Diversity & Inclusion, Human Resources

Does gender impact the relationship with your manager?

Kate Lafferty

The effects of a gender mismatch between a manager and their direct report is a controversial issue. It’s the idea that if your gender is different from your manager, it could have an adverse effect on career progression, productivity and even increase attrition and absenteeism.

What’s the real impact of a gender mismatch? Does it affect more women than men? And if there is a true effect, how much can we do about it in a world where there is still a pronounced gender leadership gap where ‘mismatches’ persist?

Why is gender mismatch a problem?

CNBC recently published an article which provides some insight into why gender mismatch could be a problem with real, and troubling consequences. It was based on a survey conducted by Sheryl Sandberg’s LeanIn.org that showed 60% of male managers are now uncomfortable participating in certain work activities alone with more junior women. Why?

The answer might stem from ‘good guy guilt’. In other words, with an awareness of the #Metoo movement, the ‘good guys’ with no harmful intent are, for fear of a misinterpreted gesture or word, shying away from interactions such as one-on-one meetings, work dinners and joint travel.

In truth, the impact is that they may be shying away from exactly the kinds of meetings that cement and nurture working relationships, and which foster progression and development. As Sheryl Sandberg put it, no one ever got a promotion without a one to one meeting. This raises the issue that this ‘mismatch’ might actually be disadvantaging junior women, who just don’t have access to the kind of mentoring and opportunity they need to build their careers.

There’s a temptation to think that mismatch is solely a women’s issue, but in short, it may not be. Whilst there may be more women being managed by men exacerbating the effects of mismatch for women, research by Gallup in 2014 suggested that male employees with female managers are less likely to be engaged than female employees with female manager. So it works both ways.

If we assume that employee engagement is a proxy for attrition, absence and performance, this isn’t great news for men either (or, for business, for that matter). In effect, it is the dissimilarity that is the salient point, rather than whether someone is a woman or not.

Gender mismatch – What has our research shown?

As organisational scientists, we were keen to learn more. We already do a lot of work in the diversity and inclusion (D&I) space, we we teamed up with one of our pioneering clients. Together we explored how this under-researched issue showed up in their business.

Assessing historical data across tens of thousands of employees revealed that month on month, with no exception, individuals that had a mismatch with their manager were taking an average of 0.3 days more absence a month.

Using predictive analytics, we were also able to foresee that those with a gender different to their manager will take an average of 6 days absence by the end of 2019, when compared to those with a gender match, taking an average of 5 days. Though we’re continuing to look further into these findings, certainly the initial numbers seem to suggest that gender mismatch counts.

What’s the payoff?

Clearly, this eventually has an impact upon the bottom line. Using calculations based on average salaries, number of employees, we found that by introducing initiatives to make ‘mismatched’ pairs behave more like ‘matched’ pairs, the organisation could save around £900K a year and drive an additional 9000 hours of productive time.

So, what can you do?

So, if the effect of mismatch is real and has potential adverse effects on the organisation and the individual, what can you do about it? While we don’t want to reduce differences (diversity in the workplace is good!), we might want to instead increase perception of similarity so that no matter how ‘different’ a manager and employee are, they have a shared understanding that they are working towards the same goal. It’s about having an inclusive culture and inclusive leadership.

Of course, there are many ways in which this can be fostered but listening to your employees in terms of what they want from their role, their manager and their organisation is a good place to start. These are best asked with consistency between what the manager is asking of the employee in their one to ones, and supported by organisation-wide surveys. 4 simple questions like:

  • What does success look like for you, at our organisation?
  • What skills do you think you need to develop to help you succeed?
  • What can your manager to help you succeed?
  • What do you need from our organisation to help you succeed?

Listening to these responses, both locally (manager-led) and at scale (leader-led) help to increase the perception of a shared understanding and, if reinforced by the manager, boost perception of similarity. Though gender (and many other) mismatches will continue to be pervasive in today’s workplace, the key to guarding against adverse effects may well be better listening through simple questions.

If you’re interested in running a diversity and inclusion survey to help with issues like this, you can read more about it here.

It’s time to start the conversation

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