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Babies, Bosses and Pay Raises: Gender Bias in Organizational Culture

By Emmanuel Trépanier

It is often assumed that progressive social and institutional policies that support gender equality in the work place can single-handedly level the playing field for women and men. New parents are an interesting object of analysis to test this assumption. In a New York Times article titled The Motherhood Penalty vs. the Fatherhood Bonus, Claire Cain Miller makes a compelling and evidence-based argument that having a child may hinder a woman’s ability to get hired, receive fair compensation and be promoted, while young fathers experience the opposite effect. One study cited in the article even suggests that, on average, men’s earnings increased more than 6 percent when they had children, while women’s earnings decreased 4 percent for each child they had. The study also concludes that policies which convey the right to coordinate work and family are the key to getting rid of this inequality. But is this enough?

Even when the rules are the same, behaviours and attitudes towards employees of each gender certainly aren’t. Biases are strong and pervasive. For instance, such water cooler conversations might sound familiar:

– Caroline is working from home AGAIN?

– Yes, her child is sick today.

And then, a few hours later, you find yourself catching this one:

– Peter will be leaving the office early on Friday. He is taking his boys fishing over the weekend.

– Aww, good for him, what a great father he is! You can really count on this guy!

The key is to understand that these conversations are grounded in double standards and are not without consequence. They contribute to shaping how staff (and senior managers in particular) perceive and value female and male employees’ commitment, competence and experience. These attitudes frequently limit opportunities for the professional development and social mobility of female employees and reinforce deeply entrenched gender stereotypes.

eflon_-_Father_and_SonAs a key component of organizational motivation, organizational culture (i.e., the sum of the values, beliefs, customs, traditions, and meanings related to mission fulfilment in an organization) is an important concept to understand values that sustain these attitudes. But organizational culture is an entry point of limited use if considered in a gender-blind way. In other words, organizational culture is insufficient to unpacking inequality if we fail to acknowledge the assumptions we make about gender and to identify and characterize the differential impact of gender dynamics on women and men.

On a personal note, I would hypothesize that beyond social policies and human resources practices, the single most influential factor in the creation of an equitable culture that supports work-family balance is the package of personal experiences, opinions, attitudes and behaviours of senior managers, simply because they are the most influential individuals in an organization. Consider the following:

  • What proportion of senior managers in your organization are male/female?
  • How many of them have (or have had) young children?
  • How does the respective cultural background of each manager influence their attitudes towards women and men in the workplace and at home?
  • Do managers believe that an equitable workplace is inherently less financially profitable?
  • What are the expectations of managers regarding overtime? Do expectations vary depending on the age, gender, marital status or the number of children of the employees they manage?
  • Do managers believe that it is their personal responsibility to promote gender equality in the workplace or their organization’s responsibility to promote such values in society?

Those considerations, as well as many other underexplored gender dimensions of organizational assessments, are important to Universalia, a firm that has devoted much of the last 35 years to helping organizations deliver results while having a positive social impact. To this end, Universalia has recruited Ms Laurentine Mefire, a PhD candidate in anthropology from the Université de Montréal with experience in gender and development, who will research the literature on gender-sensitive organizational assessment methodologies and revisit the Institutional and Organizational Assessment (IOA) Model through a gender perspective.

Emmanuel Trépanier is a social development consultant at Universalia Management Group. He holds an M.A. in Gender and Development from the Institute of Development Studies and has a particular interest in gender mainstreaming, pay equity and masculinities.

Photo credits: Streetz and Flickr/Eflon

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