Recently, McKnight’s Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman discussed a laboratory experiment my colleague and I ran that tested negotiation behavior in hierarchical conditions. The goal was to strip away the institutional factors that often makes comparing the behavior of men and women difficult.

That’s because many institutions, including those in healthcare, restrict the agency of women as they tend to occupy roles with less power and tend to be more harshly judged for the same behaviors. Our experiment allowed us to test how men and women might negotiate, assess the bargaining outcomes, and estimate the perceptions of trustworthiness under conditions of relative equality in both the roles of principal (boss) and agent (employee).

Part of the reason for our research stems from a popular recent idea that women don’t have the will or skill to lead like men. Notions like lean in imply that women don’t have the will or skill to lead like men and essentially blame women for the conditions of oppression. This is especially problematic when discussing the pay for women of color, many of whom work in long-term care.

Our research demonstrates that focusing on skill or suggesting that women are fundamentally different from men represents a missed opportunity to address gender pay gaps. We found that there are not significant differences between men and women in terms of the negotiation strategies or the bargaining outcomes in the role of boss and employee. However, women may be perceived as more trustworthy. All this suggests that focusing on the context is a more effective way to achieve gender equality.  

We can only speculate as to why women might be extended more trust because we didn’t ask participants about the basis for their assessments of trust. However, some research suggests that women are more trustworthy in institutional contexts, but we don’t know if that is due to the institutional setting or because people tend to trust women more because the institutional constraints are known.

What we can say from the evidence is that it is not likely because women are making significantly different choices than men under conditions of relative equality.

Nursing home executives, and others in leadership positions, can use the information from our study in a few concrete ways.

First, they can challenge gender stereotypes that restrict the advancement of women or contribute to negative perceptions of the leadership of women is essential. We can see lots of examples of this double standard in contemporary political discourse, which tends to emphasize the “likability” of women and frame the same behavior negatively when women engage in it.

Women still tend to do most of the caregiving in society, both personally and professionally, so challenging gender stereotypes that contribute to the gender pay gaps would mean more resources for those in their care. Challenging gender stereotypes requires pointing out differential treatment and institutionalizing processes that restrict subjective evaluations (e.g.; likability, appearance, dress, etc).

This also extends to expressions of emotions and the evaluation of emotional labor. Social norms allow men to express anger with fewer consequences, but restricts or discounts any other emotional expression by men (perceiving them to be less trustworthy if they express too much anger or “weak” otherwise). These same norms allow women to express a range of emotions, though not without consequence, but heavy costs are imposed on women expressing anger. Anger is essentially frustration, hurt, and fear. Humans should be allowed the full range of emotional expression. This includes men, but until we value the emotional labor that goes into taking care of the elderly, these costs will continue to weigh heavily on some; which also limits what we could achieve overall.

Put simply, challenging gender stereotypes benefits everyone and can be done most effectively by changing the contexts within which we work. People respond to the institutional rules and to the incentives designed in employment evaluations. If we evaluate emotional labor, particularly in fields that involve a considerable degree of emotional labor such as skilled nursing, people (men and women alike) will respond by investing in those endeavors.

Second, changing the structure of the rules and incentives that shape behavior within institutions can be done through the hiring process and through the merit evaluation process. The hiring practices in a nursing home should restrict conversations about family planning and not allow the negotiation of pay to be based on current salary, which in the aggregate negatively impacts women.

Any rule requires oversight in order to be consistently applied. Merit evaluations can easily be modified to reflect the values and mission of the organization. If a nursing home values human dignity, those who exhibit empathy, compassion, spend their time talking with residents, are gentle and patient with families and other staff, they should move up in an organization that evaluates those characteristics. If men and women are held to the same standards, we can expect them to behave in similar ways.

Holona LeAnne Ochs, Ph.D., is associate professor and graduate director in the Department of Political Science at Lehigh University.