Assignments Are Critical Tools to Achieve Workplace Gender Equity

Work assignments can be a powerful means of propelling employees’ growth but — unless managed deliberately — they can also undermine efforts to build a diverse workforce.

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Facing unprecedented levels of employee burnout and historic quit rates, how can companies lead with a model that attracts and retains talent? This period of transition, and the lessons learned from the pandemic, offer organizations a unique opportunity to improve and refine their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategies.1 It is imperative that leaders consider the landscape of work assignments at their companies as a foundation for greater workforce equity.

“Assignments” can comprise work tasks, activities, or projects. Scholars have long identified a gender gap in access to the kinds of assignments — large in scope, highly visible, and strategically important — that are seen as essential to career advancement. An estimated 70% of leadership development occurs through experiential learning, especially the kind offered by these challenging stretch assignments.

Yet women are largely overlooked for challenging work assignments. One factor is that women typically have fewer ties to influential decision makers who connect people to assignment opportunities. Biased performance evaluations also may play a role, with women seeing no gains in their performance scores for the very behaviors (such as “taking charge”) for which men are rewarded.2 One study showed how promotability depends on having had challenging past projects — setting up a vicious cycle in which women never get ahead.3 Women of color, tasked with the additional burden of “fitting in” at predominantly White organizations, may find channels to career-advancing work blocked entirely.4

Historically, companies have not tracked assignment processes. In one 2010 report, when HR leaders were asked the percentage of “business-critical/important” assignments held by women, the top two responses were “1% to 10%” and “not measured.” Both career-advancing work and meaningful work are cornerstones of positive professional experiences. But leaders may know little about who has access to significant assignments, or they may be unaware of how a lack of access drives burnout, turnover, and dwindling diversity on the leadership bench.5

These many unknowns about assignments drive an information gap that grows riskier as countless organizations head into new hybrid work arrangements. To quantify this risk, our team at the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab ran a study of assignments, using data that many companies collect and managers review at least yearly: employee engagement survey (EES) data.

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References

1.Hybrid Working Is Here to Stay Post-Pandemic: Stanford’s Nicholas Bloom,” Bloomberg TV, Dec. 30, 2020, video, 6:34, www.bloomberg.com; and J.M. Barrero, N. Bloom, and S.J. Davis, “Why Working From Home Will Stick,” working paper 28731, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, Massachusetts, April 2021.

2. S.J. Correll, K.R. Weisshaar, A.T. Wynn, et al., “Inside the Black Box of Organizational Life: The Gendered Language of Performance Assessment,” American Sociological Review 85, no. 6 (December 2020): 1022-1050.

3. I.E. De Pater, A.E.M. van Vianen, M.N. Bechtoldt, et al., “Employees’ Challenging Job Experiences and Supervisors’ Evaluations of Promotability,” Personnel Psychology 62, no. 2 (May 2009): 297-325.

4. T.M. Melaku, “You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism,” (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2019).

5. P.T.Y. Preenan, I.E. De Pater, A.E. van Vianen, et al., “Managing Voluntary Turnover Through Challenging Assignments,” Group & Organization Management 36, no.3 (April 2011): 3088-344; C. Maslach and M. Leiter, “Early Predictors of Job Burnout and Engagement,” Journal of Applied Psychology 93, no. 3 (June 2008): 489-512; and J.M. Hoobler, G. Lemmon, and S.J. Wayne, “Women’s Managerial Aspirations: An Organizational Development Perspective,” Journal of Management 40, no. 3 (March 2014): 703-730.

6. This EES data was collected in 2015 from over 4,000 respondents at this company.

7. For this analysis, we calculated predicted probabilities (57% for women and 67% for men, p<0.0001) from a logistic regression in which the dependent measure, agreement with “having opportunities,” is dichotomized into levels of agreement: “great/very great” and “very little/some/moderate.” A series of ordinary least squares regressions on a nondichotomized dependent measure yielded similar results.

8. L. Babcock, M.P. Recalde, L. Vesterlund, et al., “Gender Differences in Accepting and Receiving Requests for Tasks With Low Promotability,” American Economic Review 107, no. 3 (March 2017): 714-747.

9. It is worth noting that we could not conduct our case study analyses by employees’ race and ethnicity because this information was not collected on the company’s EES, so our analyses cannot speak to both gender and race assignment inequities. While legal and privacy considerations in different geographies may constrain what can be measured, companies should strive to examine such data by race and ethnicity, geography, and other social dimensions based on their diversity strategies.

Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank undergraduate researchers Hannah Park and Mehr Kumar for their invaluable research assistance and collaboration on this project.

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