Illustration: Ashley Siebels
One line of thought for why the gender gap in pay, promotion, and representation at work has endured is that maybe women and men are just different in how they act at the office. That was the assumption researchers affiliated with analytics company Humanyze were under when they decided to track employees’ behaviors at a large business strategy firm where women are underrepresented in leadership.
To track behavior, they got 100 employees across different levels of seniority to agree to relinquish their privacy and wear “sociometric badges” — or monitors that recorded employee interactions including frequency and duration of conversations with their colleagues, and how long each speaker got to talk in these conversations. They also used four months of anonymized emails and scheduling data to figure out who was having meetings and generating appropriate contacts necessary to manage and move up in their careers.
Men and women had indistinguishable work patterns
The researchers hypothesized that if they found gender differences in work behavior, it would be in the form of women having fewer mentors, less face time with superiors, and taking a less active role in taking on leadership opportunities than their male counterparts — who were being promoted at much higher rates. In other words, researchers thought women were facing individual problems that could be solved by applying some of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s popular advice to “lean in” and take control of their careers.
But after gathering all the data, they had to toss their hypothesis and start from scratch. Not only were women employees producing quality work at the same rates as men, they were also getting the same scores on their performance evaluations.
That meant men were getting promotions at disproportionately higher rates in spite of a documented track record of equal success and competency among their female peers.
“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,” the researchers wrote in Harvard Business Review. “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.”
In other words, women were working just as hard as men to network with management, but weren’t getting the same results.
The only difference that researchers found between women and their male peers was once they each reached the middle management stages of their careers, after having been at the company for four to 10 years, the men’s careers advanced while the women left.
The research was inconclusive on the cause of the women’s departure — including whether it was the result of not being promoted or the cause of it.
Leaning in doesn’t solve for structural problems
The researchers postulated two theories on why women are leaving the workforce — the first being that unconscious bias is holding women back.
“If women talk to leadership at similar rates as men, then the problem isn’t lack of access but how those conversations are viewed,” researchers suggested.
So for, example, women and men at the same company might suggest the same idea for how to solve a business problem. But when the woman says it, it’s dismissed, while when the man says the same idea, it’s taken seriously.
Their alternate theory is that women are seen as mothers first, workers second once they reached the stage where they began their families while still working. Researchers cited a 2014 study on the “motherhood penalty” that found that each child a woman has reduces her earnings by 4% on average. Under the logic of the “motherhood penalty,” employers perceive working moms as being less committed to the job or a more risky bet. As a result, employers are less likely to hire, promote or retain those women, according to the theory.
It’s important to acknowledge that the sample size of the gender behavior experiment was small, but this study is an important step toward debunking the idea that leaning in to your career is all you need to get that promotion — as Sheryl Sandberg has since acknowledged.