Wednesday, July 17, 2019
Harvard Business Review, A Study Used Sensors to Show that Men and Women are Treated Differently at Work
Gender equality remains frustratingly elusive. Women are underrepresented in the C-suite, receive lower salaries, and are less likely to receive a critical first promotion to manager than men. Numerous causes have been suggested, but one argument that persists points to differences in men and women’s behavior.
Which raises the question: Do women and men act all that differently? We realized that there’s little to no concrete data on women’s behavior in the office. Previous work has relied on surveys and self-reported assessments — methods of data collecting that are prone to bias. Fortunately, the proliferation of digital communication data and the advancement of sensor technology have enabled us to more precisely measure workplace behavior.
We decided to investigate whether gender differences in behavior drive gender differences in outcomes at one of our client organizations, a large multinational firm, where women were underrepresented in upper management. In this company, women made up roughly 35%–40% of the entry-level workforce but a smaller percentage at each subsequent level. Women made up only 20% of people at the two highest seniority levels at this organization.***
But as we analyzed our data, we found almost no perceptible differences in the behavior of men and women. Women had the same number of contacts as men, they spent as much time with senior leadership, and they allocated their time similarly to men in the same role. We couldn’t see the types of projects they were working on, but we found that men and women had indistinguishable work patterns in the amount of time they spent online, in concentrated work, and in face-to-face conversation. And in performance evaluations men and women received statistically identical scores. This held true for women at each level of seniority. Yet women weren’t advancing and men were.
The hypothesis that women lacked access to seniority, in particular, had little support. In email, meeting, and face-to-face data, we found that both men and women were roughly two steps, or social connections, away from senior management (so if John knows Kate and Kate knows a manager, John is two steps from a manager).
Some have argued that women lack access to important, informal networks because they don’t reach out to or spend time with “the boys club.” But this didn’t hold up in our data. We found that the amount of direct interaction with management was identical between genders and that women were just as central as men in the workplace’s social network.
Our analysis suggests that the difference in promotion rates between men and women in this company was due not to their behavior but to how they were treated. This indicates that arguments about changing women’s behavior — to “lean-in,” for example — might miss the bigger picture: Gender inequality is due to bias, not differences in behavior.