#7 Autumn 2017

Conflicting demands keep the glass ceiling in place

Conflicting demands

Women across the world are still battling a “double whammy” of social expectations that are at odds with the expectations they face in the workplace and this conflict is effectively keeping them from climbing the corporate ladder.

According to new research from the Global Network for Advanced Management (GNAM), women are literally caught between a rock and a hard place: their communities reward congenial, non-competitive personalities and playing large family roles, while the workplace expects long hours and assertiveness. To make matters more complicated, many women feel – paradoxically – that their employers would dislike them if they do not appear family oriented, despite the fact that they feel long hours are expected of them. This push-pull factor of conflicting expectations is a global phenomenon.

Researchers interviewed over 5 000 students and alumni from 28 business schools worldwide, including the GSB. They found overwhelming evidence that diversifying the talent pool is good for business. This applies to race, gender and many other factors. For starters, it simply means that one increases the size of the available talent pool and potentially represents a more diverse customer base.

And yet, women are still facing difficulties in the workplace and disproportionate representation in leadership roles. Although they make up more than half of the workforce, they are still in the minority of leadership roles. In fact, 39% of companies in G7 countries have no women in senior roles at all.

The GNAM study found that one of the reasons for this might be the expectation that women will play a more active role in childcare, and so, logically it should follow that they will spend less time at work, be less productive, and be less career-oriented.

“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,” the study argued. “Around the world, the presumption is that the mother should bear more than 50% of the responsibility for childcare.”
These findings should shock us, but perhaps the most important outcome of the survey is the most obvious: combatting gender inequality in the workplace is not somebody else’s problem. It is up to employers, the report noted, to convince women that they do not have to straddle a complex web of expectations in the workplace.

The GNAM recommendations are simple, yet potentially very effective. Given that women are often caught between a disproportionately large family role and a workplace that rewards long hours on the job, employers can make supportive decisions armed with this knowledge. They can take measures that make for stronger, more attractive workplace environments.

Key suggestions included:
1. Reward productivity, not hours worked in the office.
2. Support personality differences, acknowledging the value of diversity, and reward non-assertive but effective approaches.
3. Encourage fathers who may want to be more involved in childcare, in order to counter the perception that childcare is primarily a woman’s responsibility. This is also more supportive to fathers who want to spend more time with their children.
4. Use the ability to work remotely to allow for workplace flexibility, rather than as a limitless extension of the office.

The study found that working remotely was viewed in a positive light when it was done after hours, but in a negative light when it was done during office hours. This means that working remotely does not necessarily increase flexibility, but rather that there is a stigma attached to those who must take advantage of it.

Employers around the world need to re-commit themselves to doing more to make it easier for women to work and lead. Companies that develop a culture that supports women in the workplace also encourage a healthy work-life balance for all employees. Such a culture could prove an advantage in the competition for the best talent. Employers cannot take on a patriarchal society at large, but they can provide a supportive environment to women trying to navigate the complex path between conflicting expectations. Those in senior roles have the power to exacerbate or relieve the pressure employees are feeling to conform to perceived expectations. Building more flexible and more accepting organisations that explicitly express support for women will not only benefit women, but also men. And the business as a whole will benefit from a more diverse and committed workforce. Now that’s something worth standing up for!

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