- For every 100 men who are promoted into management, only 87 women get the same opportunity.
- One way that companies reduce the likelihood of women advancing into management is by having restrictive guidelines for promotions.
- Women spend a disproportionate amount of time on tasks that are important but likely won’t help them get a promotion.
Employees are increasingly looking for gender equity in the workplace, yet it remains elusive. For every 100 men who are promoted into management, only 87 women get the same opportunity, representing a broken rung in the first step of the corporate ladder.
A new financial instrument is highlighting how this broken rung can hurt a company’s bottom line: Hypatia is an exchange-traded fund that only invests in companies that are run by women. Experts are calling Hypatia a solid investment. A report by the Peterson Institute for International Economics supports this conclusion, finding that companies that have at least 30 percent of executive roles filled by women have profits that are 6 percent higher.
The broken rung also hurts employee morale and company culture. My research with my colleague Jennifer Franczak shows that companies with a larger share of female employees in management positions were viewed as better, safer, and more enjoyable places to work.
What is holding women back from advancing into management positions when it is clear that businesses benefit from having them there? While there are many factors, ranging from gender bias to hostile work environments, below are two reasons that are discussed less frequently, yet make an important impact.
One way that companies reduce the likelihood of women advancing into management is by having restrictive guidelines for promotions. Rebecca Shambaugh1 provides a powerful example: Many companies require that open corporate board seats are filled by someone with CEO experience. However, because of the small number of CEO positions that have historically been filled by women, this requirement may automatically rule out many qualified women.
As another example, companies often use leadership competencies to evaluate potential candidates for promotion. Because the managers who develop the lists of leadership competencies are more commonly men than women, these lists tend to reflect what makes men successful. However, it often backfires when women try to adopt the same work style as men. For example, men are typically seen as confident when they act assertively, whereas women are often considered aggressive for the same behavior and face backlash.
In general, during performance reviews, managers tend to describe2 men using task words (e.g., analytical, competent) but describe women using relational words (e.g., compassionate, energetic). When evaluating candidates for promotion, task-related characteristics hold more weight.
In our research, Jennifer Franczak and I encourage companies to begin to move past these challenges by adopting what we call “qualification diversity." We suggest that organizations reconsider their leadership competencies and promotion guidelines to ensure they are not unintentionally skewed to favor men.
Women spend a disproportionate amount of time on tasks that are important but likely won’t help them get a promotion. This invisible labor includes things such as training new hires, planning team celebrations, leading low-revenue and low-visibility projects, or taking notes in meetings. Spending time on these non-promotable tasks takes away from the time and energy women can spend on promotable tasks.
In a series of experiments, economists found that women were almost 50 percent more likely to perform non-promotable tasks than men. The economists sought to see if the higher rate of non-promotable tasks were due to the expectation workplaces place on women or due to the characteristics and preferences of women.
To do so, they collected data to see if women had unique characteristics that encouraged them to volunteer for these tasks. The data showed that they did not: Characteristics such as agreeableness, altruism, and risk aversion were not able to explain the gender gap in non-promotable tasks. Second, the economists compared all-female, all-male, and mixed-gender groups. They found that men tended to only hold back in volunteering for non-promotable tasks in the mixed-gender group but volunteered in the all-male group. The researchers concluded that gender differences in non-promotable tasks can be best explained by the expectations and norms of workplaces rather than the characteristics and preferences of female employees.
Although some may say that the solution is to encourage women to say no more often, research does not fully support this conclusion. Researchers have shown that the expectations for women around non-promotable tasks are so deeply ingrained in the workplace that women, but not men, face backlash if they do not volunteer and act as good corporate citizens.
Women too often are put in a no-win situation, which has important implications for advancement and promotion in the workplace. As explained in the book, The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work, it is not the women that are the problem, it is the practices and norms of organizations. Workplaces still have a lot of work to do.