Failure to Engage

Many women in the workplace feel they’re getting a raw deal. And, for Georgene Huang, the reasons why aren’t that hard to discern.

“Women just face more difficulty in the workplace,” says Huang, a 10-year veteran of Wall Street whose resume includes stints at Dow Jones, Lehman Brothers and Bloomberg Ventures. “From unequal pay to juggling a job with caregiver responsibilities, all of these things put extra pressure on women and make it harder for them to stay at a company.”

A recent report from Aon finds that, although engagement data suggests similar levels of engagement between men and women in the workplace, a deeper dive into the numbers reveals some significant differences. For example, Aon’s analysis (based on engagement surveys Aon conducted last year for its clients) finds that women appear to pose a greater level of flight risk from their jobs than men across every level of tenure. Aon’s research also finds big gaps in the levels of career optimism between men and women under the age of 25, with only 41 percent of the women agreeing with the statement “My future opportunities here look good” compared to 53 percent of the men. A similar gap occurs with the statement “There are sufficient opportunities within the organization for me to work on assignments to gain new skills,” with only 52 percent of the women agreeing versus 62 percent of the men.

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“There’s three main themes that popped up when we were looking for what’s driving the engagement gaps between men and women,” he says. “There’s a sense of a lack of fairness, lack of trust in leadership and a lack of empowerment.”

Women actually tend to start off their careers with slightly stronger levels of engagement than men, but that’s typically reversed by the time women arrive at senior-level positions within a company, says Adair. Much of that has to do with perceived unfairness, he says.

“I found that to be extremely enlightening,” says Adair.

A Boston Consulting Group report released late last year also found significantly lower levels of engagement among senior-level women compared to their male counterparts at organizations in the bottom three quartiles of overall engagement scores. As men and women advance in the workforce, the report found, the engagement scores of women increase by a mere 4 percentage points while men’s scores rise by 12 percent.

The report, which examined engagement levels for more than 345,000 male and female employees at companies worldwide, also found significant gaps between men and women on topics ranging from work/life balance to mentorship and sponsorship opportunities, compensation and promotion opportunities and work/life balance. However, little to no engagement gap existed at companies BCG ranked in the top 25 percent for employee engagement.

“Having a culture and working environment that is great for senior women appears to generate positive effects for everyone,” says BCG partner Claire Tracey, a co-author of the report.

Huang, who today is co-founder and CEO of Fairygodboss (which helps connect women with job opportunities at companies rated highly for gender equity), says women often struggle with “building political capital” as they try and rise within the organization and often end up feeling disengaged or leaving. Part of the reason is they may feel excluded from participating in the types of activities — golf outings, for example — that male employees have traditionally used to forge connections, she says.

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Sponsorships — in which older executives serve not only as mentors to younger employees but advocate on their behalf and connect them with opportunities — are often the answer, she says. They can offer a formalized way for older male executives to get to know younger female employees without raising eyebrows.

Other challenges — such as pay disparities and a perceived lack of fairness — must be addressed by HR through combing more deeply through engagement-survey data to uncover whether problems exist so they can be properly addressed, says Adair.

“For HR leaders, the call to action is to try and better understand how different pockets of the workforce are experiencing their work,” he says. “If you have engagement data, you should really spend the time to dig in and try to understand whether there are key segments of the workforce you need to focus on.”

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Andrew R. McIlvaine
Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.