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Janine Bosak
Work and occupational

‘We are on the brink of very exciting times as psychologists’

Janine Bosak is Professor of Organisational Psychology at Dublin City University, and a keynote speaker at the forthcoming Congress of the European Association of Work and Organizational Psychology. Ingrid Covington met her.

15 December 2022

Welcome Janine… we had to cancel the last EAWOP Congress due to Covid, so this is going to be the first time in four years that we'll all get together as a membership body. How are you feeling about it?

I am very much looking forward to going to Katowice and presenting my research there. Since the start of the pandemic, all of the conferences I have attended have been virtual. While I appreciate the fact that this can done with technology, the virtual conferences have not given me the full conference experience. I really miss connecting with people, I miss meeting my collaborators down the hallway in the Congress Centre and sitting down over a coffee and discussing our research projects. So, I am really excited to be going. EAWOP has always held a very special place in my heart… I have been going to the EAWOP congress since I have been a junior PhD student. Going there again and connecting with people is like seeing family.

That's wonderful. It's interesting you mention junior faculty… that's one group who have really been impacted by Covid. It may have stopped their research, their opportunities to network, to build relationships and the collaborations that you're talking about.

Yes, I think that EAWOP is a very welcoming congress for junior scholars. The congress has a very friendly and very collegial atmosphere. As a junior scholar, you get a lot of developmental feedback; so it is one of those conferences that I have always enjoyed going to as a junior academic and now that I am more advanced in my career.

That leads us nicely onto your keynote. What will you be talking about, and how did you become interested in the topic?

My presentation will focus on the subtle yet powerful effects of gender stereotypes, and how they pose a barrier to women's leadership. It's a very timely topic – for example in the context of the UN sustainable development goal of empowering women and achieving gender equality.

I have always felt very strongly about the importance of equality, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace and more broadly in society. When I started studying psychology, I observed that around 90% of my fellow students were female, but only 10% of professors were. That piqued my interest to better understand why it is that women, not just in professorial positions but also more generally in leadership, are underrepresented. Then, during my studies, I worked as a student research assistant in the social psychology department at the University of Mannheim, and I became really interested in social cognition and the role of stereotypes. Upon the completion of my studies, I embarked on my PhD under the supervision of two leading gender scholars, Professor Alice Eagly and Professor Sabine Sczesny, who not only happen to be excellent researchers, but also amazing role models. Now in my current job in DCU Business School, I have the privilege to teach bright young women and men who aspire to be the next generation of leaders. I observe that they have similar levels of ambition, and they want to make it to the top in equal numbers. Society and parents tell us that we can be anything that we want as long as we work hard enough, but I don't see this belief translating into equal numbers of men and women in leadership roles. So, there is something happening – and as I said, one of those barriers to equal gender representation are gender stereotypes. There is an excellent quote by Porter and Geis that says that becoming a leader depends on acting like the leader, but even more it depends on being seen by others as a leader. My talk will highlight that women need to be seen as leaders, but also, that they need to come see themselves as leaders. We internalise gender stereotypes which shape our goals, career aspirations and also our self-efficacy beliefs. So, it is not just about instilling competencies and skills into women as if in a social vacuum, but it is about addressing this perceptual aspect. We see organisations trying to address the challenge of gender diversity and to make it a strategic priority, but a lot of those efforts are likely to fail… it is critical we tackle the bias that is inherent in our cultural assumptions, in our organisational structures, and also practices.  

Yes… I was involved in organising a conference with the title 'deconstructing the bias', with a military audience. Feedback we got was that many of the successful female Generals who were speaking at the conference were actually reinforcing bias and stereotypes. They had to conform with the stereotypes in order to perform and succeed within a male-dominated organisation – only 16 per cent of the military is female.

I know we've got a long way to go, but are you seeing green shoots, positive changes?

Over the past decades we have seen more women moving into leadership roles, which is critical – seeing is believing. So, we have more female role models, and role models that might not have made it there by following masculine norms of doing things. Young women might therefore have a different outlook on how you can be successful as a leader – for example, by blending communal and agentic styles and qualities, or by having a family and being able to successfully juggle both, your leadership role and family. Previously we were predominantly lacking these kinds of role models.

In terms of stereotypes, there is research by Jean Twenge, but also most recently a meta-analysis by Alice Eagly and colleagues, which show that, on the one hand, we see changes in women occurring, with women becoming more agentic, but also increased perceptions of competence for women. On the other hand, we see that the leadership stereotype is lessening in masculinity. So, we see changes in women, but we also see changes in the masculine construal of leadership, which gives hope that the 'think manager, think male' phenomenon will disappear over time, to help achieve greater gender balance in leadership going forward.

With the recent high-profile case of Prime Minister Liz Truss, it was interesting to see people discussing the 'glass cliff' even before she stepped down. The social conversation is important around influencing these changes.

What about policies? Are you able to work at the policy level, or see what impact policies can have on changing practices and outcomes?

There is no doubt, that we, as psychologists, should play a critical role in policy making. We have the knowledge to assist with some of the most pressing issues of our time, and therefore our work should go beyond the community. I personally have seen more interest in the work of psychology in terms of policy-influencing, especially since the start of the pandemic. For example, I am currently leading a project together with the Science Foundation Ireland, where we are looking at the impact of COVID-19 on the academic community – for example, in terms of how it impacts individuals' work, their well-being, etc. We also examine the question of whether certain type of groups are more impacted than others. For example, we have heard a lot about parents, especially working mothers, being more impacted by the pandemic; also other groups such as ethnic minorities. We are in the process of looking at the data which will allow us then to give recommendations and write a policy report. Specifically, we are going to assist funding agencies and institutions to develop targeted policies and programs to mitigate any potential negative impacts of COVID-19 .

That sounds really impactful. Is there any advice you could give to other work and organisational psychologists who want to be more impactful, perhaps be involved in influencing policy?

I personally found that it is a bit challenging as an individual to understand how to best go about influencing policies. It's not that people naturally approach you. Either you have to avail of your network and ask a person to recommend you and put your name forward, or you have an ally that mentions to you. For more junior academics, a great way to get involved might be, for example, EAWOP. For me, EAWOP was certainly a stepping stone. When I joined as an executive committee member, I was more exposed to the thinking around policy making and I was working with the committee on a number of initiatives with regards to policy making. There was, for example, the EAWOP policy impact group that was led by Gudela Grote, the former EAWOP president and current president of the Alliance for Organizational Psychology. In addition, for the EAWOP congress, we looked into events focussed on policy making such as, for example, the workshop on the living wage in Torino in 2019, and then most recently, we worked together with Ros Searle and her team toward the launch of the EAWOP incubator. The team has been doing fantastic work. I'd encourage everyone to have a look at the website – they have launched a number of activities, initiatives, and YouTube clips that help us to better communicate our research without jargon to policy-makers and the public. I strongly encourage people to get involved.

It's great that you have developed and invested in your professional development through your membership and involvement with EAWOP.

The pandemic fed into your policy work, and now we're experiencing war in Europe – in a neighbouring country to where the Congress will take place. Where best do you think we, as a profession, can contribute?

One way is to consider psychological supports that we can provide during the crisis, but also raising awareness of the consequences and interventions needed post-crisis. When I think about my own background in terms of research on equality and well-being, the pandemic, for example, has brought to the forefront different forms of inequality – some groups have been hit harder than others. Working from home has been a privilege for some but not others. We see more generally that there is an increase in, for example, gender inequality, ethnic inequality, income inequality and poverty is on the rise. It's about addressing these issues right now – pointing them out and then identifying how we can best tackle those going forward in policy recommendations.

With regards to well-being, I think that all of us have become a bit more anxious in terms of what is happening around us – the different types of crisis that we are experiencing including the pandemic, the energy crisis, the climate change crisis, and then the brutal war in Ukraine. But certain groups have, for example, mental health issues that have become exacerbated because of the ongoing pandemic or because of the ongoing war. Then, of course, people might suffer immediate and long-term trauma from these events. So, it's about putting mental health services in place as we speak and having psychological interventions ready to be implemented in partnership with governments, respective bodies and other partners.

What you're talking about is seeing patterns. If we know disadvantaged groups will suffer more under these circumstances, we can get support and resources available in time.

I was wondering what your thoughts are on confidence in science. People are overwhelmed with different sources of information, and misinformation. We've got a profession built on the ability to replicate our science. Do you think we can do things to build public confidence?

In general, our discipline of psychology, in which we aim to explain and predict behaviour, is messier and less predictable than other disciplines like physics. But from my point of view, this also it makes it more interesting. But you're right: there has been a very public and painful crisis of distrust of our research findings, which has to do with a research culture we have embraced in past decades – with issues such as the file drawer problem, data dredging or p-hacking, or journals being more welcoming of innovative studies as opposed to replications. Then there are, of course, other explanations for the lack of replication success – for example, not having the full recipe to be able to replicate an experiment as a scholar, or not having enough replication attempts.

What I see as a positive development in this crisis is that we actually have this dialogue right now. More and more researchers, including myself, are embracing open science – to pre-register our study design and to share our data, our syntax or code and the research materials that allow others to replicate the experiment on a platform such as the open science framework, and make it accessible to anyone. In so doing, we create a culture of transparency, accountability and honesty towards the public as well as other researchers. In that sense the crisis has been a good wake-up call for us and an opportunity to go about things differently.

We had Brian Nosak deliver a keynote to the British Psychological Society's Division of Occupational Psychology conference a few years ago, and I think the open science movement is really helping our profession. It's holding our feet to the fire and offering a way in which the culture and values can be changed, and aligned.

Is there anything you'd like to see more of from your peers? I know Stuart Carr, who's another keynote, recently took on the Chair for UNESCO sustainable livelihoods. So there's definitely more more evidence of humanitarian psychology, and how we can contribute towards that. But what else?

First, as we have already discussed, I would like to see more psychologists and psychology in general at the forefront of policy making. EAWOP is a fantastic opportunity to become involved and to do so at the European level. Second, for me it is very important that we bridge the academic-practitioner gap. This means actively seeking out the conversation with practitioners and making sure that we have practitioners as well as academics equally represented in associations and in key committees, where decision-making takes place, and at our congresses. So hopefully, we will have a lot of practitioners attending EAWOP in May. There are also fantastic activities such as, for example, the EAWOP worklabs, which bring practitioners and academics together around a particular topic or theme, with great knowledge exchange happening there and perhaps a joint research article to be published in InPractice as an outcome. For me personally, the move from a psychology department to a business school was key. Being constantly exposed to executive education, having regular industry events and conversations with practitioners, for example, in the form of employee engagement roundtables with HR managers, gives you valuable insights into how relevant your research questions are, and to have them informed by actual problems and needs of people. The last important point for me is about psychologists embracing multi-level and interdisciplinary approaches. Some of the most pressing issues that we aim to tackle as psychologists – for example, gender inequality, racism or poverty – do not only require interventions at the individual, team and organisational level, which is what we predominantly focus on as psychologists, but also at the society level or national level, and it also requires embracing interdisciplinary approaches.

Many work and organisational psychologists that I speak to actually rarely work directly with other work and organisational psychologists. Instead it's about other professionals, economists, sociologists, a multi-disciplinary team. If we are going to be more influential at governmental levels of policy, being able to understand how we can integrate into a multidisciplinary team – where our value and voice is – seems crucial.

The Congress theme is the future. What do you see as the key priorities for us to collectively have that voice and impact?

For me, an imminent priority is to examine and understand careers and workplaces in 'the new normal'. Both organisations and individuals have gone through many transitions during the pandemic. That has made us re-evaluate what our workplaces should look like, certain types of aspects of work, and the interface of work and home life, or family. Questions around how and when we should be working, the extent to which we use technology, how we can accommodate different needs and values of individuals, and how to find meaning in our work are ripe for addressing by researchers and practitioners.

In particular, the importance of having a sense of purpose and meaning has come to the forefront during the pandemic. Organisations will be looking to us as psychologists to give them insights into how to address the hybrid model of work, or how to equip leaders for a radically different landscape, or how to design workplaces together with employees such that they can thrive, feel autonomous yet supported, and experience a deeper sense of meaning and purpose.

Another, more long-term priority is about psychologists being more involved in the debate around the promises and challenges associated with both Artificial Intelligence and modern technology. We need to understand how humans will use that technology, how it's been designed, how we interact with it, and what it means for us. AI can bring about good things in terms of healthcare, transport or personal selection, but it does not come without its perils. One of the key issues is the reliance on algorithms that are being designed by human beings – individuals with cognitive biases with certain types of assumptions and values. For example, for AI tools that allow for resume screening and personal selection, the fact that human beings are the ones building those underlying algorithms might mean that rather than using AI to eliminate bias, we might replicate the bias or even make it worse. That's where psychologists need to come into play – to point out these challenges and potential issues and help design these innovations in a responsible manner that requires an understanding of human behaviour. That's what we are good at.

We are on the brink of very exciting times as psychologists, and in terms of what psychology can do. I hope that we will have the opportunity to have a say in policy-making in order to address some of the key challenges that will shape the future.

- Find out more about the 2023 Congress, and read our other interviews.