Gender bias in promotions

History was made when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that Ms Grace Fu would helm the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, and become the first female minister to head a government ministry. Many would view this as a promotion from her prior post as Minister in the Prime Minister's Office.

However, among the 20 full or acting ministers, Ms Fu is the only rose among the thorns, and of the 37 office holders, only six are women.

In this modern era, especially when gender equality and boardroom representation of women have been in focus, one would expect more female leaders to be promoted and represented at the full ministerial level.

After all, a recent McKinsey study found that advancing women's equality can add US$12 trillion (S$16.8 trillion) to global growth.

In the larger business environment, there may still be an inadvertent bias against women because of the jobs and assignments they did before, despite promotions being based on merit.

Promotions are based on a supervisor's evaluation of what we could call "promotability".


Ms Grace Fu, who now heads the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, is the first female minister to helm a government ministry in Singapore.  - PHOTO: MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS

While individuals are promoted in part because they performed well in their current jobs, they also move up after having undertaken challenging tasks.

Individuals who have had challenging job experiences tend to be viewed as more capable, more willing to make the effort and more ambitious to reach higher-level positions.

Challenging assignments provide opportunities to learn, which are likely to result in the development of a wide range of skills, abilities, insights, knowledge and values that contribute towards effective management skills and, hence, career success.

Often, however, the underlying assumption is that individuals initiate and choose to take on such challenging job assignments.

But why would that be the case?

What if such job tasks are assigned by supervisors who are not gender blind in their assignments? Would this affect promotability?

First, interestingly, research does show that men and women differ in how they approach challenging tasks.

Women are, indeed, less inclined to take up challenging tasks than men because they want to avoid failure. Men, on the other hand, are more willing to take up such tasks because they want to show what they can do.

This is a difference that could stem from upbringing: Parents cheer a son when he is active or, perhaps, climbing up a tree, but would caution a daughter to be careful and instead come down from that tree.

Such differences in upbringing affect one's willingness to take on challenging tasks as adults.

Of course, there are the women who are eager to take on challenges.

However, they face obstacles, as research has also shown that supervisors are more inclined to allocate less challenging tasks to female employees, regardless of their ambition and job performance.

Delegating assignments to employees involves risks, and to reduce such risks, managers often delegate difficult tasks to those whom they trust to do well - specifically, subordinates who are like them, are perceived to be similar to them and, hence, more trustworthy and capable.

As most higher positions are occupied by men, they see male subordinates as more similar to themselves than female subordinates. Hence, male supervisors allocate more challenging tasks to male, rather than female, employees - a form of subtle gender discrimination that they may not even be aware of.

In short, we are in a situation where women may both avoid and be denied important developmental opportunities, which in turn hamper their chances of promotion and career advancement.

It is worth saying again that to stay competitive, firms must capitalise on all valuable resources, including talented male and female employees.

Women's failure to advance can be costly and short-sighted. There may be lost productivity and high turnover rates because women feel blocked in their careers.

Particularly, we need to ensure that managers overcome supervisory gender biases. They should be encouraged to assign challenging work equally to their male and female subordinates.

At the same time, women should be made aware of their propensity to take up less challenging tasks, and the adverse consequences these have on their careers.

Parents should also be mindful of how they bring up their children. Both sons and daughters should be encouraged to go for challenging tasks.

To this end, it is heartening to note that in the new Singapore Government, some of the female office holders are given more challenging portfolios, such as Transport, Health and Foreign Affairs, that will prepare them well for the next phase in their political careers.


•The writer is assistant professor of management and organisation at the National University of Singapore Business School.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 15, 2015, with the headline 'Gender bias in promotions'. Print Edition | Subscribe