Job Design to Attract, Retain, and Advance Women

The workplace needs women, but the broken rung at the management first step often stops women from advancing. Even when they get to the first step, they face barriers to advancement. Removing those barriers can begin by re-evaluating both job design and the HR policies and procedures on which it is built.

The higher up the leadership ladder you look, the fewer women are found. The broken rung at the first step of the ladder has a lot to do with it, because women are stopped from advancing into management positions for many reasons. A leaky pipeline is another reason, meaning that women get into management only to drop out. Even when they do continue to climb, women are over-represented in support functions, like human resources and administration and under-represented in operations and profit and loss functions. The gender gap persists, and it is due to factors such as organizational culture, compensation differences between men and women, and human resources policies that favor men, to name but a few reasons. Bias exists, especially in the form of stereotyping, and it keeps women from realizing their potential. Job design that supports women’s rise into leadership positions includes factors like flexible hours, parental leave instead of maternity leave, full and realistic recognition for their efforts, and talent management systems that ensure bias is not holding them back.

In 2019, Accenture addressed the importance of organizational culture on achieving gender equity and other things such as personal-work life balance, biases, equitable pay and various workplace policies, practices, and programs. One of the most startling statements in the report is this: If she’s not judged by her looks, if she has flexible hours, if her boundaries are respected, she is more likely to rise. When others judge any employee by their looks and violate people’s boundaries with behaviors like microaggressions, it signals embedded bias. Bias expresses itself in many ways, though. From the job design perspective, it could be unreasonable work hours, schedules that force women to choose between family and career, lack of mentorship, gender pay gaps, and no opportunity to work virtually or remotely, to name only a few. But even remote working can present difficulties for women, because they are then out of the mainstream of the workplace. Unless their manager is an informed leader who understands the pitfalls leading to gender inequality, the work and effort of women is easily ignored in terms of assessing for advancement. Organizational policies and procedures, together with holding managers accountable, go a long way in preventing this.

McKinsey & Co. issues the “Women in the Workplace” report each year, in partnership with LeanIn.Org. It specifically considers the HR policies and programs impacting women. Though women have made gains in becoming management and even senior leadership, this often comes with an emotional and physical toll. McKinsey found women are more likely to be doing more to support their teams and to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. They are also more likely to fail to have their work recognized and rewarded, to experience microaggressions, and to experience burnout, which becomes a reinforcement of biases against women, i.e. they cannot handle the job. Women who manage to make it into leadership position often consider leaving, while women who want to climb the first rung are discouraged. McKinsey found there is still a broken rung at the first step to become a manager - women are promoted at a far lower rate compared to men, and women of color continue to lose ground at every step in the leadership pipeline. Since 2016, there has only been a 2% gain in women at the entry level and a 4% gain into management positions. These percentages decline further at senior manager, vice president, and senior vice-president levels.

Recognizing bias must be eliminated to the largest degree through policies and procedures, and an important start is holding management accountable for ensuring women get equitable treatment. The next step is revamping jobs in a way that eliminates factors that are barriers for women but often not for men. Call it a “job design gap” that needs closing. For example, women get maternity leave but men do not get parental leave. This perpetuates the perspective that women are not reliable in management positions. Gender pay gaps discourage women from pursuing a career, because they anticipate doing work they will not get paid equally to do. Virtual or remote work is offered, but there are no checks put into place to ensure the remote work is recognized and rewarded as much as the inhouse work.

Good HR practices include virtual meetings, enabling women to fully participate in organizational meetings without needing to travel long-distance. DEI is not only a policy, it is a practice. Women are not “punished” because a work request such as an early morning meeting is declined as they need to drive children to school. Flexibility in schedules is allowed whenever the job permits, because women are often the caregivers of children, seniors, and people with disabilities.

It would be wonderful if every workplace offered affordable child care facilities onsite, but this is not always possible. What is possible is providing some type of assistance with finding and affording accessible child care services. Genentech offers flexible work schedules and on-site childcare facilities. When women do get past the broken rung, it is critical they are given control over their careers and have the full support of the people in power. Organizations need to invest in training, mentorship, and networking programs, and make them components of job design. There must be oversight, too, because it is all too easy for women with potential for promotion to get lost in the organization’s structure. There should always be reviews when women who apply and are qualified for promotions lose out to males. This is part of accountability.

From recruiting to development to retention practices to promotion, all processes need assessment with a gender neutral eye. For example, language in job descriptions or promotion postings can alienate high potential women job applicants. Research has shown that words like “aggressive” and “demanding” are male words, whereas words like “diligent” and “confident” appeal to both women and men. It also found that 66% are afraid to ask about things like parental leave policies during interviews, for fear it would hurt their chances and perpetuate biases.

Accenture points out that when women rise, so do men. This is not a “woman thing.” It is about promoting equal success.