March-April 2011

ILR Assistant Professor Beth Livingston: Gender-Role Orientation and How We Work


Growing up in Kentucky, Beth A. Livingston was socialized no differently than her two brothers.  She was taught to be assertive, and she likes to joke that she knows more about sports “than 95 percent of the guys out there.” Her high school yearbook predicted she would manage a sports team someday—and indeed, she planned to pursue a career in professional sports. 

So when she first encountered research about girls’ fears of speaking up in class, she not only didn’t recognize herself, she got her earliest inklings that gender roles are far more complex than “women do this” and “men do that”. 

That inkling has since flared into a full-blown research focus. Livingston, an assistant professor of human resources in the ILR School, explores the effects of gender role attitudes in the workplace and work/family balance, an issue that men can struggle with as much as women. 

Not just gender

The term “gender-role orientation” appears frequently in Livingston’s research; it refers to people’s attitudes toward the proper roles for men and women. Gender-role orientation, in Livingston’s view, matters just as much as gender itself. 

 “We tend to use gender to talk about it, but it’s not that simple,” she says. “When we talk about it that way we lose explanatory power.” 

Livingston CAHRS ResearchLinkFor example, it’s no news that men earn more than women. But a provocative 2008 study that Livingston co-authored with Timothy A. Judge, of the University of Florida, attributed the wage gap in part to gender-role orientation. Their study found that men with traditional views on gender roles—who believed that men should be the breadwinners while women took care of the home and family—earned more money than men with more egalitarian views, even after controlling for hours worked, job complexity, and occupational gender segregation. And, no matter their attitudes toward gender roles, women always earned less than men. So while the gender gap had long been seen as the result of external, economic factors—men tended to flock to higher-paying jobs, women often left the workforce to raise children—Livingston and Judge’s study showed that ingrained personal attitudes also perpetuate it. Simply being a man wasn’t enough to earn a lot of money; you had to be a man with a traditional gender-role orientation.

“The data told us a story that isn’t very pleasant,” Livingston says. “With a lot of the research I do on gender, the story isn’t a very rosy one, but it’s a story we need to understand and think about. We haven’t solved all the problems regarding gender that we think we have.” 

HR can help—or at least not hurt

Livingston freely admits that, on the continuum of human resources studies, her work places her on the “extreme micro end,” focusing on social factors that impact HR practices. “Within our department we run the gamut, and I’m the most micro of all the profs. What I do is very social psych, and even organizational-behaviorish.”  

But the attitudes and predispositions employees bring to work every day are just as important to HR strategy as recruitment and leadership development. 

“Here are the structural underpinnings of what’s happening, so how can we make sure that doesn’t negatively impact how we work or what we earn?” Livingston says. 

For example, a woman who doesn’t view working as her primary role may be less aggressive in salary negotiations, whereas more traditionally minded men will bargain hard for higher pay.  Managers and HR professionals may also, however unknowingly, give stronger evaluations to men who exhibit more stereotypically male behavior than to men who don’t, and if salary increases are linked to performance reviews, those men again benefit from higher pay.

Livingston says that, in fact, her research on gender role views often teaches her more about men than women. In 2008 she and Judge co-authored another study, this one on how gender-role orientation impacts work/family balance. As in the wage-gap study, results relied more on a person’s gender-role orientation than on gender alone. Those with traditional views, whether men or women, felt the most guilt when family obligations interfered with work, but very little or no guilt if work impeded on family. Those with more egalitarian views, however, felt more guilt when work chipped away at family time. The results demonstrate, Judge and Livingston wrote, that while work/family balance is often viewed as a women’s issue, men grapple with it as well. 

All of these factors impinge on an employee’s performance before they set foot in the workplace. Things entirely unrelated to work nonetheless impact work decisions: a man may have to pass up a promotion that requires a transfer because he promised his wife he wouldn’t move the family again, or a woman may not be able to accept a transfer because the family might be moving for her husband’s job. 

“For HR practitioners, it’s important to understand that you can’t always have a list of XYZ to do, because it doesn’t work that way all the time,” Livingston says. In order not to lose out on top employees, companies may want to consider measures such as teleworking or finding positions for spouses and partners. 

But they shouldn’t be discouraged or surprised if those measures don’t succeed. 

“Understanding what managers can’t control is just as important as what they can control,” Livingston says. “It may be frustrating, but it’s just as important.”

A first career path derailed

It was Livingston’s own confrontation with gender-role constraints that led her down her academic research path. Pursuing her first ambition of a career in professional sports, she earned bachelor’s degrees in marketing and communication and an MBA in management and marketing from the University of Kentucky, then followed up with a certificate in sports marketing from the University of Kentucky. When interviewing for sports marketing jobs, however, time and again she found herself losing out to men. “I was at the top of my class in every way”—summa cum laude in both undergraduate and graduate school—“but I would be passed over for men. I didn’t see it as blatant sexism but as, ‘Well, we assume the fit would be better.’ ” 

The only companies interested in her seemed to be in sports apparel and retail, which didn’t interest her and which she couldn’t help but think she was being offered because she was a woman.  Realizing what she was up against, Livingston bowed out of the hunt; she never worked in sports marketing.  Even if she had, she says, “with my personality, I would be fighting more than I wanted to, and I wanted to be part of the solution, not fighting all the time.” 

Was it painful, abandoning her long-held ambition? “You’d think it would have been, but we change so much at that point in life, and I had so many diverse interests,” says Livingston who, among other things, was coaching a high-school girls basketball team at the time. Instead, the experience inspired her to go into academia, root out the data on deeply held gender role attitudes, and come up with better approaches. “I’m what you would call a really annoying optimist—the glass is half full and full of sparkles. For me it was just a different challenge and opportunity. I didn’t feel that I was abandoning sports, but that I would be involved from a different perspective.” 

Studying masculine workplaces

Livingston currently has a study in the works on how men’s college basketball coaches balance the work/life challenges of their high-pressure world. It’s a world Livingston has seen up close: her husband, James Huggins, is the director of basketball operations for men and women at Cornell. She knows the toll that long hours and constant travel can take on a coach’s family; in 2009, University of Florida football coach Urban Meyer notably stepped down from his post to focus on his health and family. “Are we setting our coaches up for burnout?” is the question Livingston wants to explore in this study; beyond that, she believes masculine workplaces, such as in sports or finance, are unique worlds that merit further inspection, particularly the experiences of women working in those professions. 

Her sports marketing training, she says, has hardly been for naught; she actually draws on it all the time for her current work. “A lot of theories I learned there I use today,” such as how people identify with groups. Feelings about the New York Jets or the New England Patriots may not be so different than how they identify with their gender or their race. Maybe those feelings aren’t always comfortable to acknowledge, but Livingston believes they’re important to understand. In her work, she pays heed to the quote on her website from the anthropologist Margaret Mead: “I was brought up to believe that the only thing worth doing was to add to the sum of accurate information in the world.”