A double whammy for career women

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Photo by Dane Deaner

What’s keeping a lot of women from having truly successful careers? To get a better grasp of this enduring issue, the Global Network for Advanced Management (GNAM), a group of 32 business schools located in different parts of the world, including the Philippines, surveyed the attitudes and beliefs of 3,370 students and 1,511 alumni who represented workplace experience in more than 100 countries.

It was a survey with a twist. The respondents were not only made to answer a battery of questions. They also had to pick one of two fictional candidates for promotion in their workplace. The candidates were given random attributes: age, assertive or reserved personality, prior experience, time availability and, of course, gender. This exercise was meant to reduce the social desirability bias of the respondents, “the impulse, perhaps, to sound more ‘gender-enlightened’ than they actually feel,” GNAM said.

GNAM found out that in promotion decisions, availability was more influential than gender. The respondents were 36% more likely to recommend someone able to work beyond office hours. “It is striking that survey respondents showed virtually no preference for a candidate for promotion based on gender,” the group said. This is a heartening finding, but when one comes to think of it, women, particularly mothers, don’t always have the luxury of time. “Given the disproportionate burden for family work that women bear in most societies, the requirement to be available around the clock can be as starkly negative for women as if employers were biased against women,” GNAM said.

Respondents’ preference for availability, as it turned out, wasn’t that strong. “When respondents were told about the productivity for both candidates (high, medium, low), the preference for around-the-clock availability virtually disappears,” GNAM noted. The group said time availability could become “a noisy signal of productivity rather than an input of productivity itself. “Cheap proxies for worker evaluation of this kind are costly not only to women, but also to men who may prefer a better career-family or work-life balance,” it added.

Men — and even women — displaying assertiveness were, in respondents’ eyes, had a better chance of getting promotion than those who were reserved. Assertiveness, however, is at variance with behaviors women are generally taught as desirable to possess, such as congeniality and docility. “If employers give higher marks to an assertive personality — according to our survey, substantially more than experience, although with some differences across countries — professional women face a trade-off: the very characteristic that helps them at work may harm them in their social relationships,” GNAM said.

And when it comes to looking after children, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the survey respondents judged that women ought to “take on slightly more of the responsibility of childcare.” The respondents were also asked what they thought the views of the senior management in their workplace were with regard to the responsibility. They believed that the senior management expected women to shoulder much of the work, too.

“Whether or not their employers intend to send these signals, female employees are likely to be on the horns of a dilemma: spending hours at work might help them get promoted, but their boss (and everyone else) may at the same time dislike them for bucking societal expectations. Male employees who choose to invest time in their careers may face less disapproval for reducing time devoted to childcare,” GNAM said.

All these findings, which were released to the public in 2017, led GNAM to conclude: “Women are often caught in a double whammy: societies give them a disproportionately large family role and rewards for pleasing personalities, whereas workplaces reward long hours on the job and assertiveness.”

If this double whammy is what’s keeping women from thriving in their chosen careers, what can be done? GNAM has several recommendations. One is to reward productivity and not hours worked in the office. The group also suggests supporting personality differences, acknowledging the value of diversity and rewarding non-assertive but effective approaches. It added, “Encourage fathers who may want to be more involved in childcare than is assumed in order to counter the perception that childcare is primarily a woman’s responsibility.”