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Study by Krannert prof identifies seven steps for advancing career equality amid pandemic

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Gender equity

Gender equality has become a hot topic in management as business leaders address growing pressures to advance women who remain significantly underrepresented in key leadership jobs and face an on-going pay and stock equity gap, says Ellen Ernst Kossek, the Basil S. Turner Professor of Management at Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management.

“When COVID-19 hit, work-life tensions related to gender equality which existed before the pandemic were accentuated as women took on the brunt of increased default parenting, schooling supervision, and other domestic roles rose at the same time that often-mandated remote work skyrocketed or essential workers scrambled for childcare,” she says.

As leaders prepare to manage through and beyond the pandemic, Kossek says it is important to identify how gender interacts with work-life inclusion issues to take action to advance women’s career equality, which recent reports by the World Economic Forum have set back the gap to reach gender parity by an additional generation from 99.5 years to now 135.6 years.

Supported by funding from the National Science Foundation, Kossek and coauthor Kyung-Hee Lee examine the topic in "Work-life Inclusion for Women’s Career Equality: Why it Matters and What to Do About It," an article in press at Organizational Dynamics. The article examines career issues facing women faculty and scientists in business schools and other professional contexts where women are largely underrepresented, such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).

"These challenges are highly relevant to business leaders. From Fortune 500 companies to start-up firms, women are similarly underrepresented in leadership roles, and face comparable barriers,” say Kossek and Lee. “Business leaders are also consumers of business education and hire talent pipelines from business schools and universities."

In their paper, the authors use specific examples to define work-life inclusion and review four challenges that experts identify as key themes. Finally, they conclude with seven actions that leaders can take to create a more work-life inclusive culture.

According to Kossek and Lee, “Organizational work-life inclusion occurs when work cultures and structures are generally perceived as supporting an individual’s ability to thrive authentically in family and personal life roles on and off the job, while progressing in a career.”

One challenge encompasses a work-life theme of inter-related issues: overwork, motherhood guilt, parental burnout, and downshifting career ambition. “Experts agree that overwork cultures, where putting in long work hours and jobs first before all other life roles (parent, partner, self-care) is strongly socialized for career success, fosters gender inequality,” say Kossek and Lee.

Another theme addresses the “Dark Side” of telework: extended availability, work tethering and interruptions. “Despite the benefits of technology in granting flexibility and options to work outside of the office 24-7, it can tether employees to work in ways that harm well-being,” say the researchers.

The third theme focuses on HR system gender gaps in dual-career supports, service demands, evaluation and pay. “Although women’s hiring rates may be slightly improving for entry-level positions, data shows that the gender gap persists when it comes to dual-career hiring, service workload, performance, promotion, and tenure,” says the study.

The final theme looks at gendered flexibility stigma and the penalties (and privilege) of using family policies. According to the study, “across-the-board policies that are seemingly equal in availability can be linked to unintended consequences of increasing gender inequality related to pay and promotion.” For example, extending the tenure clock has been found to be significantly more helpful to men’s careers than women’s careers, as it is implemented without regard for existing family structures that enable men to use the time primarily for research while women use more of the time for caregiving.

The article identifies seven leader actions to improve work-life inclusion: 1) leverage the power of leader messaging, 2) expand definitions of career success, 3) improve implementation of dual career supports, 4) address bias in HR systems, 5) balance support and disclosure of diverse work-life identities, 6) enhance work-life boundary control and combat overworking, and 7) pilot innovative experiments to “nudge” change.

Enhance Leader Messaging for Work-Life Inclusiveness: "Leadership attitudes, language, and behaviors signal inclusive expectations to the employees and set the tone for the organization."

Broaden Definitions of Career Success: "Leaders can be very instrumental in broadening definitions of career success and taking more holistic approaches to promotion, which can help countervail rigid career advancement options."

Seriously Increase Dual-Career Support Resources and Avoid Partner “Othering” Language: "Many employers give only lip service to dual-career and family issues and often use approaches and language that are relics of the past traditional male breadwinner-led family configuration models."

Address Cultural Bias in HR Systems and Make Leaders Accountable: "When it comes to hiring and promotion, setting clear criteria, expectations, and requirements may help reduce bias and discrimination in the evaluation process."

Broadly Support Intersectionality in Diverse Identities While Balancing Disclosure Choice: "Most professional jobs are demanding and sometimes require career sacrifices when an individual finds it difficult to align the preferred allocation of time and energy with valued multiple identities and roles (e.g., wife, mother, partner) that conflict with work."

Take Action to Enhance Employee’s Work-Life Boundary Control and Mitigate Overworking: "While much has been written about the ideas of “work-life conflict” and “work-life balance,” the study finds that leaders who focus on enhancing “work-life boundary control” are more likely to have success in creating a work-life inclusive culture."

Consider Innovative Employer Experiments to Nudge Change in Work-Life Norms: "Leaders and organizations might partner with gender and work-life experts to craft and evaluate innovative caregiving gender equality experiments that would explore how employers can better support change in male and female norms when implementing initiatives."

The authors conclude, "Leaders across society have a strategic opportunity to transform their workplaces to integrate and leverage work-life inclusion actions into broader diversity and inclusion strategies that help close the persistent gender equality gap.”