The gaps that female managers do not close

Will more women on boards lead to more equality in an organisation? Or do multi-national teams promote inter-cultural relationships? While some numbers support such obvious linkages, deeper research provides a more sophisticated picture.

Current representation data published by the European Commission shows that gender equality progresses in countries where some related legislation is in place. The supporters of mandated female representation on boards hastily interpret this as a proof that women at the top drive gender equality. A new, large-scale empirical study now shows that this does not apply for equal pay.

Female bosses have no impact on female – nor male! – earnings

Are the earnings of female employees affected by either a) having a female line manager themselves or b) a greater proportion of female managers in total within their respective organizations? Two rivalling theories are being presented: that women are either ‘agents of change’ or ‘cogs in the machine’.

The latest large-scale empirical research provides an intriguing finding beyond an all too familiar overall picture: While the average hourly wage of men is 8.33€ compared to 7.74€ for women (not adjusted), no significant relationship of female managers on either female or male earnings was found. This applied to both tested hypotheses: the supposed influence of the overall proportion of female managers and the fact that an individual manager was female. This means that (more) women in management do not contribute to closing the gender pay gap nor do they create a disadvantage for men (as sometimes alleged).

Unique research design

In a unique way, the study analysed manager-employee linked data from nine European countries: Bulgaria, Finland, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In order to avoid statistical biases, they included not only the individual employee level (N=9,267), but also the departmental (N=706) and the organisational levels (N=236).

Able but not willing or willing but unable?

The results of the analysis support the hypothesis formulated by the researchers that female managers function as ‘cogs in the machine’. The question remains WHY they have no impact on existing pay gaps, not even when their direct reports are concerned? The scientists provide a mixed explanation that they might be partly not willing (‘queen bee’ theory) and partly unable (on lower ranks) to influence the situation.

„The findings confirm once more that it is not enough – and even dangerous – to focus only or mainly on representation numbers. Instead, we need to understand the various dynamics and biases that contribute to unfair inequalities“, Michael Stuber, The D&I Engineer summarises. His work addresses embedded assumptions and myths that are also found in D&I practices and communication.

Beyond gender

A number of similar assumptions exist in other areas of D&I. For inter-cultural diversity, for example, two theories are competing: Does working in an international environment create a multi-cultural normality for expats or is their affinity to the home nationality strengthened?

Read the latest research. (Link follows)


Further reading

Why targets do not help to overcome resistance

What people really think about women in management

Messages that support systemic change

Perspectives and recommendations on Pay Gaps



Margriet van Hek and Tanja van der Lippe (2019): Are Female Managers Agents of Change or Cogs in the Machine? An Assessment with Three-Level Manager–Employee Linked Data. European Sociological Review. S. 1-16