By Irene E. de Pater

Why women have not advanced in careers


Posted on April 01, 2016

FILIPINO WOMEN have always enjoyed greater equality and status than their counterparts elsewhere in Asia. A report by the International Labor Organization shows the Philippines to be the only Asian country to rank within the global top 10 for countries with high numbers of women in managerial positions.

A woman is seen taking the escalator on her way to work in Makati Central Business District. -- BW file photo
Of the country’s management positions, 47.6% were held by women in recent years, placing the nation at No. 4 in the world. The next closest Asian country in the ranking is Mongolia, at No. 17.

In this modern era, especially when gender equality and boardroom representation of women have been in focus, one would expect more females to be promoted and represented, whether in government or at the corporate level. Yet even some of Asia’s fastest growing economies, Hong Kong and Singapore, only placed a distant 44th and 53rd, respectively, in the ranking.

This augurs well for the Philippines economy. After all, a recent McKinsey study found that advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth.

In the larger business environment, there may still be an inadvertent bias against women because of the jobs and assignments they did before, despite promotions being based on merit.

Promotions are based on a supervisor’s evaluation of what we could call “promotability.”

While individuals are promoted in part because they perform well in their current jobs, they also move up after having undertaken challenging tasks.

Individuals who have had challenging job experiences tend to be viewed as more capable, more willing to make the effort, and more ambitious to reach higher-level positions.

Challenging assignments provide opportunities to learn, which are likely to result in the development of a wide range of skills, abilities, insights, knowledge, and values that contribute to effective management skills, and hence, career success.

Often, however, the underlying assumption is that individuals initiate and choose to take on such challenging job assignments. But why would that be the case?

What if such job tasks are assigned by supervisors who are not gender blind in their assignments? Would this affect promotability?

First, interestingly, research does show that men and women differ in how they approach challenging tasks.

Women are, indeed, less inclined to take up challenging tasks than men because they want to avoid failure. Men, on the other hand, are more willing to take up such tasks because they want to show what they can do.

This is a difference that could stem from upbringing -- parents cheer a son when he is active or perhaps climbing up a tree but would caution a daughter to be careful and instead come down from that tree. Such differences in upbringing affect one’s willingness to take on challenging tasks as adults.

Of course, there are the women who are eager to take on challenges. However, they face obstacles, as research has also shown that supervisors are more inclined to allocate less challenging tasks to female employees, regardless of their ambition and job performance.

Delegating assignments to employees involves risks, and to reduce such risks, managers often delegate difficult tasks to those whom they trust to do well -- specifically, subordinates who are like them, are perceived to be similar to them, and hence, more trustworthy and capable.

As most higher positions are occupied by men, they see male subordinates as more similar to themselves than female subordinates. As such, male supervisors allocate more challenging tasks to male, rather than female employees -- a form of subtle gender discrimination that they may not even be aware of.

In short, we are in a situation where women may both avoid and be denied important developmental opportunities, which in turn hamper their chances of promotion and career advancement.

It is worth saying again that to stay competitive, firms must capitalize on all valuable resources, including talented male and female employees.

Women’s failure to advance can be costly and shortsighted. There may be lost productivity and high turnover rates because women feel blocked in their careers.

Particularly, we need to ensure that managers overcome supervisory gender biases. They should be encouraged to assign challenging work equally to their male and female subordinates.

At the same time, women should be made aware of their propensity to take up less challenging tasks and the adverse consequences doing so may have on their careers.

Parents should also be mindful in how they bring up their children. Both sons and daughters should be encouraged to go for challenging tasks.

Such structures are already in place within the Filipino culture and mind-set. The Philippines is often described as a nation of strong women, who directly and indirectly run the family unit, businesses, government agencies, and haciendas. Filipino women have long proven that they are capable of taking on leadership positions as well as their male counterparts.

As more Filipino women become educated, it is likely that we will see even more Filipino women becoming presidents and congresswomen, and occupying more seats in the board rooms.

Irene de Pater is assistant professor of management & organization at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School.