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Why Women Disengage at Work

Inconsiderate managers, inability to be candid among reasons

​Women—more than men—feel that they can't speak with candor in the workplace, can't be up front about ethical concerns and aren't treated considerately by managers, according to Mercer researchers who spoke during a recent webcast.

Collaboration and a respectful and inclusive environment are the most important workplace attributes that engage and motivate women, the webcast speakers said. Mercer is a global consultancy focusing on talent, health, retirement and investments.

Mercer's webcast was based on the results of a recent 80-question survey of 3,010 U.S. workers and on findings from five years of surveys given to about 1.3 million employees. The researchers were studying what drives engagement and satisfaction in the workplace for men and women.

​Sixty-eight percent of women who responded agreed or strongly agreed that they are satisfied with their jobs, compared with 73 percent of men.

Although men and women both reported that the type of work they do is the key attribute that engages them, Mercer found they differed on other motivating factors. 

Factors That Hurt Female Engagement

​Forty-one percent of women said they believe that pay at their workplaces is fair and transparent, compared with 51 percent of men. While matching pay to performance keeps men and women satisfied at work, the absence of fair pay is especially discouraging to women, said webcast speaker and Mercer Sirota principal Pete Foley in a phone interview. Mercer Sirota provides employee engagement solutions.

The perception of unfair pay practices "really is a barrier for women in the workplace that negatively impacts engagement," Foley said. "According to the latest research, men are more focused on long-term career goals, having the workplace train top talent and having confidence that the organization as a whole" is moving in a good direction.

Less than half of women (48 percent) said their company does a good job of developing people and retaining top talent, compared with more than half (57 percent) of men.

Sixty-six percent of women said their organizations treat them fairly, compared with 70 percent of men. Women are most motivated when they feel they are treated fairly and with dignity and respect, the webcast speakers said.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing and Sustaining Employee Engagement

Candor and Ethics

​The survey also found significant gaps between how men and women experience their workplaces, the speakers said:

Women are more concerned than men about the consequences of being candid at work. One out of 3 women—33 percent—don't feel that they can express their views or ideas without fear of repercussions, compared with 29 percent of men. Since the results were based in part on Mercer Sirota's ongoing survey of about 1.3 million employees worldwide, even a 4-percentage-point difference is something to pay attention to, said Megan Connolly, webcast speaker and senior consultant at Mercer Sirota, in a phone interview.

When employees fear speaking up, leaders may miss out on new ideas or workplace concerns, the speakers said during the webcast. In addition, they said workers who feel they can't be candid are less likely to feel positive about their career advancement and development opportunities.

Women feel less likely than men that their concerns will be heard. Sixty-six percent of women believe that employees can get a fair hearing for their complaints, compared with 70 percent of men. When employees feel that their complaints are ignored, productivity and morale decline, the speakers said. If workers don't feel heard and understood, it can be hard for them to commit the extra effort that employers are looking for in engaged employees.

Women are less comfortable than men speaking out about ethical concerns. More than 1 in 4 female employees—26 percent—said they don't believe they can report an ethical concern without retaliation, compared with 21 percent of men. When employees feel discouraged from speaking up about unethical business practices, problem-solving and innovation are stifled, employees may distrust their colleagues and superiors, and the company's reputation and image suffer in the long run, the speakers said.

Women are less likely to believe managers think about their workers when planning. Fifty-one percent of female employees said they believe that managers consider the impact of their actions on staff before making decisions, while 56 percent of male employees believe the same. Employees who believe managers are inconsiderate toward staff are likely to disengage at work and more likely to leave a company than those who feel their managers are considerate, the speakers said.

"A common theme in each of these differences is perceived fairness. We know that fairness is a crucial factor when it comes to building engagement," Connolly said.

"This research clearly suggests that companies that measure these gaps and focus efforts on closing them can not only improve engagement but help women thrive in the workplace," Foley said. 

What Can Leaders Do?

​Carole Jackson, principal at Mercer, said organizations can close these gaps by using the information leaders receive when they ask and answer these questions:

--For women and men: "What do you think drives engagement and overall satisfaction in our organization?"

--For yourself: "Do we have a robust pay equity process in place?" If not, start taking steps to make pay more fair.

--For yourself: "Have we defined and communicated how women and men can further their careers?" If not, show them—concretely—what they need to do to be promoted.

Alison Curwen is a freelance writer based in Mercersburg, Pa.