Study: Women Don't Feel Held Back at Work

Gallup releases surprising results in a recent survey, showing a vast majority of women don't feel they've been bypassed for raises or promotions due to gender. Findings underscore the importance of engaging employees as individuals, demographics aside.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013
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Despite everything written and read about the glass ceiling and the seeming failure -- still -- on the part of corporate America to equally pay, develop and promote women, recent research from Washington-based Gallup seems to refute all that.

Surprisingly, data from Gallup's 2013 Work and Education survey shows a vast majority, 85 percent, saying "No, [I] have not" when asked "Have you ever felt you were passed over for a promotion or opportunity at work because of your gender, or not?"

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the data shows no accounting for the progress women have been making through the years in terms of managerial and leadership opportunities, with 86 percent of women ages 18 to 49 saying "No" to that same question, compared to a very similar 83 percent of women ages 50 and older. Mind you, that's only 13 percent of the younger group and 16 percent of the older group saying "Yes, I have [felt passed over]," respectively.

"I don't understand this small difference between age groups," says Madelyn Jennings, former senior vice president of personnel for Gannett Co. and current president of the McGregor Links Foundation in Falls Church, Va. "Things have improved in the last couple of decades and this isn't reflected in the responses.

"Could it be," she asks, "that the older group didn't want to admit being passed over?"

The numbers were just as counter to current beliefs about male-versus-female pay inequity when women were asked if they ever felt they were denied a raise at work because of their gender. Those answers came in at 13 percent saying "Yes" and 86 percent saying "No" overall, 12 percent "Yes" and 87 percent "No" for ages 18 to 49, and 13 percent "Yes" and 87 percent "No" for those 50 and older.

"These results belie the persistent pay gap between women and men - [in] same-job-category salary comparisons -- that will exist today," Jennings says.

Granted, of all the 1,039 working U.S. adults polled (447 women and 592 men), more female than male respondents overall said they did feel bypassed for promotions or denied raises based on gender (for men, 8 percent and 4 percent, respectively), but clearly, as Gallup's release states, "the data reveal that most women do not perceive that they have been a victim of gender bias at work when it comes to promotions and raises ... ."

The numbers simply don't lie, but they're "still very surprising," says Lydia Saad, senior editor at Gallup. "We asked, 'Are we missing something here?' So we segmented it further through age, education level, job level and even politics. Overall, [being bypassed for pay and advancement] are simply not being perceived as big problems for women."

In the politics tally, interestingly, fewer Republican women (11 percent) felt bypassed for promotions than Democrat women (14 percent) and fewer Republicans admitted feeling denied raises based on gender (8 percent) than Democrats (14 percent). Saad says she has no real explanation for the results, but agrees they fly in the face of long-held concerns about gender inequality in the workplace.

"We thought we'd see something more significant between blue-collar and white-collar women," she says, "and we didn't." (There, 12 percent of women in professional jobs and 14 percent in non-professional jobs said "Yes" to being denied raises; and 15 percent of professionals and 14 percent of non-professionals said "Yes" to being denied promotions because of gender.)

"Remember though," says Saad, "these are attitudinal questions. We asked them how they felt. Perhaps a reason for attitudes differing from reality is that some women don't look at it that way; they're actually not looking for promotions. Maybe they actually have different views of their lives and what they want."

Jim Harter, chief scientist for workplace research at Gallup, adds that, indeed, other Gallup "data suggest women feel pretty good about their workplace and feel they have a future in the organization they're in."

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Does it fly in the face of common knowledge and complaints that women have been held back professionally for years? Indeed it does, but "maybe that is exactly what we need to focus on and figure out here," he says.

Perhaps, Harter poses, research has been focusing far too much on demographic breakdowns and not enough on what a growing number of companies are coming to accept and embrace: that employee strengths, job fit, salary and promotions are much more effectively linked to performance and productivity when they're addressed on an individual basis, free from any demographic consideration.

Also, how this latest study reconciles with the steps many organizations are taking to better accommodate employees' work/life needs deserves further examination. In other words, in general, if employees are happier with how they're being treated, they'll perhaps be less likely to feel they've been ill-treated in terms of promotions and pay.

"There have been increases in flex time" without a doubt, Harter says. "In our other data, we're finding that those organizations allowing at least a moderate amount of remote work -- for 20 percent or more of the workforce -- are showing higher engagement statistics."

But even beyond flex-time accommodations, he says, "there are some time-tested truths about how you engage people. There are basic elements; for instance, just clarifying expectations and making it clear what you expect of your employees, and putting them in jobs they can excel in, jobs they can do best in; these are gaining more of the trust of employees across the board," with the stats to support such observations.

"Our talents and strengths tend to be much more gender-free [than some surveys and experts would have us believe]," says Harter. "More companies are catching on to the wisdom of leveraging the talents of the person, regardless of the gender or any other [demographic reading]; they're not letting diversity be a crutch of any kind.

"Also," he adds, "companies are getting better at encouraging employees' development plans and even building jobs around these individual strengths."

And where that's happening, he says, "engagement is increasing as well."

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