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  • Working women are less engaged – and business must address this

Working women are less engaged – and business must address this

19 November 2019

, Dr Teresa Kruger

By Dr Teresa Kruger, Consulting Organisational Psychologist and Senior Manager, People and Business Solutions at BDO

With women entering the workspace in greater numbers than ever before, it becomes vital that we gain the full benefit of an engaged, motivated female workforce. Recent research metrics however show lower engagement for women than for men. If we’re going to improve this situation, it’s crucial that we understand why.

A recent BDO survey of working professionals provides a fascinating, if somewhat worrying, insight into engagement levels. The survey, backed by 22 000 respondents, shows that much remains to be done to ensure that women are fully engaged in the companies they work for. The rich range of data, gathered with our data partner Mindset, covers working professionals in financial, consulting, government, NGO, industrial and commercial sectors.

We found that female engagement looks quite different to male engagement, in terms of what women find valuable in the workplace. This means that generic strategies to incentivise performance will not be equally effective for men and women.

In terms of incentives, women prefer more paid time off. They prefer to work from home and embrace the possibilities of flexible working hours and the virtual workplace, notably more than their male counterparts. Work flexibility might mean coming in to the office at 10am, or being able to take an afternoon break to watch a child’s cricket match.

South African companies rank well in diversity indexes. We speak the language of gender and racial inclusion. We have legislation in place, but when it comes to actual opportunities, South Africa lags significantly. According to the WEF Gender Pay Gap Report 2018, South Africa ranks 17th in the world in terms of political empowerment of women, but a lowly 91st for economic participation and opportunity.

The lower women’s engagement levels in the South African workplace may reflect the traditional rigidity that many SA organisations still display. There are a few examples of businesses that have done away with dress codes and are allowing unlimited leave, but these are isolated cases.

The data shows that women feel more compelled to initiate activities in the workplace, to suggest and drive strategic input. It could be that they still feel a need to prove themselves. Men don’t feel this kind of pressure to the same extent, as corroborated by the data. We are not effectively empowering women, despite the law. This ties in with another trend reflected in the research – a lack of trust.

Another survey topic that showed the widest discrepancy between men and women respondents was the question of whether managers treat everyone with respect. Indications are that women are more disengaged because of not being treated fairly or with the respect they are due.

Women by nature tend to trust more, but in the workplace, they are slightly more disengaged because that trust often appears misplaced. Where they have lost out on opportunities, or been discriminated against, they become disillusioned.

The research findings imply that organisational culture must change if women are to become more engaged. Flexible work hours should not just be allowed, but organisational culture has to support it. A woman colleague who works flexi-time or who operates from home, must enjoy the same respect, status and opportunities as her colleagues.

Women’s desire for flexibility is even greater among younger professionals, and a generational difference is becoming apparent in the workforce. Millennials seem far more reluctant to be confined to a desk from 9 to 5. This shift, too, must be accommodated by the culture of a company.

Women are also keenly aware of security issues, whether this pertains to workplace harassment, or the safety of their workplace commute. This is not a revelation, but it is important to understand that if a woman does not feel safe at work, her engagement will wane. Safe, secure workplaces are a must, and organisations that neglect this – especially in the time of the #MeToo movement – are telling women that they don’t really care about their wellbeing.

In order to engage them, to gain the full benefit of women’s talents, organisations need to change the way they manage them. To incentivise effectively, we must offer people what they find valuable. This means human capital strategies need an overhaul. Rewards structures can no longer be limited to an annual bonus. For many women, flexibility is more important. This may mean organisations should be open to shorter work weeks, virtual workspaces and working from home.

Such offerings can become a powerful motivational and recruitment offering, but they must be fully integrated into the culture of businesses, and delivered in good faith.

To get full value from our women staff, we need to drive a culture that fully, and authentically values women.

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