyer, 1998 ; Adamitis, 2000 ). Hooters is not alone, as many other establishments attempt to attract male cliental by requiring their female servers to meet a dress code involving a high level of grooming (make-up, hair), a high heels requirement, and a revealing uniform ( McGinley, 2007 ). Thus, sexist HR policies and practices in which differential standards are applied to male and female employees can stem from a specific organizational strategy ( Westall, 2015 ).

We now consider institutional gender bias within organizational culture and how it relates to discrimination in HR policies. Organizational culture refers to collectively held beliefs, assumptions, and values held by organizational members ( Trice and Beyer, 1993 ; Schein, 2010 ). Cultures arise from the values of the founders of the organization and assumptions about the right way of doing things, which are learned from dealing with challenges over time ( Ostroff et al., 2012 ). The founders and leaders of an organization are the most influential in forming, maintaining, and changing culture over time (e.g., Trice and Beyer, 1993 ; Jung et al., 2008 ; Hartnell and Walumbwa, 2011 ). Organizational culture can contribute to gender inequalities because culture constrains people’s ideas of what is possible: their strategies of action ( Swidler, 1986 ). In other words, when people encounter a problem in their workplace, the organizational culture—who we are, how we act, what is right—will provide only a certain realm of behavioral responses. For instance, in organizational cultures marked by greater gender inequality, women may have lower hopes and expectations for promotion, and when they are discriminated against, may be less likely to imagine that they can appeal their outcomes ( Kanter, 1977 ; Cassirer and Reskin, 2000 ). Furthermore, in organizational cultures marked by gender inequality, organizational decision makers should hold stronger descriptive and proscriptive gender stereotypes: they should more strongly believe that women have less ability to lead, less career commitment, and less emotional stability, compared with men ( Eagly et al., 1992 ; Heilman, 2001 ). We expand upon this point later.

Other aspects of organizational culture that are less obviously related to gender can also lead to discrimination in HR practices. For instance, an organizational culture that emphasizes concerns with meritocracy, can lead organizational members to oppose HR efforts to increase gender equality. This is because when people believe that outcomes ought to go only to those who are most deserving, it is easy for them to fall into the trap of believing that outcomes currently do go to those who are most deserving ( Son Hing et al., 2011 ). Therefore, people will believe that men deserve their elevated status and women deserve their subordinated status at work ( Castilla and Benard, 2010 ). Furthermore, the more people care about merit-based outcomes, the more they oppose affirmative action and diversity initiatives for women ( Bobocel et al., 1998 ; Son Hing et al., 2011 ), particularly when they do not recognize that discrimination occurs against women in the absence of such policies ( Son Hing et al., 2002 ). Thus, a particular organizational culture can influence the level of discrimination against women in HR and prevent the adoption of HR policies that would mitigate gender discrimination.

Finally, gender inequalities can be seen in organizational climates. An organizational climate consists of organizational members’ shared perceptions of the formal and informal organizational practices, procedures, and routines ( Schneider et al., 2011 ) that arise from direct experiences of the organization’s culture ( Ostroff et al., 2012 ). Organizational climates tend to be conceptualized and studied as “climates for” an organizational strategy ( Schneider, 1975 ; Ostroff et al., 2012 ). Gender inequalities are most clearly reflected in two forms of climate: climates for diversity and climates for sexual harassment.

A positive climate for diversity exists when organizational members perceive that diverse groups are included, empowered, and treated fairly. When employees perceive a less supportive diversity climate, they perceive greater workplace discrimination ( Cox, 1994 ; Ragins and Cornwall, 2001 ; Triana and García, 2009 ), and experience lower organizational commitment and job satisfaction ( Hicks-Clarke and Iles, 2000 ), and higher turnover intentions ( Triana et al., 2010 ). Thus, in organizations with a less supportive diversity climate, women are more likely to leave the organization, which contributes to the underrepresentation of women in already male-dominated arenas ( Miner-Rubino and Cortina, 2004 ).

A climate for sexual harassment involves perceptions that the organization is permissive of sexual harassment. In organizational climates that are permissive of harassment, victims are reluctant to come forward because they believe that their complaints will not be taken seriously ( Hulin et al., 1996 ) and will result in negative personal consequences (e.g., Offermann and Malamut, 2002 ). Furthermore, men with a proclivity for harassment are more likely to act out these behaviors when permissive factors are present ( Pryor et al., 1993 ). Therefore, a permissive climate for sexual harassment can result in more harassing behaviors, which can lead women to disengage from their work and ultimately leave the organization ( Kath et al., 2009 ).

Organizational climates for diversity and for sexual harassment are inextricably linked to HR practices. For instance, a factor that leads to perceptions of diversity climates is whether the HR department has diversity training (seminars, workshops) and how much time and money is devoted to diversity efforts ( Triana and García, 2009 ). Similarly, a climate for sexual harassment depends on organizational members’ perceptions of how strict the workplace’s sexual harassment policy is, and how likely offenders are to be punished ( Fitzgerald et al., 1995b ; Hulin et al., 1996 ). Thus, HR policies, decision-making, and their enactment strongly affect gender inequalities in organizational climates and gender inequalities throughout an organization.

In summary, gender inequalities can exist within organizational structures, processes, and practices. However, organizational leadership, structure, strategy, culture, and climate do not inherently need to be sexist. It could be possible for these organizational structures, processes, and practices to promote gender equality. We return to this issue in the conclusion section.

The Effect of Hostile and Benevolent Sexism on How Organizational Decision Makers’ Conduct HR Practices

In this section, we explore how personal biases can affect personal discrimination in HR-related decisions and their enactment. Others have focused on how negative or hostile attitudes toward women predict discrimination in the workplace. However, we extend this analysis by drawing on ambivalent sexism theory, which involves hostile sexism (i.e., antagonistic attitudes toward women) and benevolent sexism (i.e., paternalistic attitudes toward women; see also Glick, 2013 ), both of which lead to discrimination against women.

Stereotyping processes are one possible explanation of how discrimination against women in male-typed jobs occurs and how women are relegated to the “pink ghetto” ( Heilman, 1983 ; Eagly and Karau, 2002 ; Rudman et al., 2012 ). Gender stereotypes, that is, expectations of what women and men are like, and what they should be like, are one of the most powerful schemas activated when people encounter others ( Fiske et al., 1991 ; Stangor et al., 1992 ). According to status characteristics theory, people’s group memberships convey important information about their status and their competence on specific tasks ( Berger et al., 1974 ; Berger et al., 1998 ; Correll and Ridgeway, 2003 ). Organizational decision makers will, for many jobs, have different expectations for men’s and women’s competence and job performance. Expectations of stereotyped-group members’ success can affect gender discrimination that occurs in HR-related decisions and enactment ( Roberson et al., 2007 ). For example, men are preferred over women for masculine jobs and women are preferred over men for feminine jobs ( Davison and Burke, 2000 ). Thus, the more that a workplace role is inconsistent with the attributes ascribed to women, the more a particular woman might be seen as lacking “fit” with that role, resulting in decreased performance expectations ( Heilman, 1983 ; Eagly and Karau, 2002 ).

Furthermore, because women are associated with lower status, and men with higher status, women experience backlash for pursuing high status roles (e.g., leadership) in the workplace ( Rudman et al., 2012 ). In other words, agentic women who act competitively and confidently in a leadership role, are rated as more socially deficient, less likeable and less hireable, compared with men who act the same way ( Rudman, 1998 ; Rudman et al., 2012 ). Interestingly though, if women pursue roles in the workplace that are congruent with traditional gender expectations, they will elicit positive reactions ( Eagly and Karau, 2002 ).

Thus, cultural, widely known, gender stereotypes can affect HR-related decisions. However, such an account does not take into consideration individual differences among organizational decision makers (e.g., managers, supervisors, or HR personnel) who may vary in the extent to which they endorse sexist attitudes or stereotypes. Individual differences in various forms of sexism (e.g., modern sexism, neosexism) have been demonstrated to lead to personal discrimination in the workplace ( Hagen and Kahn, 1975 ; Beaton et al., 1996 ; Hitlan et al., 2009 ). Ambivalent sexism theory builds on earlier theories of sexism by including attitudes toward women that, while sexist, are often experienced as positive in valence by perceivers and targets ( Glick and Fiske, 1996 ). Therefore, we draw on ambivalent sexism theory, which conceptualizes sexism as a multidimensional construct that encompasses both hostile and benevolent attitudes toward women ( Glick and Fiske, 1996 , 2001 ).

Hostile sexism involves antipathy and negative stereotypes about women, such as beliefs that women are incompetent, overly emotional, and sexually manipulative. Hostile sexism also involves beliefs that men should be more powerful than women and fears that women will try to take power from men ( Glick and Fiske, 1996 ; Cikara et al., 2008 ). In contrast, benevolent sexism involves overall positive views of women, as long as they occupy traditionally feminine roles. Individuals with benevolently sexist beliefs characterize women as weak and needing protection, support, and adoration. Importantly, hostile and benevolent sexism tend to go hand-in-hand (with a typical correlation of 0.40; Glick et al., 2000 ). This is because ambivalent sexists, people who are high in benevolent and hostile sexism, believe that women should occupy restricted domestic roles and that women are weaker than men are ( Glick and Fiske, 1996 ). Ambivalent sexists reconcile their potentially contradictory attitudes about women by acting hostile toward women whom they believe are trying to steal men’s power (e.g., feminists, professionals who show competence) and by acting benevolently toward traditional women (e.g., homemakers) who reinforce conventional gender relations and who serve men ( Glick et al., 1997 ). An individual difference approach allows us to build on the earlier models ( Heilman, 1983 ; Eagly and Karau, 2002 ; Rudman et al., 2012 ), by specifying who is more likely to discriminate against women and why.

Organizational decision makers who are higher (vs. lower) in hostile sexism should discriminate more against women in HR-related decisions ( Glick et al., 1997 ; Masser and Abrams, 2004 ). For instance, people high in hostile sexism have been found to evaluate candidates, who are believed to be women, more negatively and give lower employment recommendations for a management position, compared with matched candidates believed to be men ( Salvaggio et al., 2009 ) 1 . In another study, among participants who evaluated a female candidate for a managerial position, those higher in hostile sexism were less likely to recommend her for hire, compared with those lower in hostile sexism ( Masser and Abrams, 2004 ). Interestingly, among those evaluating a matched man for the same position, those higher (vs. lower) in hostile sexism were more likely to recommend him for hire ( Masser and Abrams, 2004 ). According to ambivalent sexism theorists ( Glick et al., 1997 ), because people high in hostile sexism see women as a threat to men’s status, they act as gatekeepers denying women access to more prestigious or masculine jobs.

Furthermore, when enacting HR policies and decisions, organizational decision makers who are higher (vs. lower) in hostile sexism should discriminate more against women in the form of gender harassment. Gender harassment can involve hostile terms of address, negative comments regarding women in management, sexist jokes, and sexist behavior ( Fitzgerald et al., 1995a , b ). It has been found that people higher (vs. lower) in hostile sexism have more lenient attitudes toward the sexual harassment of women, which involves gender harassment, in the workplace ( Begany and Milburn, 2002 ; Russell and Trigg, 2004 ). Furthermore, men who more strongly believe that women are men’s adversaries tell more sexist jokes to a woman ( Mitchell et al., 2004 ). Women also report experiencing more incivility (i.e., low level, rude behavior) in the workplace than men ( Björkqvist et al., 1994 ; Cortina et al., 2001 , 2002 ), which could be due to hostile attitudes toward women. In summary, the evidence is consistent with the idea that organizational decision makers’ hostile sexism should predict their gender harassing behavior during HR enactment; however, more research is needed for such a conclusion.

In addition, organizational decision makers who are higher (vs. lower) in benevolent sexism should discriminate more against women when making HR-related decisions. It has been found that people higher (vs. lower) in benevolent sexism are more likely to automatically associate men with high-authority and women with low-authority roles and to implicitly stereotype men as agentic and women as communal ( Rudman and Kilianski, 2000 ). Thus, organizational decision makers who are higher (vs. lower) in benevolent sexism should more strongly believe that women are unfit for organizational roles that are demanding, challenging, and requiring agentic behavior. Indeed, in studies of male MBA students those higher (vs. lower) in benevolent sexism assigned a fictional woman less challenging tasks than a matched man ( King et al., 2012 ). The researchers reasoned that this occurred because men are attempting to “protect” women from the struggles of challenging work. Although there has been little research conducted that has looked at benevolent sexism and gender discrimination in HR-related decisions, the findings are consistent with our model.

Finally, organizational decision makers who are higher (vs. lower) in benevolent sexism should engage in a complex form of gender discrimination when enacting HR policy and decisions that involves mixed messages: women are more likely to receive messages of positive verbal feedback (e.g., “stellar work,” “excellent work”) but lower numeric ratings on performance appraisals, compared with men ( Biernat et al., 2012 ). It is proposed that this pattern of giving women positive messages about their performance while rating them poorly reflects benevolent sexists’ desire to protect women from harsh criticism. However, given that performance appraisals are used for promotion decisions and that constructive feedback is needed for learning, managers’ unwillingness to give women negative verbal criticisms can lead to skill plateau and career stagnation.

Furthermore, exposure to benevolent sexism can harm women’s motivation, goals and performance. Adolescent girls whose mothers are high in benevolent (but not hostile) sexism display lower academic goals and academic performance ( Montañés et al., 2012 ). Of greater relevance to the workplace, when role-playing a job candidate, women who interacted with a hiring manager scripted to make benevolently sexist statements became preoccupied with thoughts about their incompetence, and consequently performed worse in the interview, compared with those in a control condition ( Dardenne et al., 2007 ). These findings suggest that benevolent sexism during the enactment of HR practices can harm women’s work-related motivation and goals, as well as their performance, which can result in a self-fulfilling prophecy ( Word et al., 1974 ). In other words, the low expectations benevolent sexists have of women can be confirmed by women as they are undermined by paternalistic messages.

Ambivalent sexism can operate to harm women’s access to jobs, opportunities for development, ratings of performance, and lead to stigmatization. However, hostile and benevolent sexism operate in different ways. Hostile sexism has direct negative consequences for women’s access to high status, male-typed jobs ( Masser and Abrams, 2004 ; Salvaggio et al., 2009 ), and it is related to higher rates of sexual harassment ( Fitzgerald et al., 1995b ; Mitchell et al., 2004 ; Russell and Trigg, 2004 ), which negatively affect women’s health, well-being, and workplace withdrawal behaviors ( Willness et al., 2007 ). In contrast, benevolent sexism has indirect negative consequences for women’s careers, for instance, in preventing access to challenging tasks ( King et al., 2012 ) and critical developmental feedback ( Vescio et al., 2005 ). Interestingly, exposure to benevolent sexism results in worsened motivation and cognitive performance, compared with exposure to hostile sexism ( Dardenne et al., 2007 ; Montañés et al., 2012 ). This is because women more easily recognize hostile sexism as a form of discrimination and inequality, compared with benevolent sexism, which can be more subtle in nature ( Dardenne et al., 2007 ). Thus, women can externalize hostile sexism and mobilize against it, but the subtle nature of benevolent sexism prevents these processes ( Kay et al., 2005 ; Becker and Wright, 2011 ). Therefore, hostile and benevolent sexism lead to different but harmful forms of HR discrimination. Future research should more closely examine their potentially different consequences.

Thus far, we have articulated how gender inequalities in organizational structures, processes, and practices can affect discrimination in HR policy and in HR-related decision-making and enactment. Furthermore, we have argued that organizational decision makers’ levels of hostile and benevolent sexism are critical factors leading to personal discrimination in HR-related decision-making and enactment, albeit in different forms. We now turn to an integration of these two phenomena.

The Effect of Organizational Structures, Processes, and Practices on Organizational Decision Makers’ Levels of Hostile and Benevolent Sexism

Organizational decision makers’ beliefs about men and women should be affected by the work environments in which they are embedded. Thus, when there are more gender inequalities within organizational structures, processes, and practices, organizational decision makers should have higher levels of hostile sexism and benevolent sexism. Two inter-related processes can account for this proposition: the establishment of who becomes and remains an organizational member, and the socialization of organizational members.

First, as organizations develop over time, forces work to attract, select, and retain an increasingly homogenous set of employees in terms of their hostile and benevolent sexism ( Schneider, 1983 , 1987 ). In support of this perspective, an individual’s values tend to be congruent with the values in his or her work environment (e.g., Holland, 1996 ; Kristof-Brown et al., 2005 ). People are attracted to and choose to work for organizations that have characteristics similar to their own, and organizations select individuals who are likely to fit with the organization. Thus, more sexist individuals are more likely to be attracted to organizations with greater gender inequality in leadership, structure, strategy, culture, climate, and HR policy; and they will be seen as a better fit during recruitment and selection. Finally, individuals who do not fit with the organization tend to leave voluntarily through the process of attrition. Thus, less (vs. more) sexist individuals would be more likely to leave a workplace with marked gender inequalities in organizational structures, processes, and practices. The opposite should be true for organizations with high gender equality. Through attraction, selection, and attrition processes it is likely that organizational members will become more sexist in a highly gender unequal organization and less sexist in a highly gender equal organization.

Second, socialization processes can change organizational members’ personal attributes, goals, and values to match those of the organization ( Ostroff and Rothausen, 1997 ). Organizational members’ receive both formal and informal messages about gender inequality—or equality—within an organization through their orientation and training, reading of organizational policy, perceptions of who rises in the ranks, how women (vs. men) are treated within the organization, as well as their perception of climates for diversity and sexual harassment. Socialization of organizational members over time has been shown to result in organizational members’ values and personalities changing to better match the values of the organization ( Kohn and Schooler, 1982 ; Cable and Parsons, 2001 ).

These socialization processes can operate to change organizational members’ levels of sexism. It is likely that within more sexist workplaces, people’s levels of hostile and benevolent sexism increase because their normative beliefs shift due to exposure to institutional discrimination against women, others’ sexist attitudes and behavior, and gender bias in culture and climate ( Schwartz and DeKeseredy, 2000 ; Ford et al., 2008 ; Banyard et al., 2009 ). These processes can also lead organizational decision makers to adopt less sexist attitudes in a workplace context marked by greater gender equality. Thus, organizational members’ levels of hostile and benevolent sexism can be shaped by the degree of gender inequalities in organizational structures, processes, and practices and by the sexism levels of their work colleagues.

In addition, organizational decision makers can be socialized to act in discriminatory ways without personally becoming more sexist. If organizational decision makers witness others acting in a discriminatory manner with positive consequences, or acting in an egalitarian way with negative consequences, they can learn to become more discriminatory in their HR practices through observational learning ( Bandura, 1977 , 1986 ). So, organizational decision makers could engage in personal discrimination without being sexist if they perceive that the fair treatment of women in HR would encounter resistance given the broader organizational structures, processes, and practices promoting gender inequality. Yet over time, given cognitive dissonance ( Festinger, 1962 ), it is likely that discriminatory behavior could induce attitude change among organizational decision makers to become more sexist.

Thus far we have argued that gender inequalities in organizational structures, processes, and practices, organizational decision makers’ sexist attitudes, and gender discrimination in HR practices can have reciprocal, reinforcing relationships. Thus, it may appear that we have created a model that is closed and determinate in nature; however, this would be a misinterpretation. In the following section, we outline how organizations marked by gender inequalities can reduce discrimination against women.

How to Reduce Gender Discrimination in Organizations

The model we present for understanding gender discrimination in HR practices is complex. We believe that such complexity is necessary to accurately reflect the realities of organizational life. The model demonstrates that many sources of gender inequality are inter-related and have reciprocal effects. By implication, there are no simple or direct solutions to reduce gender discrimination in organizations. Rather, this complex problem requires multiple solutions. In fact, as discussed by Gelfand et al. (2007) , if an organization attempts to correct discrimination in only one aspect of organizational structure, process, or practice, and not others, such change attempts will be ineffective due to mixed messages. Therefore, we outline below how organizations can reduce gender discrimination by focusing on (a) HR policies (i.e., diversity initiatives and family friendly policies) and closely related organizational structures, processes, and practices; (b) HR-related decision-making and enactment; as well as, (c) the organizational decision makers who engage in such actions.

Reducing Gender Discrimination in HR Policy and Associated Organizational Structures, Processes, and Practices

Organizations can take steps to mitigate discrimination in HR policies. As a first example, let us consider how an organization can develop, within its HR systems, diversity initiatives aimed at changing the composition of the workforce that includes policies to recruit, retain, and develop employees from underrepresented groups ( Jayne and Dipboye, 2004 ). Diversity initiatives can operate like affirmative action programs in that organizations track and monitor (a) the number of qualified candidates from different groups (e.g., women vs. men) in a pool, and (b) the number of candidates from each group hired or promoted. When the proportion of candidates from a group successfully selected varies significantly from their proportion in the qualified pool then action, such as targeted recruitment efforts, needs to be taken.

Importantly, such efforts to increase diversity can be strengthened by other HR policies that reward managers, who select more diverse personnel, with bonuses ( Jayne and Dipboye, 2004 ). Organizations that incorporate diversity-based criteria into their performance and promotion policies and offer meaningful incentives to managers to identify and develop successful female candidates for promotion are more likely to succeed in retaining and promoting diverse talent ( Murphy and Cleveland, 1995 ; Cleveland et al., 2000 ). However, focusing on short-term narrowly defined criteria, such as increasing the number of women hired, without also focusing on candidates’ merit and providing an adequate climate or support for women are unlikely to bring about any long-term change in diversity, and can have detrimental consequences for its intended beneficiaries ( Heilman et al., 1992 , 1997 ). Rather, to be successful, HR policies for diversity need to be supported by the other organizational structures, processes, and practices, such as strategy, leadership, and climate.

For instance, diversity initiatives should be linked to strategies to create a business case for diversity ( Jayne and Dipboye, 2004 ). An organization with a strategy to market to more diverse populations can justify that a more diverse workforce can better serve potential clientele ( Jayne and Dipboye, 2004 ). Alternatively, an organization that is attempting to innovate and grow might justify a corporate strategy to increase diversity on the grounds that diverse groups have multiple perspectives on a problem with the potential to generate more novel, creative solutions ( van Knippenberg et al., 2004 ). Furthermore, organizational leaders must convey strong support for the HR policies for them to be successful ( Rynes and Rosen, 1995 ). Given the same HR policy within an organization, leaders’ personal attitudes toward the policy affects the discrimination levels found within their unit ( Pryor, 1995 ; Pryor et al., 1995 ). Finally, diversity programs are more likely to succeed in multicultural organizations with strong climates for diversity ( Elsass and Graves, 1997 ; Jayne and Dipboye, 2004 ). An organization’s climate for diversity consists of employees’ shared perceptions that the organization’s structures, processes, and practices are committed to maintaining diversity and eliminating discrimination ( Nishii and Raver, 2003 ; Gelfand et al., 2007 ). In organizations where employees perceive a strong climate for diversity, diversity programs result in greater employee attraction and retention among women and minorities, at all levels of the organization ( Cox and Blake, 1991 ; Martins and Parsons, 2007 ).

As a second example of how HR policies can mitigate gender inequalities, we discuss HR policies to lessen employees’ experience of work-family conflict. Work-family conflict is a type of role conflict that workers experience when the demands (e.g., emotional, cognitive, time) of their work role interfere with the demands of their family role or vice versa ( Greenhaus and Beutell, 1985 ). Work-family conflict has the negative consequences of increasing employee stress, illness-related absence, and desire to turnover ( Grandey and Cropanzano, 1999 ). Importantly, women are more adversely affected by work-family conflict than men ( Martins et al., 2002 ). Work-family conflict can be exacerbated by HR policies that evaluate employees based on face time (i.e., number of hours present at the office), as a proxy for organizational commitment ( Perlow, 1995 ; Elsbach et al., 2010 ).

Formal family friendly HR policies can be adopted to relieve work-family conflict directly, which differentially assists women in the workplace. For instance, to reduce work-family conflict, organizations can implement HR policies such as flexible work arrangements, which involve flexible schedules, telecommuting, compressed work weeks, job-shares, and part-time work ( Galinsky et al., 2008 ). In conjunction with other family friendly policies, such as the provision of childcare, elderly care, and paid maternity leave, organizations can work to reduce stress and improve the retention of working mothers ( Burke, 2002 ).

Unfortunately, it has been found that the enactment of flexible work policies can still lead to discrimination. Organizational decision makers’ sexism can lead them to grant more flexible work arrangements to white men than to women and other minorities because white men are seen as more valuable ( Kelly and Kalev, 2006 ). To circumvent this, organizations need to formalize HR policies relating to flexible work arrangements ( Kelly and Kalev, 2006 ). For instance, formal, written policies should articulate who can adopt flexible work arrangements (e.g., employees in specific divisions or with specific job roles) and what such arrangements look like (e.g., core work from 10 am to 3 pm with flexible work hours from 7 to 10 am or from 3 to 6 pm). When the details of such policies are formally laid out, organizational decision makers have less latitude and therefore less opportunity for discrimination in granting access to these arrangements.

To be successful, family friendly HR policies should be tied to other organizational structures, processes, and practices such as organizational strategy, leadership, culture, and climate. A business case for flexible work arrangements can be made because they attract and retain top-talent, which includes women ( Baltes et al., 1999 ). Furthermore, organizational leaders must convey strong support for family friendly programs ( Jayne and Dipboye, 2004 ). Leaders can help bolster the acceptance of family friendly policies through successive interactions, communications, visibility, and role modeling with employees. For instance, a leader who sends emails at 2 o’clock in the morning is setting a different expectation of constant availability than a leader who never sends emails after 7:00 pm. Family friendly HR policies must also be supported by simultaneously changing the underlying organizational culture that promotes face time. Although it is difficult to change the culture of an organization, the leaders’ of the organization play an influential role in instilling such change because the behaviors of leaders are antecedents and triggers of organizational culture ( Kozlowski and Doherty, 1989 ; Ostroff et al., 2012 ). In summary, HR policies must be supported by other organizational structures, processes, and practices in order for these policies to be effective.

Adopting HR diversity initiative policies and family friendly policies can reduce gender discrimination and reshape the other organizational structures, processes, and practices and increase gender equality in them. Specifically, such policies, if successful, should increase the number of women in all departments and at all levels of an organization. Further, having more women in leadership positions signals to organizational members that the organization takes diversity seriously, affecting the diversity climate of the organization, and ultimately its culture ( Konrad et al., 2010 ). Thus, particular HR policies can reduce gender inequalities in all of the other organizational structures, processes, and practices.

Reducing Gender Discrimination in HR-Related Decision-Making and Enactment

A wealth of research demonstrates that an effective means of reducing personal bias by organizational decision makers in HR practices is to develop HR policies that standardize and objectify performance data (e.g., Konrad and Linnehan, 1995 ; Reskin and McBrier, 2000 ). To reduce discrimination in personnel decisions (i.e., employee hiring and promotion decisions) a job analysis should be performed to determine the appropriate knowledge skills and abilities needed for specific positions ( Fine and Cronshaw, 1999 ). This ensures that expectations about characteristics of the ideal employee for that position are based on accurate knowledge of the job and not gender stereotypes about the job ( Welle and Heilman, 2005 ). To reduce discrimination in performance evaluations, HR policies should necessitate the use of reliable measures based on explicit objective performance expectations and apply these practices consistently across all worker evaluations ( Bernardin et al., 1998 ; Ittner et al., 2003 ). Employees’ performance should be evaluated using behaviorally anchored rating scales ( Smith and Kendall, 1963 ) that allow supervisors to rate subordinates on examples of actual work behaviors. These evaluations should be done regularly, given that delays require retrieving memories of work performance and this process can be biased by gender stereotypes ( Sanchez and De La Torre, 1996 ). Finally, if greater gender differences are found on selection tests than on performance evaluations, then the use of such biased selection tests needs to be revisited ( Chung-Yan and Cronshaw, 2002 ). In summary, developing HR policies that standardize and objectify the process of employee/candidate evaluations can reduce personal bias in HR practices.

Importantly, the level of personal discrimination enacted by organizational decision makers can be reduced by formalizing HR policies, and by controlling the situations under which HR-related decisions are made. We have articulated how HR-related decisions involve social cognition and are therefore susceptible to biases introduced by the use of gender stereotypes. This can occur unwittingly by those who perceive themselves to be unprejudiced but who are affected by stereotypes or negative automatic associations nonetheless ( Chugh, 2004 ; Son Hing et al., 2008 ). For instance, when HR policies do not rely on objective criteria, and the context for evaluation is ambiguous, organizational decision makers will draw on gender (and other) stereotypes to fill in the blanks when evaluating candidates ( Heilman, 1995 , 2001 ). Importantly, the context can be constructed in such a way as to reduce these biases. For instance, organizational decision makers will make less biased judgments of others if they have more time available to evaluate others, are less cognitively busy ( Martell, 1991 ), have higher quality of information available about candidates, and are accountable for justifying their ratings and decisions ( Kulik and Bainbridge, 2005 ; Roberson et al., 2007 ). Thus, if they have the time, motivation, and opportunity to make well-informed, more accurate judgments, then discrimination in performance ratings can be reduced.

Reducing Organizational Decision Makers’ Sexism

Another means to reduce gender discrimination in HR-related decision-making and enactment is to focus directly on reducing the hostile and benevolent sexist beliefs of organizational decision makers. Interventions aimed at reducing these beliefs typically involve diversity training, such as a seminar, course, or workshop. Such training involves one or more sessions that involve interactive discussions, lectures, and practical assignments. During the training men and women are taught about sexism and how gender roles in society are socially constructed. Investigations have shown these workshop-based interventions are effective at reducing levels of hostile sexism but have inconsistent effects on benevolent sexism ( Case, 2007 ; de Lemus et al., 2014 ). The subtle, and in some ways positive nature of benevolent sexism makes it difficult to confront and reduce using such interventions. However, levels of benevolent sexism are reduced when individuals are explicitly informed about the harmful implications of benevolent sexism ( Becker and Swim, 2012 ). Unfortunately, these interventions have not been tested in organizational settings. So their efficacy in the field is unknown.

Gender inequality in organizations is a complex phenomenon that can be seen in HR practices (i.e., policies, decision-making, and their enactment) that affects the hiring, training, pay, and promotion of women. We propose that gender discrimination in HR-related decision-making and the enactment of HR practices stems from gender inequalities in broader organizational structures, processes, and practices, including HR policy but also leadership, structure, strategy, culture, and organizational climate. Moreover, reciprocal effects should occur, such that discriminatory HR practices can perpetuate gender inequalities in organizational leadership, structure, strategy, culture, and climate. Organizational decision makers also play an important role in gender discrimination. We propose that personal discrimination in HR-related decisions and enactment arises from organizational decision makers’ levels of hostile and benevolent sexism. While hostile sexism can lead to discrimination against women because of a desire to keep them from positions of power, benevolent sexism can lead to discrimination against women because of a desire to protect them. Finally, we propose that gender inequalities in organizational structures, processes, and practices affect organizational decision makers’ sexism through attraction, selection, socialization, and attrition processes. Thus, a focus on organizational structure, processes, and practices is critical.

The model we have developed extends previous work by Gelfand et al. (2007) in a number of substantive ways. Gelfand et al. (2007) proposed that aspects of the organization, that is, structure, organizational culture, leadership, strategy, HR systems, and organizational climates, are all interrelated and may contribute to or attenuate discrimination (e.g., racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia). First, we differ from their work by emphasizing that workplace discrimination is most directly attributable to HR practices. Consequently, we emphasize how inequalities in other organizational structures, processes, and practices affect institutional discrimination in HR policy. Second, our model differs from that of Gelfand et al. (2007) in that we focus on the role of organizational decision makers in the enactment of HR policy. The attitudes of these decision makers toward specific groups of employees are critical. However, the nature of prejudice differs depending on the target group ( Son Hing and Zanna, 2010 ). Therefore, we focus on one form of bias—sexism—in the workplace. Doing so, allows us to draw on more nuanced theories of prejudice, namely ambivalent sexism theory ( Glick and Fiske, 1996 ). Thus, third, our model differs from the work of Gelfand et al. (2007) by considering how dual beliefs about women (i.e., hostile and benevolent beliefs) can contribute to different forms of gender discrimination in HR practices. Fourth, we differ from Gelfand et al. (2007) by reviewing how organizational decision makers’ level of sexism within an organization is affected by organizational structures, processes, and practices via selection-attraction-attrition processes and through socialization processes.

However, the model we have developed is not meant to be exhaustive. There are multiple issues that we have not addressed but should be considered: what external factors feed into our model? What other links within the model might arise? What are the limits to its generalizability? What consequences derive from our model? How can change occur given a model that is largely recursive in nature? We focus on these issues throughout our conclusion.

In this paper, we have illustrated what we consider to be the dominant links in our model; however, additional links are possible. First, we do not lay out the factors that feed into our model, such as government regulations, the economy, their competitors, and societal culture. In future work, one could analyze the broader context that organizations operate in, which influences its structures, processes, and practices, as well as its members. For instance, in societies marked by greater gender inequalities, the levels of hostile and benevolent sexism of organizational decision makers will be higher ( Glick et al., 2000 ). Second, there is no link demonstrating how organizational decision makers who are more sexist have the capacity, even if they sit lower in the organizational hierarchy, to influence the amount of gender inequality in organizational structures, processes, and practices. It is possible for low-level managers or HR personnel who express more sexist sentiments to—through their own behavior—affect others’ perceptions of the tolerance for discrimination in the workplace ( Ford et al., 2001 ) and others’ perceptions of the competence and hireability of female job candidates ( Good and Rudman, 2010 ). Thus, organizational decision makers’ levels of hostile and benevolent sexism can affect organizational climates, and potentially other organizational structures, processes, and practices. Third, it is possible that organizational structures, processes, and practices could moderate the link between organizational decision makers’ sexist attitudes and their discriminatory behavior in HR practices. The ability of people to act in line with their attitudes depends on the strength of the constraints in the social situation and the broader context ( Lewin, 1935 , 1951 ). Thus, if organizational structures, processes, and practices clearly communicate the importance of gender equality then the discriminatory behavior of sexist organizational decision makers should be constrained. Accordingly, organizations should take steps to mitigate institutional discrimination by focusing on organizational structures, processes, and practices rather than focusing solely on reducing sexism in individual employees.

Our model does not consider how women’s occupational status is affected by their preferences for gender-role-consistent careers and their childcare and family responsibilities, which perhaps should not be underestimated (e.g., Manne, 2001 ; Hakim, 2006 ; Ceci et al., 2009 ). In other words, lifestyle preferences could contribute to gender differences in the workplace. However, it is important to consider how women’s agency in choosing occupations and managing work-life demands is constrained. Gender imbalances (e.g., in pay) in the workplace (e.g., Moss-Racusin et al., 2012 ; Sheltzer and Smith, 2014 ) and gender imbalances in the home (e.g., in domestic labor, childcare; Bianchi, 2000 ; Bianchi et al., 2000 ) shape the decisions that couples (when they consist of a woman and a man) make about how to manage dual careers. For instance, research has uncovered that women with professional degrees leave the labor force at roughly three times the rate of men ( Baker, 2002 ). Women’s decisions to interrupt their careers were difficult and were based on factors, such as workplace inflexibility, and their husbands’ lack of domestic responsibilities, rather than a preference to stay at home with their children ( Stone and Lovejoy, 2004 ). Thus, both factors inside and outside the workplace constrain and shape women’s career decisions.

Our model is derived largely from research that has been conducted in male-dominated organizations; however, we speculate that it should hold for female-dominated organizations. There is evidence that tokenism does not work against men in terms of their promotion potential in female-dominated environments. Rather, there is some evidence for a glass-escalator effect for men in female-dominated fields, such as nursing, and social work ( Williams, 1992 ). In addition, regardless of the gender composition of the workplace, men are advantaged, compared with women in terms of earnings and wage growth ( Budig, 2002 ). Finally, even in female-dominated professions, segregation along gender lines occurs in organizational structure ( Snyder and Green, 2008 ). Thus, the literature suggests that our model should hold for female-dominated environments.

Some might question if our model assumes that organizational decision makers enacting HR practices are men. It does not. There is evidence that decision makers who are women also discriminate against women (e.g., the Queen Bee phenomenon; Ellemers et al., 2004 ). Further, although men are higher in hostile sexism, compared with women ( Glick et al., 1997 , 2000 ), they are not necessarily higher in benevolent sexism ( Glick et al., 2000 ). More importantly, the effects of hostile and benevolent sexism are not moderated by participant gender ( Masser and Abrams, 2004 ; Salvaggio et al., 2009 ; Good and Rudman, 2010 ). Thus, those who are higher in hostile or benevolent sexism respond in a more discriminatory manner, regardless of whether they are men or women. Thus, organizational decision makers, regardless of their sex, should discriminate more against women in HR practices when they are higher in hostile or benevolent sexism.

In future work, the consequences of our model for women discriminated against in HR practices should be considered. The negative ramifications of sexism and discrimination on women are well known: physical and psychological stress, worse physical health (e.g., high blood pressure, ulcers, anxiety, depression; Goldenhar et al., 1998 ); lower job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and attachment to work ( Murrell et al., 1995 ; Hicks-Clarke and Iles, 2000 ); lower feelings of power and prestige ( Gutek et al., 1996 ); and performance decrements through stereotype threat ( Spencer et al., 1999 ). However, how might these processes differ depending on the proximal cause of the discrimination?

Our model lays out two potential paths by which women might be discriminated against in HR practices: institutional discrimination stemming from organizational structures, processes, and practices and personal discrimination stemming from organizational decision makers’ levels of sexism. In order for the potential stressor of stigmatization to lead to psychological and physical stress it must be seen as harmful and self-relevant ( Son Hing, 2012 ). Thus, if institutional discrimination in organizational structures, processes, and practices are completely hidden then discrimination might not cause stress reactions associated with stigmatization because it may be too difficult for women to detect ( Crosby et al., 1986 ; Major, 1994 ), and label as discrimination ( Crosby, 1984 ; Stangor et al., 2003 ). In contrast, women should be adversely affected by stigmatization in instances where gender discrimination in organizational structures, processes, and practices is more evident. For instance, greater perceptions of discrimination are associated with lower self-esteem in longitudinal studies ( Schmitt et al., 2014 ).

It might appear that we have created a model, which is a closed system, with no opportunities to change an organization’s trajectory: more unequal organizations will become more hierarchical, and more equal organizations will become more egalitarian. We do not believe this to be true. One potential impetus for organizations to become more egalitarian may be some great shock such as sex-based discrimination lawsuits that the organization either faces directly or sees its competitors suffer. Large corporations have been forced to settle claims of gender harassment and gender discrimination with payouts upward of $21 million ( Gilbert v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., 2004 ; LexisNexis, 2010 ; Velez, et al. v. Novartis Pharmaceuticals Crop, et al., 2010 ). Discrimination lawsuits are time consuming and costly ( James and Wooten, 2006 ), resulting in lower shares, lower public perceptions, higher absenteeism, and higher turnover ( Wright et al., 1995 ). Expensive lawsuits experienced either directly or indirectly should act as a big driver in the need for change.

Furthermore, individual women can work to avoid stigmatization. Women in the workplace are not simply passive targets of stereotyping processes. People belonging to stigmatized groups can engage in a variety of anti-stigmatization techniques, but their response options are constrained by the cultural repertoires available to them ( Lamont and Mizrachi, 2012 ). In other words, an organization’s culture will provide its members with a collective imaginary for how to behave. For instance, it might be unimaginable for a woman to file a complaint of sexual harassment if she knows that complaints are never taken seriously. Individuals do negotiate stigmatization processes; however, this is more likely when stigmatization is perceived as illegitimate and when they have the resources to do so ( Major and Schmader, 2001 ). Thus, at an individual level, people engage in strategies to fight being discriminated against but these strategies are likely more constrained for those who are most stigmatized.

Finally, possibly the most efficacious way for organizational members (men and women) to challenge group-based inequality and to improve the status of women as a whole is to engage in collective action (e.g., participate in unions, sign petitions, organize social movements, recruit others to join a movement; Klandermans, 1997 ; Wright and Lubensky, 2009 ). People are most likely to engage in collective action when they perceive group differences as underserved or illegitimate ( Wright, 2001 ). Such a sense of relative deprivation involves feelings of injustice and anger that prompt a desire for wide scale change ( van Zomeren et al., 2008 ). Interestingly, people are more likely to experience relative deprivation when inequalities have begun to be lessened, and thus their legitimacy questioned ( Crosby, 1984 ; Kawakami and Dion, 1993 ; Stangor et al., 2003 ). If organizational leaders respond to such demands for change by altering previously gender oppressive organizational structures, processes, and practices, this can, in people’s minds, open the door for additional changes. Therefore, changes to mitigate gender inequalities within any organizational structure, policy, or practice could start a cascade of transformations leading to a more equal organization for men and women.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


This research was supported by funding from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) awarded to Leanne S. Son Hing.

1 In this study, candidates were identified with initials and participants were asked to indicate the presumed gender of the candidate after evaluating them.

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Many Transgender Americans Face Stigma and Financial Hardship, Survey Finds

The survey of more than 92,000 transgender and nonbinary Americans also found that the vast majority were satisfied with their decision to transition.

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A large group of people, gathered indoors, hold signs supporting transgender rights.

By Azeen Ghorayshi

Transgender and nonbinary Americans experience stark rates of unemployment and harassment, according to the largest survey of their life experiences to date. The data reflect a longstanding pattern of discrimination at a time when states across the country have passed laws restricting their health care, bathroom access and participation in sports.

The findings come from the U.S. Transgender Survey, which many researchers and policymakers have relied on since a version of it debuted in 2011. The National Center for Transgender Equality, an advocacy group, carried out the latest iteration of the survey in late 2022, garnering responses from more than 92,000 transgender and nonbinary Americans, age 16 and up, from every state in the country.

The group released a preliminary analysis of responses to the survey’s 600 questions on Wednesday, with the full report expected later this year.

The survey was not given to a random sample of transgender people, so it cannot be interpreted as representative of the transgender population as a whole. It also skewed young, with 43 percent of respondents ages 18 to 24.

Still, there were more than three times as many respondents as there were in 2015, the last time the survey was conducted , when 28,000 people participated.

“You don’t see data sets like this,” Sandy James, an attorney and the lead researcher of the new survey, said in a press briefing. “Tens of thousands of trans people knew that it was imperative that they make their voices heard.”

Many respondents reported financial challenges. Eighteen percent of survey respondents said they were unemployed, much higher than the national rate, and one-third said they had experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. More than one-quarter reported not seeing a doctor when they needed to in the previous year because of high costs.

Nearly one-third of survey respondents said they had been verbally harassed in the previous year, and three percent of respondents said they were physically attacked in the last year because of their gender identity.

But they also reported positive experiences. An overwhelming majority of respondents — nearly 94 percent — said they were more satisfied with their lives since transitioning. Among those receiving hormones, 98 percent said the treatments had made them more satisfied with life.

Since the 2015 survey, state legislatures have grown considerably more hostile toward L.G.B.T.Q. people, with restrictions on health care for minors and adults , library books , bathroom access, sports participation in schools and gender identification on legal documents. State legislatures are now considering nearly 400 such bills, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Nearly half of the 2022 survey respondents said that they had considered moving in the previous year because of restrictive bills passed or introduced in their state, and 5 percent said they had moved. Forty-four percent reported serious psychological distress in the previous 30 days.

The results seem largely in keeping with the findings from 2015, although the group has not yet compared the data in detail, Dr. James said.

“A steady condition, environment, has been created in which people are not able to thrive,” Dr. James said. “And trans people are trying to move through their lives, as anyone else in the United States wants to do.”

The 2022 survey was the first to include respondents ages 16 and 17, and they comprised more than 8,000 of the total respondents. Adolescents were excluded from some of the preliminary report’s other analyses, such as those related to their experiences with medical treatments, but they will be included in the report published later this year.

Sixty percent of teenagers reported mistreatment at school, including verbal harassment, physical violence and online bullying, as well as being barred from using their chosen names, pronouns or the bathroom matching their gender identity. Minors were also more likely than adults to report having family members who were not supportive of their gender identity, and 5 percent said that family members had been violent toward them because they were transgender.

Azeen Ghorayshi covers the intersection of sex, gender and science for The Times. More about Azeen Ghorayshi



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