Closing gender gaps in career advancement

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There is a persistent bias in society, which assumes women prioritize their family responsibilities over their careers, while men do not. My research shows women must have far more qualifications than is necessary for a position (i.e., be overqualified) to convince others they are committed to advancing in their career, but people assume men are highly committed to their careers by default. Our results are consistent with “the motherhood penalty,” a type of labor-market discrimination in which mothers are stereotyped as the primary caregiver, in terms of taking on competing work and family demands—an assumption which isn’t as readily applied to fathers. Biased assumptions about people’s careers versus family commitment matter because these assumptions influence hiring decisions: firms are more likely to hire people they perceive to be highly committed to succeeding in their job and advancing in the firm. So, while we have made progress toward equity in the workplace, it is disappointing to see this dated stereotype continues to exit, even as dual-income households become commonplace.

What advice do you have for women who want to overcome the “the motherhood penalty” stereotype to advance in their career?  

While women cannot control the biases that other people hold—nor should they have to—I always encourage women to build their social and professional networks. Many companies have job referral programs and having a connection to someone working in a company you want to work for is very beneficial. You can also seek out sponsorship, a form of professional advocacy in which senior colleagues leverage their connections and influence to identify and secure career-advancing opportunities on your behalf. This could be introducing you to the higher-ups in your firm, recommending you for a job or career opportunity, etc. Sponsorship is different than mentorship, which is more likely to focus on social support at work and skills development. Mentorship is helpful but sponsorship is linked to objective career benefits like promotions, bonuses, and advancement. I have conducted research that revealed early-career women uniquely benefit from receiving sponsorship from high-ranking, highly tenured women in their firm and industry. I’d encourage women to seek out and find powerful sponsors to aid in their career advancement. 

What advice do you have for firms and organizations to ensure they are evaluating job candidates equitably?

Generally, I’d encourage firms to consider implementing system-based changes rather than relying on individual managers and employees to fix biases in their hiring and promotion processes. System-based changes must also be linked to actionable strategies for people to change their behavior if firms want to see long-lasting and sustainable change. The solutions many firms favor, such as anti-bias training, are shown to have short-lived effects at best and, at worst, lead to backlash against women in the workplace. 

After so many decades of women experiencing inequality in the workplace, what gives you hope that women will face less discrimination in the future?

Sexism looks different than it did 30 years ago and it’s true we’ve made a lot of progress as a society toward achieving equity in the workplace. But biases evolve over time and barriers hindering women’s advancement still exist, meaning ongoing research is crucial. The one positive is that people are more aware of sexism than they were before and many people generally agree that people should have equitable opportunities for advancement. This increased awareness and motivation to achieve equitable opportunity is encouraging because we now have more minds dedicated to fixing this problem than ever before.

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