Economics professor Bram Cadsby conducts experiment on female identity conflict | Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics

Economics professor Bram Cadsby conducts experiment on female identity conflict

Posted on Monday, November 18th, 2013

Economics Professor Bram Cadsby's study examines how women employed in professional roles experience a clash between their nurturing and ambitious qualities.

Prior to entering undergraduate studies, Economics Professor Bram Cadsby admits that studying economics and becoming a professor were not necessarily on his “to do” list. But after one year of English and Philosophy studies and a brief foray into international relations, he found himself enjoying an economics class and ultimately starting his career in that field. Entering into economics not only broadened Cadsby’s career options, but also allowed him to apply his lifelong interest in human behaviour. “I’ve always been fascinated by human behaviour,” he says. “I enjoy investigating why people feel and behave in certain ways.”

After more than three decades with the Department of Economics and Finance, Cadsby’s research interests have developed to include a broad range of topics, most recently focussing on experimental approaches to economics, finance and management issues. His most recent study, “How Competitive Are Female Professionals? A Tale of Identity Conflict,” co-authored with Maroš Servátka from the University of Canterbury and Fei Song from Ryerson University, investigates the conflict many women employed in professional roles experience between their workplace and gender/family identities. Published in the August issue of the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, the study examines the clash between warm and nurturing qualities associated with womanhood and motherhood, and those connected to workplace competitiveness and ambition.

“After considering our research, we started asking ourselves where this gender/family image was coming from,” says Cadsby. “Is it impacted by how women view themselves?” To answer this question, Cadsby et al, went to the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management to conduct a behavioural experiment with female and male MBA candidates. According to Cadsby, “Getting participants from a competitive MBA program was important to the experiment. We wanted to include male and female participants who clearly exemplify competitive personalities.”

In order to assess the presence of the identity conflict, participants were first primed with questions meant to create either a gender/family, professional or neutral dominant identity. Following this, they were asked to decide to earn money by either answering questions for $4 per correct answer in an uncompetitive situation or answering questions for $16 per correct answer if they placed first in a competition with three other participants. “The choice of pay scheme represents competition,” says Cadsby. “We examine whether participants choose to compete or not.”

The priming strategy had a notable effect on women with more of them choosing the uncompetitive option when primed with the gender/family identity compared to male participants. Furthermore, professional priming resulted in a greater willingness to compete than gender/family priming, but this change showed only in female participants. In short, if women are primed with the gender/family identity, they are less likely to compete. If primed with competitive priming, they are just as likely to compete. This change was absent in male participants.

While the effects of priming in this experiment may be temporary, the results suggest that milestones such as marriage, pregnancy and parenthood could result in an identity conflict and affect competitive aspirations. According to Cadsby, “Deciding not to compete in the workplace may not be driven by lack of skill, but by stereotypical beliefs, attitudes and ideals.” While Cadsby, Servátka and Song’s experiment may help explain an uncompetitive pattern present in female professionals, it also indicates how important stereotypes still are in life-cycle events, self-concepts and understanding human behaviour.

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