Unintended gendered consequences: When family-friendly policies backfire on women

family friendlyNot surprisingly, we advocate flexibility and family friendly policies with our corporate clients. However, a series of new research shows  promoting such ‘benefits’ as being aimed primarily as women, can actually undermine their advancement as it gives employers an excuse to discriminate against them as potentially problematic employees. They see women as ‘not worth the risk’ of leaving or potentially needing costly support. As detailed in the New York Times by Claire Cain Miller,

For example, in the US, after the introduction of the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993, still one of the least generous programmes in the developed world, women were 5% more likely to remain employed but 8% less likely to be promoted than they had been before the introduction of the law. Similarly, Chile introduced a child-care law which required employers with more than 20 women to provide and pay for local childcare to mothers with kids under the age of 2 years. While the smallest employers often didn’t comply, many of the rest compensated for the perceived loss by offering women starting salaries that were 9% to 20% less than they had before the law.

Spain introduced a new law in 1999 giving workers with children younger than 7 the right to ask for reduced hours. It was predominantly women who requested reduced hours and in the subsequent decade companies were 6% less likely to hire women of child-bearing age compared to men, 37% less likely to promote them and 45% more likely to dismiss them. The probability of unemployment amongst women of child-bearing age also increased by 20% during that time. As explained in the New York Times: ‘ These findings are consistent with previous research by Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn, economists at Cornell. In a study of 22 countries, they found that generous family-friendly policies, like long maternity leaves and part-time work protections in Europe, made it possible for more women to work — but that they were more likely to be in dead-end jobs and less likely to be managers.’  The answer is not in reducing the benefits afforded women but in making sure such ‘benefits’  flexibility is gender neutral.

 

‘Queen Bee’ myth quashed

Mean bossOne of the most commonly asked questions I receive is ‘why are female bosses mean to junior women?’ They’re not – in fact, they are no ‘meaner’ than male bosses. It’s more likely we have higher expectations of ‘nurturing’ behaviour in women than we do of male bosses. In fact, the latest research bears out that women actually do better when they work for companies with a female CEO.

Columbia University looked at top 1500 management teams over a 20 year period and found that when female CEOs were appointed to an organisation, other women were more, rather than less likely to attain other senior positions. Additionally, female CEO’s pay higher wages to all employees, and reduce the gender wage gap to just 1.5%. However, there’s a ‘sting in the tail’ of the Queen Bee. When a woman was appointed to a top job, but not the CEO position, the chances of other women following her into the upper echelon were 50% less.

So what’s going on? After looking at the evidence, the authors concluded women at this second type of organisation are part of an ‘implicit quota’. In The Times, Sian Griffiths explained how the authors felt: ‘While firms gain legitimacy from having women in top management, the value of this legitimacy decreases with each additional woman, whereas the perceived costs, from the perspective of the male majority in top management, increases with each woman.’ In fact, it’s perceived that majority group resistance increases when women (and one could argue any other perceived minority group) grows to even just 20%. In fact, women in senior jobs may indeed themselves be subconsciously accepting this ‘implicit quota’ and therefore any other women who come to the table are a potential threat – which may be where any resistance to other junior women comes from. So, it seems the only person who thinks it’s not enough to have a few tokens at the table are the female CEO’s – the same people we’ve historically maligned as unhelpful Queen Bee’s.

‘Higher expectations for women’, not ‘work/life balance’ as main barrier to female career success

Women in leadership

According to a recent poll of over 1,800 American adults by Pew Research Centre, most Americans now find women indistinguishable from men on key leadership traits such as intelligence and capacity for innovation, with many saying they’re stronger than men on compassion and organisation. While that’s a sign of progress, what’s most interesting is instead of blaming that old chestnut of ‘work/life balance issues’, the highest proportion (nearly 40%) point to a double standard for women seeking to climb to the highest levels of either politics or business, where they have to do more than their male counterparts to prove themselves.

Recognition of this double standard is a big shift away from continuing to blame work/life balance and a much needed turning point. It’s perhaps not surprising about two-thirds (65%) of women say their gender faces at least ‘some discrimination’ in society today, compared with 48% of men who believe women face some discrimination. It’s promising that nearly half of men agree. Historically, it’s been convenient to blame women’s reproductive choices for their lack of career progress. This research suggests that if both women and men understand the system is biased, we’ll make quicker progress.

Americans perceive women leaders better at ethics, men better at deal-making

Women in leadership rolesAccording to a recent poll on Women in Leadership of over 1800 American adults by Pew Research Centre most Americans now find women indistinguishable from men on key leadership traits such as intelligence and capacity for innovation, with many saying they’re stronger than men in terms of being compassionate and organized leaders. More specifically, a disproportionate number of Americans think that women in business are more likely to be honest and ethical, mentor junior staff and provide fair pay and benefits, than their male counterparts. On the other hand, men were seen to be stronger on negotiating profitable deals and risk-taking.

Nearly 40% of Americans say having more women in top leadership positions in business and government would do a lot to improve the quality of life for all women. An additional 40% of women say this would have at least some positive impact on all women’s lives. For their part, men are less convinced that female leadership has such wide-ranging benefits. Only 19% of men say having more women in top leadership positions would do a lot to improve all women’s lives, while 43% say this would improve women’s lives somewhat.

Are your job descriptions a barrier for senior women?

Job descriptions a barrier for senior women?We regularly hear from our corporate clients that not enough women apply for senior roles. Many organisations attribute this to fallacious factors – lack of ambition or not being ’tough enough’ for a senior position. In our experience working with global companies, we find too frequently, it is not the women, but the organisation’s policy and work culture that disadvantages women.

This gender bias is very subtle and often missed by the women themselves. While women may indeed blame their own ‘lack of ambition’ or disinterest in reaching the top, unconscious bias still creates these rationales. Unconscious bias by it’s very nature is unconscious, and so does not require an intent to exclude. Nor does it necessarily produce direct, immediate harm to any individual. Rather, it creates a context — akin to “something in the water” — in which women fail to thrive or reach their full potential. For example, let’s look at how this plays out in the recruitment of senior roles. In an article on Second Generation Bias in the Harvard Business Review, one male leader described how historical hiring processes encouraged one type of candidate; over-confident men to apply. His organisation had to make a concerted effort to review the job criteria for leadership roles – looking for bias:

One male leader said to me, ” We write the job descriptions- the list of capabilities- for our ideal candidates. We know that the men will nominate themselves even if they don’t meet all the requirements; the women would hold back. Now we look for the capabilities that are needed in the role, not some unrealistic ideal. We have hired more women in these roles, and our quality has not suffered in the least.”

The hidden costs of gender bias is high. High turnover, difficulty attracting women to the company, and a lack of diversity to match that of customers are just some of the disadvantages. If women are not applying to your top jobs, begin by assessing your hiring processes, starting with job descriptions, rather than blaming women themselves for a ‘lack of ambition’.

Why ‘Flawed’ men outlast ‘Aggressive’ Women: It’s in the language

power poseAggressive. Aloof. A real bitch. There are a litany of derogatory words we use to characterise female leaders. Men are given more ‘wiggle room’ in terms of the behaviours we expect or sanction, but women have less latitude. As discussed in the recent Huffington blog post: This is how we talk about female leaders (Hint: It’s not pretty) , Nic Subtirelu, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Applied Linguistics and ESL at Georgia State University assessed the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) 450 million words of text from magazines, newspapers, fiction and academic text from the last two decades for gender difference in language.

Dismally, women were labelled ’pushy’ twice as frequently as men despite the fact men are mentioned nearly twice as frequently as women overall in the COCA. Subtirelu found men were more likely to be describe as “condescending”; a term which can only be applied to those who are or believe they are in power.  On the other hand, pushy is comparable to being obnoxiously forward or self-assertive. The article details what we see everyday: Hillary Clinton being described as shrill, aloof, ruthless, icy, angry and frumpy; Angela Merkel as ruthless and frumpy.

Jill Abramson was described as pushy, stubborn, brusque and condescending by the media following her untimely removal as the first female executive editor of The New York Times. Her high profile removal was a mirror to that of Amanda Bennett, who was described similarly several years before when editor of the high profile Philadelphia Inquirer. She was ousted after just 3 years in 2006. In a recent opinion piece “Pushed off the Glass Cliff” in the Washington Post, she noted the only thing that had changed in the 7 years between Abramson and her own departure was: ‘Women now feel not only resentful, but also finally, entitled. Entitled to lead…to be paid equally. Entitled to be flawed… and to be fired, but also entitled to point out the obvious fact: Men with even more spectacular and difficult flaws than ours get not only longer tenures but also softer and more dignified landings.’

Incredibly, despite his own evidence, Subtirelu stated in his blog ‘Linguistic Pulse’, he was ‘suspicious of the possibility that these descriptions had an element of gender bias to them’. Why do the media insist on using condescending and gender biased words to describe inspiring, strong females? And how low do we have to sink if the researchers themselves can’t see the biased writing on the wall?

 

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