Business Woman in tech. Stronger together, Happy women or girls standing together , girls, power, strong, strength, feminism Feminine, woman empowerment, vector illustration.Article by Alexandra Niessen-Ruenzi, Professor of Finance and Corporate Governance at the University of Mannheim, Business School

Over the last three decades, the lessening gap between the numbers of men and women in higher education and full-time employment has been its own kind of “grand convergence”.

Nevertheless, for now, gender pay parity remains a thing of the future, in part because women are still underrepresented in lucrative professions such as STEM, business, and finance.

Perhaps one reason for this has to do with women’s personal preferences. However, research on this topic has also suggested it could be caused by biases against women and a lack of female role models in these industries whose presence would encourage women to strive for positions in male-dominated industries.

It is noteworthy that the gender pay gap is significantly lower in US states where counter-stereotypical female role models are more popular. This suggests that women who achieve success in occupations that are traditionally perceived as the territory of men inspire other women to do likewise, which mitigates the effects of stereotypes arising from gender norms on women’s career choices.

Admiration for counter-stereotypical female role models is associated with women making decisions that improve their earning potential. For instance, entering high-earning occupations such as STEM, taking on senior-ranked positions, seeking higher education qualifications, and waiting until later in life to start having children.

To define a counter-stereotypical female role model, I, alongside fellow researchers Mengqiao Du from Mannheim Business School and Vidhi Chhaochharia from the University of Miami, analysed qualitative information from 46 cross-sectional Gallup surveys conducted from 1951-2014.

Respondents to these surveys identified a total of 247 famous women whom they said they admired. We sorted these role models into 14 categories depending on their primary occupation.

We compared these career categories to labour market information taken from the Current Population Survey and responses to questions about gender differences in the General Social Survey recorded over a period of around 50 years. This enabled us to get a clear understanding of gender norms at the state level, and helped us sort the 14 categories into stereotypical or counter-stereotypical career paths for a woman.

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We classify counter-stereotypical female role models as women who are deemed admirable for their work as politicians, writers or journalists, businesswomen, astronauts, scientists, athletes, or activists. In contrast, stereotypical female role models are looked up to as famous wives, mothers, daughters, friends or other family members, nurses, religious persons, or entertainment figures.

The number of respondents who identified counter-stereotypical famous women as admirable has changed strongly over time. From 1950-2014, the percentage of people who look up to stereotypical female role models dropped from 80 percent to around 30 percent; meanwhile, the percentage of people who admired counter-stereotypical female role models rose from below 20 percent to 50 percent.

The real turning point seems to have been in the 1980s, as this was when counter-stereotypical women started to become more popular as role models than women who held more conventional positions.

Naturally, both gender norms and counter-stereotypical female role models play a part in women’s choices, but are such role models more likely to stem from states that already have relatively liberal gender norms? This does not appear to be the case, as we find that 46.5 percent of the counter-stereotypical female role models we identified from the Gallup surveys come from states with liberal gender norms, whereas 53.5 percent originate from states with overall more conservative views.

This suggests that counter-stereotypical role models are not just reflections of a state that is already far more liberally-minded. Furthermore, over time, observing women in atypical professions and positions alters people’s perceptions about which roles in society are supposed to be filled by a particular gender.

For this reason, counter-stereotypical female role models are a sort of square one for changing gender norms at the state level. If admiration for them increases significantly, the associated effects should propel women’s earnings closer to gender parity with men. This means that at some point, female role models that were once counter-stereotypical will cease to be so. They will instead reflect the new normal.

About the author

Alexandra Niessen-RuenziProf. Dr. Alexandra Niessen-Ruenzi holds the Chair of Corporate Governance at the University of Mannheim, Business School. Her research interests lie in the field of empirical financial market research with a special focus on gender differences in capital markets. Alexandra Niessen-Ruenzi’s research results have been published in top international journals and have been awarded several prizes such as the Rothschild Cesarea IDC Award and the SABE Award from the New York Stock Exchange. Her publications have also been well received by the media and have been discussed in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, among others. She is a sought-after speaker on gender topics and regularly presents her research findings at both academic conferences as well as in industry companies and associations.