26 September 2023

Do your feelings about gender roles influence how you manage your employees?

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Mary Beth Ferrante* offers advice for leaders to help them avoid unintentionally making a biased misstep.

Stephanie, a woman with a director-level position at a company recently shared with me that despite having progressive company leaders, she and her female peer kept being asked to manage social-emotional tasks.

The executives had decided that monthly workshops focused on connection building and increasing awareness around social issues would benefit the company’s and its employees’ culture.

So, who did they approach to run it?

The same two director-level women at the company.

At first glance, maybe this seems like an opportunity or compliment (reminder: compliments don’t financially compensate for workload).

But if it’s truly an opportunity, why aren’t all employees being offered the chance?

Women are often associated with the work of connection, community building and tending to the group, be it a conscious or subconscious leaning.

But in the workplace, there’s no room for gender roles as a determinate for opportunity or workload.

Constraining men to gender roles limits their opportunities as well.

Consider the criticism U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg received last year from Fox News host, Tucker Carlson, over Buttigieg taking paternity leave.

Carlson reduced paternity leave to an act of figuring out how to breastfeed.

This revealed a limited view on how gender should be organized, with women being assigned the duty of caretaker.

It also highlights a huge lack of understanding and devaluing of the 24/7 work required of new parents.

As Buttigieg pointed out, paternity leave is not a vacation.

In fact, men who are given opportunities to participate in roles outside of traditional gender assignments develop more empathy and insight.

This not only makes them better partners and fathers but also better company leaders.

This McKinsey article digs into the benefits of paternity leave and how they extend beyond homelife, translating into results such as “increased enthusiasm among fathers for the employers that supported them in taking leave.” At a time when attrition is high, that’s organization gold.

Additionally, when we eliminate discriminatory behaviours in the workplace it allows men to enjoy trusting and respectful relationships with women and other men while promoting greater collaboration and reducing the tendency to create silos.

Are your thoughts on gender roles making women your company caregivers?

The tendency to assign women emotional work is deeply ingrained.

It extends from the home to the office, making it hard to spot without someone pointing it out.

Women have a huge backlog of what’s called “invisible labour.”

This growing debt is comprised of all the unpaid hours that make up a mother’s or caregiver’s life and leaves women doing 2.5 times the amount of unpaid labour as men.

Caregiving doesn’t just mean tending to an ailing relative.

It includes all the nurture-based tasks we use to support relationships and their dynamics—and that includes at work.

This debt in dollars? All the unpaid invisible labour performed by women accounts for $11T of GDP in U.S. dollars.

With our clients, we focus on how to utilize business practices such as ownership mindset and the directly responsible individual (DRI) to bring the Fair Play Method into all arenas (home and office) to reestablish more equity.

This allows women and men to step into their full roles as caregivers and professionals—it also gives them space and time to focus on their own creative interests, career priorities, care, and relationships.

So how can company leaders ensure they’re not unintentionally making a biased misstep and adding to the uncompensated workload when managing employees?

First, treat all opportunities as you would any job.

Open it up to the floor for those who are interested to step forward and volunteer to take on the responsibility.

Immediately you’ve already created equal footing and eliminated a potential bias.

Interest—not gender—becomes the natural filter.

Second, pause before you ask someone to casually take on any additional tasks.

If you need someone to show the new hire around, whose name comes to mind?

If it’s a woman, pause and see if there’s a natural role alignment between her and the new hire.

If not, you may have unwittingly used gender roles to assign a duty that would be more appropriate for a male employee whose position is more relevant.

If a female and male employee are both equally fitted for the task, is the woman the default go-to?

It’s around automatic decision-making like this where our unexplored beliefs about gender roles come to play—and widen the gap.

Third, examine tasks to determine which would fall under “non-promotable work.”

This type of work is identified by its organizational necessity but unlikelihood of being rewarded or recognized—and is typically assigned to women.

An example would be selecting an intern (or showing around that new hire) and organizing the holiday party.

Once you have a list of all the non-promotable work at your organization, assess how these tasks are being distributed among your team and why.

Fourth, mind the gap…and close it.

Research over the years has found that women are disproportionately taking on low-value assignments—at the expense of career-boosting opportunities that lead to promotions and pay increases.

To right the imbalance, non-promotable work should be equally shared when it’s not aligned with a particular role.

For example, if there’s no administrative assistant to take meeting notes, switch off among peers.

When women are asked to absorb the emotional workload and “office housework” of a company, it adds to the imbalance of demands and further strengthens gender biases while reducing opportunities for advancement.

For company leaders and managers looking to up their progressive ante even further, encourage men to engage in tasks you wouldn’t normally consider them for—and they wouldn’t normally volunteer for.

Maybe then Stephanie can make that tee time she always wants to catch—but can never find the energy or spare hours for.

*Mary Beth Ferrante is the Founder & CEO of WRK/360, an advisory, training, and coaching platform designed to support managers and people leaders to become the empathetic leaders needed for the future of work.

This article first appeared at forbes.com.

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