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Bosses: Does Your Promotion Process Exclude Women?

Do you ever get the sinking feeling that the movers and shakers where you work have moved and shaken without you?

Gail McGuire, chair of the department of sociology and anthropology at Indiana University at South Bend, just released some research that proves that it's not all in your head. Women comprised 59% of the employees at the financial institution whose informal power structure she parsed. What she discovered, unfortunately, sounds about right: women make lots of friends at work and get lots of personal support. But women's personal networks don't reach high enough in the food chain to really help them get ahead.

In other words, they make friends, but don't usually get sponsors who can stick up for them in closed-door meetings and get their names front and center when it's time to dole out promotions. Also, the cultural norm is for men to hire and promote those who remind them of themselves. While that's an understandable default, it has the collective effect of overlooking women.

"The underlying question is: Who is considered to be a good investment?" says McGuire. "Usually, the hiring manager thinks, 'That's someone just like me!'"

It's hard to get at a subtle, embedded dynamic like that, and McGuire says the senior managers she interviews are usually surprised that handing down some non-discrimination policies doesn't do the job. "You have to subvert informal networks," she says.

One proven way to do just that is to give human resources managers real power to hold line managers accountable for their hiring and promotion tactics.

Research ongoing by my firm has found that requiring a balanced slate neatly targets managers' assumptions about what makes for a perfect candidate for a job or promotion. The balanced slate approach requires the manager to assemble at least five candidates for a position, all equally qualified, but representing a spectrum of race, gender and background. This only works when the manager is required to keep searching for strong candidates even if it takes more effort and time. The process, and meeting the candidates, often catalyzes the kind of self-examination that leads to a genuine shift in perspective. That's the way informal cultures change: one person at a time, one decision at a time.

Morguefile photo by Gayka2002

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