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The following Q&A with these professors briefly covers topics that were discussed at The State of Women’s Advancement Symposium, which was live-streamed on March 3. Watch the videos: Panel 1Panel 2Panel 3.

Q: What barriers and opportunities exist that prevent women from advancing on their own?

Eddleston: Two overarching factors tend to hurt women’s career advancement: society’s view of a leader as ‘male’ and women’s reluctance to promote their achievements. When people ‘think manager’ they tend to ‘think male.’ This is also a problem women entrepreneurs face when they seek financing and growth opportunities; when individuals think ‘successful entrepreneur’ they tend to think ‘male.’

Biases like these prevent women from being perceived as suitable for top management promotions and advancement opportunities. Unfortunately, these biases can sometimes sneak into women’s self-appraisals, which lead them to question if they ‘fit’ such opportunities, which, in turn, prevents them from applying for those opportunities. Obviously, if women do not put their neck’s out and apply for promotions and opportunities, they are less likely to be chosen. Until these gender stereotypes related to leadership, which benefit men, but hurt women are eradicated, women are likely to have less career progression than their male counterparts.

The second issue relates to women’s reluctance to promote their own achievements. Women often wait to be recognized, which often leads to them being ignored. By not touting their achievements, they often go unknown or are seen as not worthy of recognition since they never spoke up. By not communicating one’s achievements, others often see them as simply part of one’s job description and nothing exceptional. To be considered for promotions, managers need to understand why a person is exceptional and a high-achiever. Since men are naturally inclined to inform others of their accomplishments, women need to follow suit or they could be seen as not having accomplishments to talk about. And if there is a career opportunity that they are interested in, they need to speak up. Otherwise, their silence could be (mis)perceived as disinterest in climbing the corporate ladder.

Q: What can employers do to advance the talent pipeline? What does work-life balance have to do with it?

Ladge: Despite women making up half of the workforce, senior leadership roles held by women have been increasing only slightly in recent years, and it will take decades to reach parity according to very recent statistics compiled by Catalyst. This is very much an international phenomenon, with women holding just less than a quarter of senior leadership roles in global businesses and a third of all global businesses have no women in senior management roles. So, what’s holding women back?

As Kimberly mentioned, women still face a “glass ceiling” that prevents them from being perceived as a strong business leader. Businesses are culturally rooted in male domination, not because of the numbers, but because of the expectations we hold of what it means to be a leader. Thus, we tend to reward more masculine traits such as assertiveness and self-reliance rather than inherently feminine traits such as being compassionate and collaborative. It’s very difficult to break these kinds of cultural norms in organizations. In some cases, access to leadership roles that may be undesirable and or more precarious lead women to face what some researchers refer to as a “glass cliff.” Women also tend to find themselves doing more of the “office housework” (e.g. planning meetings, taking notes) than their male counterparts, which may limit them in terms of promotional opportunities.

Starting a family is another issue that can hold women back. Working mothers often face a maternal wall bias when they become pregnant and have children. Many women in professional and managerial roles often face biases simply because they are women, and it is assumed they will one day get pregnant, take a leave, and not be able to fulfill managerial responsibilities. This bias occurs long before they even have children. We see that in many industries gender discrimination is on the rise. Although we are starting to see many employers offer policies to support and/or promote work-life balance, many employees are reluctant to take advantage of them for fear of how they will be perceived. As a result, some women try to downplay their parenting roles at work to prove their commitment to organizations. This can be exhausting for many women, and studies show it can lead to psychological distress and potentially turnover.

Employers need to work on breaking down these cultural norms that lead to bias. Policies alone cannot change culture. It’s up to leadership to show a commitment to gender equality and to find ways to capitalize on gender differences that benefit everyone. We need to define leadership in terms that are inclusive, recognizing the unique traits and skill-sets that all people bring to the table. It would also behoove organizations to make workplace flexibility a business imperative. Research suggests that flexibility fosters organizational commitment, increased organizational citizenship behavior, and creativity.

Organizations are at a turning point as they navigate the increasingly diverse nature of our workforce. The impact of the growth in dual career couples and of men becoming more involved in caregiving each gives rise to women taking on positions of power and leadership. These changing workplace dynamics will challenge outdated organizational norms and expectations about what it means to be an ideal worker.

Q: How can state and municipal government level the playing field?

Modestino: Although we’ve come a long way in our perceptions of what women can accomplish over the past several decades, it’s still the case that women’s labor force participation stands at less than 57 percent, down from a peak of 60 percent in the late 1990s. The rapid improvements in the gender wage gap that occurred in the 1980s and early 1990s have stalled—despite continued improvements in women’s levels of education and work experience. And although fathers are participating now more than ever in their children’s lives, working mothers still shoulder most of the burden of child-rearing.

Why does it seem like the march toward gender equality in the labor market has slowed to a crawl? I would argue it’s because we’ve already done the relatively “easy” work of reducing overt gender discrimination and now face the much harder challenge of identifying and addressing the more subtle forms of inequality that women face. After the passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963, the ratio of women’s to men’s earnings increased sharply from 56 percent in 1969 to 74 percent as of 2000 (U.S. Census Bureau). Yet, since then, the ratio has hardly budged.

What’s the problem? Research published last year shows that career decisions reflecting which occupations women work in and how many hours they work account for half of the remaining gender gap in pay (Blau and Kahn 2016). While some may argue that these are choices women make, the point is that they are constrained choices at best—especially when high-paying jobs in certain sectors (e.g. corporate, finance, law) are structured such that individuals are required to work long hours or inflexible schedules that are inconsistent with family responsibilities (Goldin 2014). Moreover, upwards of 40 percent of the gender gap was “unexplained” by differences in qualifications, occupation choice, and hours, suggesting a continued significant role for labor market discrimination (Blau and Kahn 2016).

What can be done? The remaining work to close the gender gap must shed light on these more subtle grey areas around pay equity and family responsibilities. While neither of these requires government intervention per se, the lack of progress over the past two decades suggests that government can help nudge the labor market in the direction of greater parity for all workers. And given the continued partisan paralysis of Congress, states and municipalities are the only game in town in the foreseeable future.

In Massachusetts, we’ve taken matters into our own hands to help level the playing field for all citizens to be able to compete in the marketplace for the same opportunities by shedding light on some of the “unexplained” grey areas related to pay equity. Last year, Governor Baker signed into law The Act to Establish Pay Equity, which requires employers to provide equal pay for “comparable work” (not just the same job) and prohibits using salary history in the hiring process. This means that an employer could not pay their mostly male macroeconomists more than they pay their mostly female microeconomists if their jobs involve similar skill, effort, and responsibility—even if they have a different job title. It also means that an employer would not be able to ask about the current salary of a female job candidate and use that as a justification for making her an offer below that of a similarly qualified male candidate.

Massachusetts has also made strides in eliminating some of the constraints workers face in choosing what types of work they do by reducing the tradeoffs between work and family. In 2015, Mayor Walsh signed an ordinance establishing paid parental leave of up to six weeks for men and women, as well as same-sex couples, who have worked for the City for at least one year. And last year the Massachusetts Senate passed a bill requiring employers to offer employees up to 16 weeks of paid leave for family care and up to 26 weeks for temporary disability leave if they meet the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) standard.

Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that pay equity and paid leave not only level the playing field for workers but also for firms. For example, some large employers have already adopted these types of measures and have even signed onto “100% Talent – The Boston Women’s Compact” pledging to collect and share data that can help identify the root causes of the gender wage gap and to adopt evidence-based interventions to reduce it. Yet smaller firms often do not have the resources or the capacity to engage in such efforts, even if they may improve worker productivity and reduce turnover in the long run. By establishing clear guidelines for pay equity and paid leave, states and municipalities can ensure all employers are working to eliminate the remaining barriers that reduce the likelihood that a highly-qualified woman or minority is hired, promoted, or given a deserved raise—a goal that can benefit individuals, firms, and the broader economy.

Jamie J. Ladge

Associate Professor, Management and Organizational Development; Group Chair, Management and Organizational Development

Kimberly A. Eddleston

Schulze Distinguished Professor, Entrepreneurship and Innovation