Female MBAs seeing less pay, lower job levels and fewer key career opportunities: Survey

Women also facing ‘unconscious bias,’ men-dominated workforce, say recent studies
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/28/2014

Women MBA grads are being short-changed, according to a report by Catalyst Canada. High-potential Canadian women earn $8,167 less than men in their first post-MBA jobs, start out at a lower job level (72 per cent of women versus 58 per cent of men) and are offered fewer career-accelerating work experiences and international postings.

At its most basic, we’re valuing women and men differently, according to Alex Johnston, executive director at Catalyst Canada in Toronto, a non-profit organization dedicated to expanding opportunities for women in business.

“We’re looking at people with similar qualifications, similar work experience going into their MBA, similar industries, so it’s not ‘Oh, one’s going into HR and one’s going into corporate finance.’ We’re really putting similar people beside each other.”

But the results are not that surprising, since men earn more than women in every job class, according to Kate McInturff, senior researcher and director of Making Women Count at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in Ottawa, citing Statistics Canada reports.

“There’s no job class in which you see women earning more than men, on average. And that is true for core working age women and men, 25 to 55, and it’s true with or without a university degree,” she said. “(The gap is) persistent and it increases, so the women who are graduating with MBAs right now, unfortunately, are going to look forward to that pay gap increasing as they continue in their careers.”

The two areas that are important in terms of career advancement for MBAs are the different kinds of files they are given and international assignments, said Johnston. But men (29 per cent) are significantly more likely than women (19 per cent) to get these assignments, found Catalyst.

“We have a gap there, so fewer Canadians generally are going elsewhere for periods of their career and that’s something that we need to understand because that gets at our competitiveness,” she said. “Fewer women are going but, when we drill down, we find that fewer women are being offered the opportunity.”

It looks like more men than women are given opportunities for expat assignments, said Sheryl Boswell, director of marketing at Monster Canada in Toronto, citing the customers on her job site. Employers seem unwilling to test those waters, she said.

“There’s that bias that women are there to look after children and now with elders, so if (employers) gave those opportunities to women, it may backfire, and I think that’s a wrong perception. Women work very hard and are more than capable of balancing both, so they need to be given that chance.”

Employers should be very deliberate about having effective talent management and helping people move from one position to another, said Johnston.

“Those are the kinds of things that make a significant difference in people deciding to take on a promotion and deciding against it. So not simply offering it (but) offering it with the support around it to make the person feel that they’re likely going to be successful.”

Bias cited in study by Conference Board of Canada

Part of the problem could be persistent, unconscious doubt about the ability of young women to take on leadership roles, which permeates conventional talent management practices, according to a Conference Board of Canada report.

“We’ve talked a lot about systemic bias and people making biased judgments overtly but the reality is that good people can make bad decisions — we all have a lance and a set of experiences that we draw on to make those countless decisions and judgments we make in a day,” said Ruth Wright, director of leadership and human resources research at the Conference Board of Canada in Ottawa.

“A psychologist would term that ‘cognitive shortcuts’ — we use these, in this fast-paced world, to make judgments and make decisions and we have to pause and we have to think about why we come up with the conclusions that we do... and step back and be a little bit more objective and develop the rigorous criteria that we can look at and rely on and make better, more objective decisions.”

Too often, women who demonstrate high potential are deemed too young or not ready to assume a critical development role, and millennial women are less likely (45 per cent) to be identified as high potentials than their male peers (53 per cent) even though they are more likely to be high performers (74 per cent) than men (66 per cent), said Overcoming Barriers to Leadership for Young Women, which is based on two 2012 surveys (of 1,241 millenials and generation Xers) and interviews with women.

As a result, managers and organizations often take a less active role in helping women advance. Early career women also have fewer opportunities to be mentored, coached, take on job rotation assignments, gain line management experience or access professional development training, found the Conference Board report.

Since a certain amount of this is happening on an unconscious level, it’s all the more reason to have policies that are transparent and proactive, said McInturff.

“Just addressing it on a complaint basis isn’t going to work. When you’re really trying to address a dynamic that’s so entrenched in the way we think about ourselves and others, transparency is the key and being proactive is the key.”

Organizations should put fair and transparent talent management policies and practices into place, said the report. These include: rigorously matching high potentials with key roles using competency models; providing unconscious bias education to all talent assessors; and making performance evaluations more positive and open.

“Leaders can get tremendous training to understand their judgments and perceptions and why they make them, and to make them more comfortable managing across differences and assessing talent on really good robust criteria,” said Wright. “You can take a look at each practice and try to see how this unconscious bias has crept in.”

It’s also important to be really clear about the career paths available in an organization and what kinds of skills and experience people need to get there, she said.

“Women were more likely than the men to say that that kind of opportunity was not clearly communicated, so women aren’t hearing that encouragement,” said Wright. “It’s about communicating so that people perceive that there’s an opportunity.”

Monster report reveals unequal outlook

That pessimism was also evident in a recent Monster.ca survey that found many women still feel they need to work harder than men to get ahead in the workplace. Forty-four per cent of women (and 28 per cent of men) believe nothing has changed in 25 years in terms of women still needing to fight harder for opportunities. And 74 per cent of the female respondents said that although it is more common for women to be in leadership positions today, they still need to work much harder than men to get ahead.

“I was surprised there was still that amount of pessimism, that females just don’t feel that they are competing as well with men when applying for jobs,” said Boswell. “There still is that perception about what a woman’s job is versus a man’s job; there’s a bit of societal undervaluing of women’s skills and the work that they take on.”

Almost three-quarters (72 per cent) of the respondents said men still dominate the workforce, found the survey of 1,500 Canadians, and those 55 and older were more likely to agree (82 per cent) compared to those aged 18 to 34 (66 per cent).

But the generational differences are understandable, said Wright.

“(Graduates) don’t perceive that there’s an issue to the same extent as gen X and boomer colleagues, and why would they, because nothing’s slowed them down so far,” she said. “There’s this perception inequality is a relic of the past — but about four or five years into their career and the workforce, progression stalls and things aren’t unfolding as planned (and) then they begin to react.”

But in speaking to women’s organizations, McInturff said she is seeing more of the positive.

“I’m not seeing discouragement, I’m seeing women who feel that there’s an injustice and are very keen to address it.”

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