Sunday, June 6, 2021

Women’s Work? Firms May Penalize Social Impact Work by Male Employees

An important part of the move towards firms showing social responsibility is the spread of social impact work programs. These programs let employees offer part of their time to various initiatives with social impact. For example, my school has built a playground in an area of need. (I agree that a playground built by professors is a scary thought, but most people working for us are not professors.) Social impact work programs are thought to be very useful because they connect organizations and society much better than money donations, and many firms encourage them.

What if the same firms penalize the workers who take part in them? That would make no sense, but now we know it is happening. This is thanks to research by Christiane Bode, Michelle Rogan, and Jasjit Singh published in Administrative Science Quarterly. They looked at a major consulting firm with a social impact program that employees could volunteer for, and they checked what happened to the promotions of those who did or did not volunteer.

The good news is that it is fine to work for social impact if you happen to be a woman. Then there is all the bad news. First, the promotions of men who worked for social impact were delayed. Bad for them, who thought that the firm’s promise to encourage and reward social impact would be followed up. Bad for the firm, which claimed to want a robust social impact program.

Second, the promotions of men who worked for social impact were delayed. Bad for the firm’s (and the world’s) idea that professional workers are generally evaluated based on merit, not gender, because the difference between men’s and women’s consequences clearly demonstrates a workplace with some sexist views.

Third, the promotions of men who worked for social impact were delayed. Perhaps one of the more disturbing findings from this research was that this effect was not specific to the consulting firm. It could also be shown in a random sample of people acting as evaluators for a potential promotion. Their evaluations were very informative, and not in a good way. First, it was clear that the negative evaluation of men doing social impact work was entirely due to men making promotion evaluations. The male evaluators were the ones who acted as if they thought that men – but not women – should stay away from social impact.

Moreover, when reporting the reason for their negative evaluations of men, they were clear that a lower fit to the job was the problem. Doing good outside the job does not lower a woman’s fit to the job, but it lowers a man’s fit to the job. What is going on here? The findings raise a clear suspicion that the evaluators either know that women do lots of non-work work anyway (like most family work) or think that a dual work and society focus is fine for women but not for men.

The findings are discouraging because they suggest that a lot of education is needed to make social impact work a safe and gender-balanced effort for firms. The good news is that it is not too hard to accomplish because promotions are decided by a well-defined group of people, and it is easy to track how well they make decisions. In fact, the main reason the consulting firm findings were so clear is that they had good performance statistics for their employees, so it was easy to check whether the promotions were fair or not. This is exactly the foundation needed to make sure that promotion evaluators act in ways that match firm priorities, not oppose them.

Bode, Christiane, Michelle Rogan, and Jasjit Singh. 2021. Up to No Good? Gender, Social Impact Work, and Employee Promotions. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.