Why Women Still Aren’t Equal at Work

Research has consistently documented unequal outcomes for men and women in the workplace, but to truly fix the problem, we need to begin to uncover the drivers of gender inequality.

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When examining gender inequality in the workplace, we often look at the absence of women in fields like science, technology, and engineering or at their absence in certain ranks like the C-Suite or senior management. In both situations, women often enter the field or management path, but tend to fall through the cracks at some point in their career. A different flavour of gender inequality examines how women are earning less than their male counterparts. And while we are making strides to close the gender pay gap, it is still not at parity.

But to truly redress inequality, says Columbia Business School Professor Mabel Abraham, we need to move beyond simply documenting that inequities exist. In her research, Abraham examines workplace evaluations and how valuable resources are exchanged within networks to uncover the drivers of gender differences in recognition and rewards.

But to truly redress inequality, we need to move beyond simply documenting that inequities exist.

Evaluations, she finds, are a key way by which women and men experience imbalanced outcomes. Since evaluations govern who gets selected for a job, job promotion, or pay raises, the tendency for gender to factor into the evaluations, particularly when there is an absence of perfect information, often leads to a disadvantage for women.

In one study in the finance industry, with coauthor Tristan Botelho at Yale University, Abraham examined a set of investment professionals who post stock recommendations on an online platform for their peers. She found that an investment recommendation submitted by someone with a very female name, like “Mary,” received approximately 25 per cent less attention overall than a recommendation submitted by someone with a very male name, such as “Matthew.”

The results also demonstrated that women had to substantially outperform the average investment professional to receive the same attention as their male counterparts. This gender difference only disappeared for the highest-performing (top 10 per cent) recommendations, where gender no longer predicted the likelihood that a recommendation received attention.

In other research focused on networks, Abraham examined whether men and women receive similar benefits when they have access to the same networks. Using data from a large set of entrepreneurs, she looked at the number of business referrals men received relative to women. What she found was that while people did not exhibit bias when making personal decisions about with whom to share resources, they were much more likely to connect men than women in their network to their outside contacts. In other words, even if an individual did not exhibit personal gender biases, because they are unsure of their outside contact’s gender preferences and biases, they favour men in making connections to others.

So where does this leave businesses today? It’s not for lack of effort by organisations and legislators in trying to redress inequality. Yet, the situation isn’t really improving. Abraham suggests looking at the conditions under which this inequality exists. Understanding these conditions will enable us to arrive at actionable items that will help drive progress.

For example, in the evaluation bias study, she found that bias was most pronounced when there was a large volume of recommendations from which evaluators must select to pay attention.

One idea is to think about how to minimise the number of options — suggestions, recommendations, candidates, etc. — that are being considered. In her study about network referrals, one recommendation is for women, particularly those in male-dominated fields, to make connections directly to contacts that will be valuable to them and their business as opposed to relying on their network contacts to make those connections for them.

But these are just two possible approaches out of many, says Abraham. What is paramount is to move beyond showing that biases exist and towards unpacking the underlying mechanisms of gender inequality so that we can continue to uncover solutions.

Mabel Abraham is an assistant professor of Management at Columbia Business School. Read more