How do we increase the proportion of women in higher-level management positions? One strategy organizations take involves implementing work-life practices. The theory is that giving women greater control over their work schedules and reducing the burden of family responsibilities will help women stay in the workforce and perform better, making them more likely to get promotions. In reality, do work-life practices actually help women reach higher levels of management? The researchers (Kalysh, Kulik & Perera, 2016) analyzed data over a twelve-year period from 675 organizations in Australia to find out.
EFFECT ON THE PROPORTION OF WOMEN IN MANAGEMENT
When we talk about work-life practices what do we really mean? Based on previous research, practices can be separated into 4 categories:
- Leave arrangements (e.g., parental leave, family leave, flexible annual leave)
- Flexible work schedules (e.g., part-time, job share, flextime)
- Direct provision of services (e.g., childcare, eldercare)
- Virtual office facilities (e.g., work at home, telecommuting)
The researchers found that the more work-life practices an organization offered, the higher the proportion of women in management roles. That is great news! And of the four categories of work-life practices, leave arrangements and the direct provision of services had the biggest effect on promoting a more diverse management team.
Unfortunately, it’s not all good news. The research suggests work-life practices only increase the proportion of women in management when women make up at least 43% of the organization already. In organizations that are male-dominated, the existence of work-life practices doesn’t actually result in more women in management. Why? The researchers suggest that in male-dominated organizations, having work-life practices geared towards women makes gender stereotypes more salient, fostering the perception that women aren’t as “good a fit” for management positions.
LOOKING AT THE LONG-TERM NOT THE SHORT-TERM
When organizations adopt work-life practices, they might not see any benefits right away. The current study found that the number of work-life practices an organization has, the higher proportion of women in management, but only after a time lag of eight years! Thus, it took eight years from the implementation of work-life practices to show any increase of women in management. One reason for this is that women who use work-life practices may still be several years away from top leadership positions. A time lag may also indicate the importance of a cultural change in the organization. Implementing work-life practices may be a first step in creating a more inclusive and supportive environment. It may take years for culture change to happen and for benefits to be visible.
This research is important because it highlights the benefits of work-life practices on increasing the proportion of women in management positions. The researchers encourage organizations to continue implementing these practices, in particular leave arrangements (e.g., parental leave) and the direct provision of services (e.g., childcare).
The findings also highlight that we still have a lot of work to do, in particular, promoting women in male-dominated organizations. We need to find ways to break down stereotypes about women in management. In addition, organizations should try to implement other initiatives that may have more immediate benefits for women in leadership (e.g., women-focused leadership training and development). A more diverse organization at all levels (from top management to front line positions) creates a more inclusive environment for everyone.
Kalysh, K., Kulik, C.T. & Perera, S. (2016). Help or hindrance? Work-life practices and women in management. The Leadership Quarterly. Advance online publication.