Across all sectors and roles, promotion of women is lagging behind the promotion of men. In the technology sector, the promotion gap is particularly pronounced — roughly 5 women are promoted for every 10 men. Even though promotions are essential to career success, we usually see less women towards the top of the corporate ladder. But what is the problem? Is it due to lack of ambition or something else?
Given a similar percentage of women to men are aiming for a promotion, it isn’t down to ambition. Novel research has indicated a contributing factor could be down to the ‘Potential Assessment’ gap. But what is this and how does it impact the gender gap?
When promoting, organizations typically ask, “If given the opportunity, would this person be a good leader?”; that is, they need to do some predicting. And how they predict is broadly based on assessing the potential of the given employee. This ‘potential assessment’ substantially contributes to the gap. How? Well, humans generally lack the ability to tangibly observe potential, because such an assessment is usually subjective and therefore likely to be biased. These biases are more pronounced against women; since the qualities that are stereotypically associated with effective leaders like assertiveness and competitiveness are often not in line with the qualities that are stereotypically associated with women.
Research from 2016 found that evaluations of female employees have nearly twice as much language about their nurturing style, whereas their male colleagues are three times more likely to receive feedback related to technical experience. Using assessments like these to evaluate potential yields poor forecasting results as women often outperform their formerly forecasted rating. Despite this outperformance, the promotion game remains an uphill struggle for women as their forecasted potential ratings remain low, meaning the seat at the head of the table continues to slip away.
The good news is that we all have a chance to start narrowing this gap. The fruitful research conducted by McKinsey and Girls in Tech identified three practices that are likely to be effective:
1. Speed up skill building
Organizations can contribute to the advancement of their female employees if they offer them timely opportunities to strengthen relevant skills. Therefore, equality in access to training, high-visibility projects and other resources is crucial. Besides the promotion gap, there is also a self-promotion gap — the gap in how female employees evaluate their own performance in comparison to equally performing male employees. Because of this, it would be wise for organizations to also invest in awareness raising and a structured professional-development support that acknowledges the hurdles that a woman experiences as an advancing employee.
2. Standardize the process
An unclear promotion pathway that is not standardized comes with ambiguity that is likely to breed dissatisfaction and bias that is sure to propagate inequality. To eliminate the typically unintended — albeit present and incredibly damaging — bias organizations should invest in a clear and transparent promotion process. Stating direct expectations as in “To be considered for promotion X, ensure to first achieve Y”, having regular career discussions and committees — as opposed to individuals — that decide on those promotions, can all help promote more fairness. While standardizing the process, ensure you do not do anything that inevitably disfavours women; have open conversations around bias and embrace bias checks throughout the process.
3. Invest in managers
A direct manager is not only closest to an employee’s responsibilities and performance, requirements and ambitions but also the person who can advise which skills to develop and showcase. However, being a manager is tricky because having good intentions does not guarantee good management. And bad management does not only leave employees feeling unheard; it also creates uneven experiences. Good management of direct reports asks for inclusive leadership — a management style marked by an awareness of biases and an active will to always challenge them. Investing in managers is highly valuable as they often play a central role in an employee’s career advancement. It is through mindful guidance that includes skill management and constructive feedback that managers help their reports shine.
Recognising how to reduce the gender promotion gap, helps women realize their own potential and is good for the business! To diversify our teams, we must encourage equal access to training and development, a standardized process around career advancement, and more aware, inclusive managers.