An investigation of the relationships between occupational sex discrimination, sex role stereotypes, and attribution theory concepts



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



One reason often advanced for occupational discrimination against women is sex role stereotyping. Women are assumed not to possess the skills necessary for managing effectively. Attribution theory has also been proposed as an explanation of the psychological processes underlying occupational sex discrimination. According to this theory, even if a woman is given the opportunity and is seen as being effective, this effectiveness may be attributed to factors other than her skills and abilities, such as luck. These factors do not connote future success and the woman, in spite of her demonstrated effectiveness, may be assigned non-demanding duties. The purpose of this research was to examine the utility of sex role stereotyping and attribution theory for understanding sex-linked discrimination in employment decision-making. A sample of 152 advanced undergraduate psychology students rated the effectiveness of a male or a female managerial candidate, performing equivalently in either an effective or an ineffective manner, in an audiotaped assessment center exercise. The exercise required the candidate to lead two subordinates in resolving a conflict involving overtime work. The subjects then made the decision to place the candidate in either a responsible department head position or in a less responsible research position, and they attributed the candidate's performance to four causal factors. Earlier, the subjects had completed a measure of stereotypic attitudes. Occupational sex discrimination was found for the ineffective candidates only, where the male candidate was rated as being more effective than the female candidate. There were no differences in placement decisions in either condition. The effective candidates were placed in the more responsible position while the ineffective candidates were placed in the less responsible position. Stereotypic attitudes appeared to be mitigated in the effective treatment condition. In the ineffective condition, the more stereotypic subjects rated the male as more effective than did the less stereotyped subjects. Both groups rated the ineffective male as more effective than the ineffective female. The relationship between stereotypic attitudes and placement decisions was not investigated. While the relationship between causal attributions and placement decisions was not investigated, causal scores were associated with the discriminatory effectiveness ratings in the ineffective treatment condition, though in the opposite direction from that postulated by Attribution Theory. The more stereotypic subjects judged the ineffective male as exhibiting significantly more effort, and the ineffective female as benefiting more by chance, than did the less stereotypic subjects. Systematic occupational sex discrimination did occur in the ineffective treatment condition. Stereotypic attitudes and causal attributions of performance did possess utility for explaining this discrimination. The potential implications of the assessment exercise for alleviating occupational sex discrimination are discussed.



Sex discrimination in employment--Psychological aspects, Attribution (Social psychology)