Bosses Who Donate to Republicans Are Less Likely to Promote Female Staff

A new study of U.S. law firms looks at how managers' personal political views affect gender roles at work.


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Are Republican-led companies less friendly to female employees? A look at large corporate law firms in the U.S. says yes. 

For the study, business professors Seth Carnahan (University of Michigan) and Brad Greenwood (Temple University) examined individual political donations from partners at America's 200 largest law firms between 2007-2012, then weighed these against outcomes for female associates at the firm. The goal was to determine how much managers' personal political ideologies correspond to levels of organizational gender parity. 

"In general, women are much less likely to be promoted, and much more likely to leave their firms," said Carnahan, an assistant professor of strategy at Michigan's Ross School of Business. "We found that this gender gap gets smaller when male bosses are more liberal, but it gets larger when male bosses are more conservative."  

"Researchers have long argued that a manager's political ideology, situated on a liberal-conservative continuum and defined as a 'set of beliefs about the proper order of society and how it can be achieved,' can influence organizational outcomes such as investments in corporate social responsibility initiatives, targeting by LGBT activists, and allocation of resources among business units," the authors note in their paper. "If these preferences influence managerial decision-making, a manager's political ideology may drive considered choices or unconscious biases that have an important influence" on treatment and promotion of female employees. 

As one way to test this, Carnahan and Greenwood explored merger-and-acquisition deals which U.S. law firms were involved in from 2007 through 2012—a sample that included 5,702 deals involving 16,860 partners and 18,215 associates at US law firms. Even after controlling for things such as an associate's number of years with a firm, their law-school ranking, shared law-school ties between associates and partners, and law-firm location, they found a "negative interaction between donations to Republicans and the selection of female associates" to serve with partners on client teams.

Compared to politically moderate partners, conservative male partners were 2.7 percent less likely than other partners to choose female associates for their deal teams. Liberal male partners were 0.8 percent more likely than moderates to choose a female associate for their teams.

The authors also pinpointed associates at America's top 200 law firms in 2006, and followed them until they received a promotion to partner or exited the company. Women made up about 45 percent of all associates. With or without controls factored in, Republican leadership in a practice area corresponded negatively to female promotion rates in that area and positively with turnover rates. 

These conservative law-firm heads "are probably not consciously discriminating against women," Carnahan said in a statement, "but their beliefs could influence their willingness to invest in female subordinates. And this could happen on both sides of the spectrum. You could have conservative managers who don't promote women enough and you can have liberal managers who promote women more than they otherwise should."

"It is important to emphasize that we don't know the right level of diversity for each office, each organization," said Carnahan. "Our results should not be interpreted as 'anti-conservative' or 'pro-liberal.'" 

In the paper, Carnahan and Greenwood suggest that "the most valuable opportunity for future work is to examine whether ideologically driven gender role preferences affect firm performance." 

A rapidly growing body of research suggests that gender diversity in corporate ranks can be a boon for business performance. It's not necessarily a matter of women being superior managers, however, or there being some delicate, ideal gender divide within companies that makes things run more smoothly. As Carnahan and Greenwood note, both conservative managers who "under support" female staff and liberal managers who "over support" ideals of gender equality can be linked to less well-performing organizations or business units. The bottom line, they say, is that organizations are likely to pay for making hiring decisions based on "ascriptive preferences" rather than talent and skill.