Research Findings

The equality policy paradox: helping women advance in the workplace

August 17, 2023

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies aim to improve the experiences of marginalized groups in organizations, yet a large body of research finds that these policies are often ineffective and might even backfire. One previously explored reason is that they can activate biases, generating opposition to policies from majority groups. In a recently published article, I identified another reason why DEI policies might fail, which I label the “Equality Policy Paradox.”

Key Finding: The Equality Policy Paradox

I found that managers who voice the most support for improving equality might also be, contradictorily, the least likely to implement DEI policies. This Equality Policy Paradox may come about because often the managers who are most supportive of DEI policies are themselves members of marginalized groups. As such, they experience career barriers, such as discrimination, that make it difficult for them to practically support DEI policies without harming their own careers.

I identified this paradox through my 26-month ethnographic study of the implementation of a flexible work policy at a professional services organization. The flexible work policy gave employees more control over their work hours and location. Flexible work policies typically aim to improve employees’ work-life integration and, in doing so, can lead to positive improvements, particularly for women because they often perform more childcare and eldercare than men.

I found that women managers were more likely than men managers to want to help employees improve work-life integration, reflecting their desire to help employees in general and women workers in particular improve their work and life experiences. However, surprisingly, women managers were more likely to limit employees’ use of the flexible work policy.

How Did this Paradox Occur?

I observed that women managers had a more hands-on and interactive form of managing their subordinates—for instance, by providing day-to-day help and mentorship. They perceived the flexible work policy as undermining their management style because, by its allowing employees to work at a wider variety of times and places, opportunities for crucial interactions with subordinates were reduced. In contrast, men managers engaged in more distant or hands-off managing; employees’ working at a broader range of times and places did not disrupt their management style.

Digging deeper, I found that this difference in management style was traceable to gender differences in early career assignments and later interpersonal processes regarding authority.

Earlier in their careers, the women were more likely to have been assigned more person-focused tasks. In addition, once promoted to managers, they were more likely to face challenges to their authority. Given these barriers, they adopted a more subordinate-focused approach to management that aimed to help subordinates and cultivate cooperation.

The men, in contrast, had been assigned more technical and client-facing tasks before promotion to manager, and they experienced relatively few challenges to their authority after being promoted. They continued to focus more on their own technical and client-based tasks on a day-to-day basis. Thus, the policy implementation had little effect on their contact with subordinates.

Key Takeaway: A System-Level View of DEI

The Equality Policy Paradox suggests two key takeaways for organizational policymakers who want to improve DEI, both of which involve taking what I refer to as a system-level view of DEI: considering how individual actions are embedded within an organization’s broader structure of action.

(1) Take a system-level view of the organization when implementing DEI policies. The Equality Policy Paradox highlights how policy changes can reverberate in unexpected ways, such that policies that improve experiences for one marginalized group might unintentionally lead to new obstacles and challenges for other marginalized groups. Policy implementers must closely follow their DEI efforts to ameliorate any unexpected negative consequences.

(2) Take a system-level view of women managers’ actions. Women managers act within a broad array of constraints on their day-to-day actions. An organization seeking to improve women managers’ experiences must consider these constraints when attempting to improve their opportunities to succeed. For example, organizations could use more gender equitable measures of what sorts of performances constitute a good manager.

My research is certainly not the first to highlight the importance of taking a system-level, or structural, rather than individual perspective to combat inequalities in organizations. While taking this broader view might be more labor intensive for policymakers and managers, the evidence is mounting that it may be the most effective way to achieve meaningful organizational change with regards to DEI.

Read more

Vanessa Conzon. “The Equality Policy Paradox: Gender Differences in How Managers Implement Gender Equality-Related Policies.” in Administrative Science Quarterly 2023.

For a free, pre‐publication version of the article, click here.

Image: Purspective via Pixabay (CC0).

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