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Maia Grecco

Women continue to be passed over for promotions. In 2021, non-profit Lean In and consulting firm McKinsey & Company surveyed more than 65,000 employees from companies across the U.S. to learn about their first promotion to management. Findings revealed that for every 100 men who got their first promotion, there were only 86 women. In the corporate world, women of colour are particularly underrepresented, making up only 7 per cent of VP and 4 per cent of C-suite roles.

While this study and others point to solutions such as tackling unconscious bias, Joyce He says there could be other ways to help level the playing field.

Dr. He, a recent doctoral graduate of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and current professor of management and organizations at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, notes that a lot of promotions require people to actively apply to be considered for a role.

“If most promotions require people to self-nominate, and we’re fighting this gender gap, what if we redesign it [so that] everyone is automatically considered for a promotion if they pass some kind of qualification threshold, unless they actively opt out?” says Dr. He.

Small change with big potential

A recent study that Dr. He completed as part of her doctoral dissertation at Rotman dug into the potential impacts of this solution.

The study was comprised of three cash-for-task experiments with over 1,500 participants. Results showed that women were as much as 25 percentage points less likely to do riskier tasks in exchange for better payoffs when they had to put themselves forward for the work. If they were automatically signed up to the competitive process, women participated in nearly equal numbers to men.

Dr. He says it’s about considering “choice architecture” – how presenting choices in different ways impacts decision-making.

“I think what’s really powerful in our study is that we show that this tiny change in the framing of their choice [can] almost eliminate the gender gap completely,” she says.

”Here, we’re showing that it’s more about the organizational design – the context under which women and men are behaving – and so I think that’s really promising and has a lot of implications for other work going forward.”

The study’s findings align with a 2019 LinkedIn survey which found that although women and men were equally interested in new jobs, women applied to 20 per cent fewer jobs and were 16 per cent less likely to apply after viewing a job listing.

‘Spirit of experimentation’

Dr. He notes that this study is only solving one piece of the hiring puzzle.

“Once you determine who’s in your consideration pool, there’s also a whole host of other decisions that come after, like, who do you actually promote?” she says. Bias, qualification thresholds and even the type of position companies are looking to fill can cause other challenges.

“I think the one thing to keep in mind is that it’s probably not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution,” Dr. He says. “It’s really important for organizations to keep that spirit of experimentation, but also be willing to assess how well it’s working.”

Ask Women and Work

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Question: My boss has recently gotten in touch to ask us to start planning to move back into the office again. I feel like I’ve been doing a great job working remotely and would like to continue on at home, plus I don’t feel comfortable working in-office with COVID still a factor. How can I make a case for staying remote?

We asked Lisa Isaac, owner and senior HR consultant at Lisa Isaac HR Professional Services in Sarnia, Ont., to field this question:

Many of us have been working remotely from home for some, or all, of the last 18 months. It hasn’t been easy. It goes against our social nature. Now, we’re being asked to return to the office, and it can be frightening to have to adjust, again. It’s OK to have an emotional reaction to change – and it takes time to process it and make a plan.

The writer’s question is touching on two things: productivity and safety. To make a case to stay remote, it is important to first review and understand your employer’s policies related to workplace health and safety, flexibility, working hours and location, and resources like IT or meetings. You can look at your employer’s core values, mission and vision to help you articulate the impact that your role has on the organization overall and to highlight the areas where working from home supports them.

Be prepared to demonstrate how you have been performing against expectations – compare the results of working remotely with historical output. Look at any key performance indicators (KPIs). If they haven’t been developed for your role, write down what success looks like and assess your work output in that context.

When it comes to safety, raise your concerns so your employer can address them. Employers have a duty to provide a safe work environment, to inform employees of the hazards of the job and to work at pro-actively preventing harm to employees. Be prepared to talk about the specifics on what makes you uncomfortable. If your employer is not budging on your case to stay remote, you could suggest a gradual return to work, staggered shifts or hours, or even a hybrid work environment.

Finally, do some honest reflecting on the real reasons that you enjoy working from home. Is it that you get to avoid traffic congestion? Your dog is happier sleeping at your feet all day? You avoid that one co-worker who seems to have story, after story, after story? Whatever the reasons, it is important to address them individually, to collaborate with your employer for a win-win solution, and to be honest with yourself about what you need to be productive and safe at work, regardless of the location.

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