Research delves into gender inequality in the workplace

19 Jun 2008
Groundbreaking research by UQ PhD student Terry Fitzsimmons focuses on gender inequality in the workplace and organisational barriers preventing women from obtaining peak leadership positions. Fitzsimmons said the challenges encountered by women rising through organisational hierarchies were not entirely explained by existing theories, which claim that inequality stems from social stereotypes and culture. He said changing social attitudes had not translated to increased leadership opportunities for women. "We've had equal opportunity legislation from the eighties onwards, we've got all of this pressure there saying it's not right to discriminate on any level." "Yet we've still got these huge disparities between men and women so there's got to be something else." Fitzsimmons said his research proposed a link between the hierarchical structure of organisations and the limited number of females in peak leadership positions. He said, "It's been known for a fair while that it's harder for women to get through hierarchies ... I always thought there might be something in the hierarchy itself that doesn't suit female leadership compared to male leadership." Fitzsimmons' research into organisational hierarchies also draws on existing research concerning evolutionary psychology and anthropological studies of hierarchies in nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes. He said, "In hunter-gatherer tribes, when there wasn't a means of accumulating wealth and when there was no hierarchy, men and women were equal." "What has been found is that when these hunter-gatherers began to settle down, the best hunters were able to accumulate wealth and all of a sudden there was a hierarchy based on wealth." "Men can begin to accumulate resources and the woman's role becomes less important." Fitzsimmons is in the process of planning an article which examines the relationship between evolutionary psychology and male and female roles within hierarchies while he prepares for the next stage of his research, which will focus on men and women in peak leadership positions and their abilities as transformational, or inspirational, leaders. "We know that at a managerial level women are marginally better, but I'm expecting to find that once they get on top of the hierarchy and they can begin to lead the way they would ordinarily lead, it will become clear they are a lot better as transformational leaders." From 2009 postgraduate students at UQ Business School will be eligible for up to $30,000 per year in addition to the Australian Postgraduate Award of $20,000.