De Pater, I. E., Van Vianen, A. E. M., Fischer, A. H., & Van Ginkel, W. P. (2009). Challenging experiences: Gender differences in task choice. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 24, 4-28.

De Pater, I. E., Van Vianen, A. E. M., Fischer, A. H., & Van Ginkel, W. P. (2009). Challenging experiences: Gender differences in task choice. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 24, 4-28.
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  Challenging experiences:gender differences in task choice Irene E. De Pater, Annelies E.M. Van Vianen andAgneta H. Fischer University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and  Wendy P. Van Ginkel  Erasmus University, Rotterdam, The Netherlands Abstract Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to examine: gender differences in the choice to performchallenging tasks, gender differences in the actual performance of challenging tasks, and the impact of challenging experiences on supervisors’ evaluations of individuals’ potential for career advancement. Design/methodology/approach – In study 1, a sample of 158 students participated in a laboratorystudy that examined gender differences in choosing to perform challenging tasks in a situation thatstressed individual performance. In study 2, a sample of 93 interns completed questionnaires in whichthe authors measured their challenging job experiences. Interns’ supervisors evaluated interns’potential for career advancement. Findings – In an achievement situation, women chose to perform fewer challenging tasks than men(study 1).During theirinternships, femaleshadfewerchallenging jobexperiences than males(study 2).Having challenging experiences was positively related to supervisors’ evaluations of interns’ potentialfor career advancement (study 2). Research limitations/implications – The use of student samples may be considered a limitationof these studies. However, the nature of the research questions justifies an initial examination amongstudents. Moreover, small gender differences in experiences at the start of individuals’ careers mayultimately lead to increasing discrepancies between men’s and women’s careers. Originality/value – The study is the first to examine individuals’ own impact on the extent to whichthey experience job challenge. Moreover, it is the first that empirically examines the relationshipbetween job challenge and evaluations of career potential. Keywords Gender, Taskanalysis,Performanceappraisal,Careerdevelopment,Employeedevelopment Paper type Research paper Although many factors may influence individuals’ career success, research suggeststhat the extent to which individuals have challenging experiences in their job is one of the most important determinants of employees’ development (Davies andEasterby-Smith, 1984; London, 2002; McCall et al. , 1988) and career advancement(Berlew and Hall, 1966; Bray et al. , 1974; Lyness and Thompson, 2000). Challenging jobexperiences provide individuals with the opportunity to learn (McCauley et al. , 1994),which may result in the development of a wide range of skills, abilities, insights, andvalues that increase individuals’ capacity for effective functioning in their organization(London, 2002; McCauley et al. , 1994). Moreover, individuals’ successfulaccomplishment of challenging tasks positively affects their self esteem (Hall andChandler, 2005) and self-efficacy beliefs (Maurer and Tarulli, 1994), which in turn mayencourage them to seek out additional challenging experiences (Davies and The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at  JMP24,1 4 Received July 2007Revised February 2008Accepted March 2008  Journal of Managerial PsychologyVol. 24 No. 1, 2009pp. 4-28 q Emerald Group Publishing Limited0268-3946DOI 10.1108/02683940910922519  Easterby-Smith, 1984), and may boost their ambition for higher job positions (VanVianen, 1999). Finally, challenging job experiences may serve as cues for individuals’potential for career advancement. Information with regard to the type of tasksemployees perform can be used as a cue to determine employees’ abilities (Humphrey,1985) and potential for occupying higher job levels (Berlew and Hall, 1966).Both men and women consider challenging assignments pivotal for careeradvancement (Mainiero, 1994; Ragins et al. , 1998; Van Velsor and Hughes, 1990), butresearch suggests that women have fewer challenging experiences in their jobs thantheir male counterparts (Lyness and Thompson, 2000; Ohlott et al. , 1994; Van Velsorand Hughes, 1990; Woodall et al. , 1997). These findings suggest that the relative lack of  job challenge may be one of the factors that contribute to evidenced gender differencesin career success.Evidenced gender differences in job challenge have mostly been attributed tosupervisors differentially assigning challenging tasks to male and female employees(Ohlott et al. , 1994; Van Velsor and Hughes, 1990; Woodall et al. , 1997). Although thisidea has received some support (Mai-Dalton and Sullivan, 1981), others have arguedthat individuals play an active role in determining the content of their own jobs androles (e.g. Graen et al. , 1973; Terborg, 1981). Due to changes in the work environment,individuals must nowadays take responsibility for their own learning opportunities(Gherardi et al. , 1998), development (Hall, 2002), and career futures (Arthur et al. , 2005).This implies that gender differences in job challenge may partly result from genderdifferences in task preferences and task choice, which is the focus of the present study. Challenging job experiences  Job challenge has been conceptualized as “having to meet performance expectationsthat are reasonably high” (Berlew and Hall, 1966, p. 209), as “level of difficulty andstimulation” (Taylor, 1981, p. 255), and as “being in dynamic settings with problems tosolve and choices to make under conditions of risk and uncertainty” (McCauley et al. ,1999, p. 4). In short, people are challenged if they are faced with an activity that isdemanding, stimulating, new, and calls on their ability and determination.McCauley and colleagues (McCauley et al. , 1999; McCauley et al. , 1994) haveidentified five clusters of job components that represent challenging aspects of work:(1) Job transitions, with individuals being confronted with new tasks andsituations in which existing tactics and routines are inadequate;(2) creating change, with individuals having a clear goal to change a situation, buta loosely defined role that gives them the freedom to determine how toaccomplish the goal;(3) working at high levels of responsibility, characterized by increased visibility,the opportunity to make a significant impact, dealing with broader and morecomplex problems, and higher stakes;(4) managing boundaries, where employees have to work with people over whomthey have no direct authority and have to develop strategies for influencingthem and gaining their cooperation; and(5) dealing with diversity, which challenges employees to learn and understandbusiness and workplace issues from other perspectives. Challengingexperiences 5  In this paper, we will combine these conceptualizations into the following definition:challenges are experienced when there are unusual problems to solve, risky decisionsto make, and difficult obstacles toovercome. This broad conceptualization is applicableto work, educational, and social settings (Watson, 2001). Job challenge and gender Several studies have documented that women encounter fewer challenging experiencesin their jobs than their male counterparts. For instance, retrospective interviews (VanVelsor and Hughes, 1990) revealed that women’s jobs, as compared to men’s jobs,involved less risk and lower visibility. These findings were substantiated by a fieldstudy (Ohlott et al. , 1994) that showed that women, in comparison with men, had fewerchallenging experiences that provide employees with power and visibility, such ashigh levels of responsibilities, high stakes, managing business diversity, and handlingexternal pressure. Woodall and colleagues (1997) provided additional support for theexistence of gender differences in challenging job experiences. Their case studyshowed that women were less likely to obtain assignments that resulted in highvisibility and the opportunity to make important contacts.Researchers who reported gender differences in challenging experiences havetended to explain their findings by discriminatory structures and processes inorganizations (Ohlott et al. , 1994; Van Velsor and Hughes, 1990; Woodall et al. , 1997),arguing that women “are denied access to some important developmentalopportunities” (Ohlott et al. , 1994, p. 50). They assumed that gender differences inchallenging job experiences were a consequence of differential task assignment bysupervisors, but did not empirically test this assumption. Hence, what actuallyunderlies the gender differences in job challenge in their studies remains unclear. Onefield study (Cianni and Romberger, 1995) that actually examined the extent to whichsupervisors provided their male and female employees with challenging jobexperiences revealed that men and women received similar amounts of challenge.An alternative explanation for evidenced gender differences in job challenge is thatwomen may be less willing than men to engage in challenging tasks (Dickerson andTaylor, 2000) or to seek challenging organizational roles (Lyness and Schrader, 2006).To date, researchers largely ignored the possibility that employees themselves mayplay a role in obtaining challenging experiences. Thus, little is known about whethermen and women differ in the types of tasks they choose to perform. We will examinethis issue in the first study. Study 1 Although research to date did not directly address gender differences in the types of tasks individuals choose to perform, there are several lines of research that suggestthat men and women may differ in their choice to perform challenging tasks. First, ameta-analysis on job attribute preferences showed that men have stronger preferencesfor being challenged in their job than women have (Konrad et al. , 2000). This suggeststhat when given the choice, men might opt more strongly for challenging tasks thanwomen.Second, a study that examined individuals’ task preferences (De Pater et al. , 2002)indicated that men and women did not differ in their preferences for performingchallenging tasks, but that women had stronger preferences for performing  JMP24,1 6  non-challenging tasks than men had. Although task preferences are likely to be relatedto actual task choices, measuring mere task preferences has several limitations. Thefirst limitation relates to the fact that individuals’ preferences for different tasks areindependent from each other, that is, individuals could indicate to have strongpreferences for all the tasks comprised in a study. In contrast, choosing a challengingtask from a restricted set of challenging and non-challenging tasks implies notchoosing a non-challenging task and visa versa. Another limitation of measuring meretask preferences is that indicating task preferences has no immediate work relatedconsequences. Participants usually are aware that they will not have to perform thetasks (Strube and Roemmele, 1985) and that their competence or incompetence will notbe uncovered. In order to more closely resemble a work situation in the current study,we asked participants to actually choose tasks they subsequently had to perform in asituation where they knew their performance would be evaluated. We expected thatwomen would choose fewer challenging tasks from a set of challenging andnon-challenging tasks than men (   H1  ).One reason why women less often seem to choose challenging assignments andorganizational roles may be their lower self-efficacy beliefs (Dickerson and Taylor,2000; Lyness and Schrader, 2006). Dickerson and Taylor’s study revealed that women’sself-efficacy with regard to a challenging task was indeed related to their choice toperform this task. This corroborates more general research that showed thatindividuals’ perceptions of their capabilities (i.e. self-efficacy) are related to theirpreferences for performing specific tasks (Bandura, 1986). People tend to avoidengaging in tasks for which their self-efficacy is low, and generally pursue tasks forwhich their self-efficacy is high (Buckert et al. , 1979; Tracey and Hopkins, 2001).Although self-efficacy is often considered a task specific construct, measuringsubjects’ task specific competence perceptions before they make actual task choicescreates compelling demand cues that may contaminate task-choice information(Heilman et al. , 1991). We therefore measured generalized self-efficacy (GSE) aspredictor of subjects’ choice to perform challenging tasks. Research indicated that GSEcould significantly explain individual differences in goal-setting (Locke and Latham,1990), motivation, and task performance (Judge et al. , 1997). We hypothesized that GSEwould be positively related to the number of challenging tasks chosen (   H2   ).In their study, Dickerson and Taylor (2000) took a within-sex approach, and did notexamine gender differences in task choice and general self-efficacy. However, somestudies have indicated that women generally tend to have more negative beliefs abouttheir competences than men have (Bergman and Scott, 2001; Cross, 2001), which maycause women to be less willing to take risks (Bandura, 1986). As a consequence, womenless often than men may want to seek tasks that involve challenging characteristics.Therefore, we hypothesized that GSE would mediate the expected relationshipbetween gender and choosing challenging tasks (   H3  ).Finally, individuals may also differ in their motives for choosing specific tasks. Inachievement contexts, behaviors are undertaken with the expectation that they can orwill be compared with some standard of excellence (Cooper, 1983), and will be orientedtoward demonstrating high ability (approach motive) or avoiding to demonstrate lowability (avoidance motive) (Nicholls, 1984). The approach – avoidance dichotomy isconsidered a fundamental framework for understanding human motivation andbehavior (Elliot and Thrash, 2002). Avoidance motives reflect one’s desire to avoid Challengingexperiences 7  failure (Atkinson, 1957) and subsequent negative judgments of one’s competence(Hirschfeld et al. , 2006). As avoidance motives are related to disengagement fromchallenging situations (Elliot, 1999), individuals high in the motive to avoid failure areexpected to be less willing to engage in achievement tasks and more easily switching tonon-achievement tasks than individuals low in the motive to avoid failure (Atkinsonand Birch, 1974). Approach motives reflect one’s tendency to strive toward achievingchallenging standards of task performance (Hirschfeld et al. , 2006), and direct one’sbehaviors toward the attainment of success (Elliot, 1999). Individuals high in themotive to approach success are expected to be more responsive to achievement cues,and to more quickly engage in achievement tasks than individuals low in the motive toapproach success (Atkinson and Birch, 1974). Therefore, we expected that motivationto approach success would be positively and motivation to avoid failure would benegatively related to choosing challenging tasks (   H4a and H4b  ).Although there is no evidence of gender differences in the motives to approachsuccess and to avoid failure in achievement contexts yet, such differences might exist.For instance, women are found to have higher test anxiety (McCarthy and Goffin, 2005)and to be more risk averse than men (Byrnes et al. , 1999). This might translate tohaving a stronger motive to avoid failure in achievement-oriented settings.Additionally, adolescent men are more concerned with their image and social statusthan women are (Ryan et al. , 1997), and they may thus have a stronger motivation toapproach success. Also, men are found to have stronger performance approach goalsthan women (Elliot and Thrash, 2002). As achievement motives underlie achievementgoals (Elliot, 1999) this may reflect a higher approach motive for men. Hence, wepredicted that women would have a stronger motive to avoid failure and a weakermotive to approach success than men (H5a and H5b) and that these motives wouldmediate the expected relationship between gender and choosing challenging tasks(   H6   ).People’s career development often originates from experiences during theirpre-occupational years (Watson, 2001). According to the social learning theory of career decision-making, any series of learning experiences and decisions areinterdependent (Krumboltz, 1979). Interests are considered as consequences of learning experiences, which can, in turn, influence an individual’s choice of subsequentlearning experiences. The types of tasks individuals perform in their pre-occupationalyears will thus largely affect activity preferences in future jobs, career relevantbehaviors, and human capital. Hence, it is important to examine men’s and women’stask choices and actual task performance during their educative years. We, therefore,investigate gender differences in choosing to perform challenging tasks in a studentsample (Study 1). In addition, we examine the extent to which male and femalestudents have challenging job experiences during their internship (Study 2). Also inStudy 2, we examined the relationship between interns’ challenging experiences andsupervisors’ evaluations of their career prospects. Method: study 1  Participants Participants in this study were 158 master students (77 males and 81 females) from auniversity in The Netherlands. Mean age was 22.7 years (SD ¼ 3 : 31), and on average,participants were third year students (SD ¼ 1 : 60). Of the participants, 94 percent  JMP24,1 8
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