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07 March 2018

International Women's Day: Women Shape their own work environment

Continuing our conversation about International Women's Day, we hear from Dr Alexandra Budjanovcanin, lecturer in Work Psychology and Public Services Management sharing a research peice she wrote last year about the importance of understanding the obstacles woman face in order to overcome them.

Alexandra Budjanovcanin

Dr Alexandra Budjanovcanin's research interests are in professional careers, emotions in the workplace and gender. Specifically, Ali studies how individuals adjust both positively (vocational callings) and negatively (occupational regret) to their careers. Ali is also interested in how gender plays out in careers. Most recently, she has been examining how HR practices affect the careers of female lawyers in private practice.

By Dr Alexandra Budjanovcanin, Lecturer in Work Psychology and Public Services Management:

As ‘impact’ becomes increasingly important in academia, International Women’s Day (IWD) is a timely reminder of the reasons why we need academic research to make a demonstrable contribution to society. This year IWD arguably takes on new relevance, as it comes around soon after the emergence of the #MeToo movement. The juxtaposition of these two campaigns serves to demonstrate that while we have much to celebrate, there still exists myriad obstacles to women thriving in society and that in order to overcome them, we need to understand them. That is, in part, what my recent study in London-based law firms seeks to do. 

Away from the bright lights of Hollywood and the workplaces of the rich and famous, the workplaces of the professional and not-so-famous also continue to suffer from gender-driven disadvantage. Approached by Women In Law London (WILL), a grassroots professional network for pre-partnership female lawyers, the familiar story of gender imbalance in leadership arose once again. As in other occupations, the legal sector, and particularly private practice, sees very few women reaching the upper echelons, despite more women than men choosing this career path. Collaborating with WILL and its members, we surveyed over 300 London-based lawyers and interviewed a further 21. A paper just published in the International Journal of Human Resource Management argues that organisational practices, and more particularly diversity-promoting practices, and the way in which they are implemented, perversely play a role in obstructing women’s careers. Two studies examined the experiences of pre-partnership women in private-practice law firms and how gatekeepers’ application of such practices can detrimentally affect women’s careers.

The quantitative study highlighted a clear disparity between the prevalence of diversity-promoting practices within organisations and the extent of law firms’ commitment to these; although they are put in place, they are not necessarily enacted with conviction. The qualitative study sought to explore this issue further through the theoretical lens of the HR implementation gap – the gap between stated policy and experienced practices in organisations, which can have implications for performance, but also the course and progression of a career.

The study focused on a particular practice; flexible/agile working, a work-life balance policy – one of the most prevalently put in place, according to the quantitative study. Given how integral flexible working is in facilitating women to manage the work/non-work interface, and as such engage in promotion-enhancing activities, being unable to make use of these practices can have severe implications for women’s progression. The interviews explored how women approach the discrepancy between what they are promised by their employer and what they are provided in practice.

Two main findings of the interviews were noted; firstly, women can and do engage in a range of strategies to influence how diversity practices work within their organisations (and even profession). They leverage the power at their disposal, in order to circumvent their lack of hierarchical position power by using their membership in key committees, for example, or using their expertise and connections to ensure agile working practices are enacted as they have been promoted, either for themselves or more collectively. Being aware of their personal power sources, such as their abilities or the goodwill built through relationships, also ensures that these practices are not just ostensibly facilitating them.

Secondly, and providing less cause for optimism, where women do take steps to address poorly implemented practices to ensure success in both career and non-work spheres, these behaviours are not without consequence. As such, the potentially career-limiting implications of such strategies may moderate their use, as evidenced by stories of women leaving their organisation rather than dealing with an untenable working environment, should they push for the policies to be implemented to the letter.

However, in the spirit of International Women’s Day, the importance of these findings is that they highlight that women can overcome obstacles to their success, despite lacking formal authority to do so. Female employees can be active in shaping their own work environment and as long as we continue to uncover where this is being done successfully, then we can continue to arm women with the tools to progress.

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