Why Do Companies Show Lower Levels of Engagement Among Senior Female Managers?

Many companies are failing their senior-level women, with roughly three-quarters of those surveyed generating lower levels of employee engagement among female senior managers than among their male counterparts, according to a new report by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

The report, titled The Rewards of an Engaged Female Workforce, released examines factors that contribute to engagement levels for more than 345,000 male and female employees at companies worldwide and calculates overall engagement scores.

The data shows that companies in the bottom three quartiles of overall engagement scores, the scores of women increase by just 4% from non-manager to senior manager levels, while men’s scores increase by a full 12%. In addition, the report found significant gender-based gaps in a number of areas that are critical to engagement, including mentorship, appreciation, and cooperation with colleagues.

Engagement Scores for Bottom Three Quartiles of Companies

Engagement Theme MEN
Non-manager to senior manager differential
 WOMEN
Non-manager to senior manager differential
Appreciation +15% +6%
Work-life balance +7% -2%
Cooperation and good relations with colleagues +8% -2%
Mentorship, sponsorship, strong relationship with managers +12% +1%
Compensation and promotion opportunities +20% +10%
Job attributes +13% +2%
Company objectives and aspirations +12% +2%

The study also found that companies in the top 25% of overall engagement scores had virtually no engagement gap between senior female managers (4.5) and senior male managers (4.4). Overall engagement scores range from 1 (very dissatisfied) to 5 (very satisfied).

“When companies do best at engaging their workers, women and men benefit equally,” says Claire Tracey, a partner at BCG and coauthor of the report. “Having a culture and working environment that is great for senior women appears to generate positive effects for everyone.”

Engagement Gap Emerges with Seniority

The report shows that the gender gap in engagement emerges as employees become more senior. Among junior employees in companies in the bottom three quartiles of engagement scores, women and men demonstrate similar levels of engagement: 3.8 for female non-managers and 3.7 for male non-managers. At the manager level, women (3.8) are nearly identical to men (3.9) in those companies. The biggest gap occurs at the senior-manager level.

“The engagement gap for senior women is important because research demonstrates that engagement ties to overall performance,” says Matt Krentz, a senior partner at BCG and coauthor of the report. “The good news is that this engagement gap can be addressed, as the performance of the top quartile of company’s shows. Management teams that want to provide the best environment for their most senior women need to make it a priority and begin working to address the issue today.”

Findings from the survey focus on seven key areas of the companies with lower engagement levels, they are:

  1. Appreciation: Women cite appreciation for their work from their superiors as the top criterion they look for in a job—as do men. In lower-engagement companies, senior women report feeling less appreciated. On questions concerning whether their opinions count and whether managers recognize and comment when they do good work, scores of senior women are considerably lower than those of their male peers.
  2. Work-Life Balance:Work-life balance or flexibility is the second-most-important factor for both women and men. As men rise in seniority, they report more support from their colleagues for their non-work obligations, while women report the opposite. Flexible working hours and paid time off rate relatively high (roughly 3.1 out of 5); other work-life-balance programs—such as maternity and adoptive leave, family growth support, and wellness initiatives—rate lower.
  3. Cooperation and Good Relations with Colleagues:Women and men alike cite a strong relationship with colleagues as the third-most-important factor. Again, we see troubling results for senior women in the lower-engagement companies. They are more skeptical about whether their managers behave honestly with them and with others. And they report lower scores than senior men on the question of whether “people in my department trust and support each other” and whether “processes make it easy to work well with other departments.” In contrast, men’s scores in these areas increase markedly with seniority.
  4. Mentorship, Sponsorship, and a Strong Relationship with Managers: Junior women in all companies report a positive experience with mentoring. Senior women at lower-engagement companies are less satisfied. In terms of receiving help with their professional growth, women’s scores remain flat as they increase in seniority, even as men’s scores rise steadily. The pattern is the same for trust—a key component of mentorship and sponsorship. Senior women’s ratings fall behind those of men in areas such as “my manager cares about my well-being” and “my manager is open to receiving feedback from me.”
  5. Compensation and Promotion Opportunities:Women want good pay, and, like men, they expect pay to be correlated with performance. Junior women are as confident as their male peers—or slightly more so—that their compensation accurately reflects performance. But this confidence rises less quickly for women as their seniority increases than it does for men.
  6. Job Attributes: Both genders attach great importance to job attributes, and statistical evidence shows that job attributes have some of the strongest correlations with overall engagement levels. On average, senior women report feeling underleveraged as leaders, as demonstrated by their scores on the topic of “getting the chance to use my skills and abilities,” while senior men are less likely to feel that way.
  7. Company Objectives and Aspirations: A company’s objectives, values, and aspirations matter: studies show that overall engagement is heavily influenced by this dimension. Among non-managers, junior women tend to feel positive about their connection to their company’s objectives and aspirations, but senior women are less positive than their male counterparts on this critical dimension.

Companies should start by understanding the root causes of their engagement issues, in particular by listening carefully to senior women. This is the most critical step, and one that companies often miss in their rush to move directly to implementing solutions. Yet the root cause of disengagement varies. Getting to the specific root causes for each company is vital to determine the right solutions.

This article first appeared on HR in Asia.

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