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Turned Off By Empowerment


by Stephany Schings Below, SIOP Communications Manager

Research Finds Women Favor Organizations That Promote Gender Equality

By Stephany Schings Below, Communications Manager

Efforts by organizations to attract women typically involve implementing diversity initiatives, such as those that stress “women’s empowerment” or “gender equality.” But new research shows empowerment initiatives might not be so powerful.

In today’s workplace, successfully managing gender diversity is critical and can even be associated with better business performance. A March 2014 report by the Anita Borg Institute (The Case for Investing in Women) found that Fortune 500 companies with at least three female directors have seen their return on invested capital increase by at least 66%, return on sales increase by 42%, and return on equity increase by at least 53%. Gallup has also found that companies with more diverse teams (including more women) have a 22% lower turnover rate.

Whether believing that gender diversity is a moral imperative or a source of competitive advantage, many organizations have recently focused on attracting more women by implementing a variety of approaches, with the most notable being women’s empowerment initiatives. While intuitively empowerment programs and principles would seem appealing to women, their actual appeal is largely uninvestigated.

Through three studies, Ekaterina Netchaeva, of Bocconi University, and Maryam Kouchaki, of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, found that references to “women’s empowerment” in organizational principles appeal less to women than “gender equality” references. They further found that this effect is explained by women’s perceptions that organizations which emphasize female empowerment are less fair as well as women’s fear that such organizations evaluate their employees on the basis of gender rather than merit. 

This research was presented in a session titled “Turned off by empowerment: Understanding women’s perceptions of organizational gender-principles” this spring at the 29th annual SIOP Conference in Honolulu.

“Both of us feel deeply passionate about issues that women face in the workplace,” Netchaeva said of her and her colleague. “Among them is the underrepresentation of women, especially in the upper echelons of organizations.”

While research has focused on women’s reaction to Affirmative Action programs, very little has examined women’s reactions to more subtle practices of empowering women, such as those that focus on supporting women’s career development following their entry into organizations.

“Over the past few decades, organizations started recognizing the value of gender diversity and began seeing this underrepresentation as problematic,” Netchaeva explained. “To this end, they have begun implementing various inclusiveness initiatives aimed at attracting women. We noticed, however, that the language used in these initiatives and principles focused on either equality or empowerment of women. We quickly realized that as intuitively appealing as female empowerment is, it may not be very well received by women; as such, we decided to test our predictions in a series of studies.”

Netchaeva and Kouchaki designed and carried out three studies to determine participants’ reactions to empowerment and equality initiatives.

In the first study, 84 male and female students in the United States were randomly assigned to one of two different gender initiative conditions. In the equality condition, they were informed that a researcher for the study has a relative who works for a non-profit organization: “An Initiative for Gender Equality.” In the empowerment condition, participants were informed that that the non-profit was called “An Initiative for Women’s Empowerment.” Participants were informed that the non-profit is looking for help answer survey questions, and, although the organization does not expect everyone to answer all questions, answering as many as possible would be extremely helpful. Next, participants were asked how many questions out of 100 they would be willing to answer.

Participants offered to respond to a lower number of questions to help the women’s empowerment initiative—23.6—compared to the gender equality initiative—35.07 questions. The type of initiative had little effect on male participants’ extent of help when they were presented with gender equality initiative versus a women’s empowerment initiative—offering to answer 31.46 questions and 26.03, respectively. However, female participants expressed much more interest in helping the gender equality initiative—being willing to answer 41.33 questions for the equality nonprofit versus only 18.57 for the women’s empowerment.  

In the second study, 211 male and female student participants were presented with a brief description of an organization, which included a company’s mission statement and principles. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three different conditions, wherein the nature of the organization’s principles was manipulated (i.e., gender equality, women’s empowerment, neutral). For example, instead of the neutral principle of “We support employees through community initiatives and advocacy,” the women’s empowerment version read, “We promote women’s empowerment through community initiatives and advocacy.”

To measure perceptions of fairness at the organizations, participants answered eight items and were also asked to indicate their attraction to the organization as a potential employer. For females, organizational principles type had a significant effect, such that those in the women’s empowerment condition expressed lower attraction to the organization compared to those in the gender equality condition. Specifically, the researchers found that to the extent that women were exposed to women’s empowerment principles, they had lower perceptions of fairness in the organization, which in turn led to lower perceptions of organizational attractiveness.

In the third and final study, 130 male and female adults from the United States completed a similar simulation as that in Study 2. Results revealed that participants rated the gender equality organization as more attractive. Importantly, for females, the organizational principles had a significant effect such that those in the women’s empowerment condition expressed lower attraction to the organization compared to those in the gender equality condition. Further, two psychological mechanisms explained women’s aversion: the female empowerment-oriented organizations evoked lower perceptions of fairness as well as concerns of being evaluated on the basis of their gender rather than merit.

Netchaeva said they found empowerment programs evoke various feelings for women.

“We asked women over LinkedIn how they feel about women’s empowerment and one of our respondents nicely said ‘Empowerment should be for all employees. If you single out women, then women sound inferior. We don't need to sound like underdogs. We then sound weaker, as women.” 

On the one hand, Netchaeva said, it would seem that women would appreciate the additional support they may receive from organizations by which they are employed.

“On the other hand,” she added, “from past research we know that even people who receive the better end of the deal may view such situations as unjust. Moreover, sometimes empowerment implies that women need help; that they are inferior. Not surprisingly, then, we found that women who were in the female empowerment condition believed that organization with the empowerment initiative was more unfair and that the organization used gender in evaluations of the performance of its employees.”

The results of these three studies demonstrate that women actually perceive companies with such programs as less attractive, which is a perception that organizations should be aware of, she said.

“Our results indicate that those organizations interested in balancing the numbers of their male and female employees through inclusiveness initiatives should be very careful about what language they use and how important those perceptions are,” she said. “We do not want to say equality is better than empowerment. The point is that both male and females’ perceptions of different initiatives are important.”