Women with straight As in high school have same leadership prospects as men with failing grades
The relationship between good grades in high school and future leadership responsibilities in the workplace is stronger for men than it is for women, a new UBC study has found.
The difference is particularly striking among those who have grown up to become parents, according to the study published recently in the academic journal Social Forces. Fathers with perfect high school grades supervised more than four times as many employees, on average, as mothers with equally stellar grades (19-4). But at the lowest levels of high school GPA, fathers supervised only slightly more people than mothers (4-3).
“Before they become parents, the relationship between high school GPA and leadership at work is similar for men and women. After they become parents, men start to reap a lot of the leadership returns from their academic achievement, but women do not,” said Dr. Yue Qian, PhD, an assistant professor in UBC’s sociology department who conducted the study with colleague Dr. Jill Yavorsky from the University of North Carolina Charlotte.
The study focused on a group of nearly 5,000 people in the U.S. born between 1957 and 1964. The researchers had access to these people’s high school transcript data, and their responses to career-oriented surveys taken over an 11-year period from 1988 to 1998.
The key measure of leadership was the number of people participants reported supervising at work.
Among the most notable findings:
- As high school GPA increased from zero to 4.0, men’s predicted number of supervisees increased from 4.0 to 13.3, while women’s increased from 2.3 to 5.0.
- Gender differences were even starker among parents:
- As high school GPA increased from zero to 4.0, the predicted number of supervisees increased from 4.0 to 18.8 for fathers but changed only slightly from 2.6 to 4.0 for mothers.
- Fathers with failing grades in high school had the same leadership prospects as mothers who had an ‘A’ average.
The study cites previous research that helps explain the gap. For example, research has shown that labour in the home falls disproportionately to women, which likely hinders their career prospects.
Other research has shown that post-secondary degrees are associated with greater leadership responsibilities at work. Attaining a bachelor’s degree gave a bigger boost to fathers’ career opportunities and leadership prospects than it did to mothers’.
Finally, women are more likely than men to take parental leaves or work fewer hours after their careers get under way, which leads to shorter job tenure and less cumulative work experience.
The researchers discounted one potential explanation: that men simply have a more natural propensity to lead. If this were true, then the difference should be observable even in high school. However, women in the survey were at least as likely as men to have served in high school student government.
Two decades have passed since these surveys, but Qian expects to find similar trends when more recent data becomes available.
“Many gender research scholars have found that the ‘gender revolution’ has stalled in recent years, especially since the 1990s in the U.S.,” Qian said. “In Canada we find similar trends: the female employment rate, gender wage gaps, segregation of occupations, and women’s access to leadership positions are all areas where it shows.”
A study Qian conducted earlier this year showed that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted mothers’ employment to a far greater degree than men’s.
The authors provide a number of policy recommendations:
- Governments should establish more robust work-family policies that encourage mothers’ employment and fathers’ caregiving.
- Work organizations should implement systems that reduce bias in hiring and promotion.
- Education systems should establish an anti-sexist curriculum to reduce gender stereotypes and allow girls and boys to envision the same career options.
If high school grade-point average is an indicator of competence and work ethic, then these steps can help keep competent, hard-working women on a path that allows society to take full advantage of their talents.