Working conditions

Women in management: If we want to get serious about gender equality we need to talk about job quality

After more than 60 years of European policy on the equal treatment of women and men, men still outnumber women in management positions by almost two to one. The women who do make it into management are more likely to be in non-supervising management roles where they manage operational responsibilities but not staff, and the minority that do manage staff are more likely to be managing other women.

Why is this the case? Old prejudices and stereotypes about women in management undoubtedly persist, and women can struggle to break into male-dominated management structures and hierarchies. But there is also the issue that modern workplaces are still based upon an archaic and outdated model of a sole male breadwinner. To ensure gender equality in management we need to not only break down stereotypes and cultural hang-ups, but also address the issue of quality jobs and work-life balance to make management more attractive, and manageable.

This is not idle speculation. It is clearly demonstrated by the broad analysis of the experience of workers in European workplaces, as recorded in Eurofound’s 2015 European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) data.

Old trends and new States

On average, women make up just 36% of all ‘managers’ in Europe. By managers we are mainly talking about individuals either supervising a team or a set of operational responsibilities. There are twice as many men in management position as women in the EU, and men outnumber women in management in most sectors. Even in female-dominated sectors such as education and health, women have a lower proportional representation in management than their broader representation across the workforce. But this is not universal throughout Europe. In Lithuania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Latvia women account for over 40% of managers, more than five percentage points above the EU average.

Several labour market characteristics contribute to explain the higher representation of women in management in some of the newer Member States. Emigration trends have created opportunities for female workers, and the advancement of women in organisational structures. But perhaps more important is the longstanding presence of a significant proportion of female workers on the labour markets of these countries. This has both influenced working culture and resulted in a large pool of talented working women ready to progress into management.

Is management worth it?

Overall, EWCS data shows that women enjoy fewer of the advantages of being managers than their male counterparts. Compared to non-managers, workers in managerial positions enjoy higher job quality - that extends beyond the pay slip at the end of the month. This includes more autonomy, the power to influence change in the organisation, opportunities to grow and develop one’s skills, and better job security and career prospects. Managers also report higher influence on organisational decision-making: they have more of a say in the choice of their work colleagues, have more scope to apply their own ideas at work, and have more influence on important decisions on the job.

However, among ’supervisors’ and ’non-supervising managers’, men’s latitude and leverage exceed those of women. Female ’supervisors’ (not having the title but managing staff) have less control over their speed or rate of work. Female ’supervising’ and ’non-supervising managers’ also face increased physical environment risks, compared to other female workers;

Given the imbalance of domestic care responsibilities, women are perhaps particularly concerned with the price all managers pay for their function, namely longer working hours and greater work intensity. Moreover, climbing the corporate ladder often doesn’t mean taking the foot off the pedal at home: women managers still report a higher number of unpaid working hours for domestic work and care responsibilities, at least double that of men.

It is no surprise that most women managers report lower rates of well-being than men.

Equality at work means quality work

If we are serious about addressing this situation, and ensuring gender equality, we need to both address cultural hang-ups and structural issues in organisations and the broader labour market.

Role models for girls and boys need to be updated to the modern work environment. Coaching and support for career advancement should be available for women in work throughout their working careers. This would be beneficial to both women and men: we should all be empowered to reconcile our different roles as workers, parents, carers, and active citizens. Different rates of progress towards gender equality in Europe is a challenge but also presents an opportunity to learn from best practices on a local, sectoral and national level.

It is also important for work performance and workers’ wellbeing that the needs of the individual are taken into consideration in the work context. This includes the quantity of ‘unpaid’ work, domestic care responsibilities, and the particular challenges and potential work-life conflict of starting a family.

A more equitable sharing of domestic work would facilitate developing equal opportunities between men and women and ensuring equality at the workplace. As highlighted in the European Commission's proposal for a new ‘Directive on work-life balance for parents and carers’: ‘ New work-life balance rules that are fit for purpose in the 21st century will open up opportunities for working women and men to share caring responsibilities, for children and relatives, on an equal basis’ (EC Press 24.01.19). They will also align with many individual preferences.

The very nature of work is in flux, and is increasingly challenged by automation, digitalisation and organisational change. And yet outdated stereotypes, cultural practices and work organisation is hampering gender equality and undermining innovation. It is time for new practices that ensure equality of opportunity and workers’ well-being.

Those of us striving for gender equality can be the champions of change that is to the benefit of everyone.

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