Don’t Push Your Female First-Years Out the Door


Unconscious choices in assigning work can stymie the careers of newly hired women

New classes of recruits just started at professional services firms, and already the firms are sending their female first-years packing.

So much for good intentions, and all the diversity training and initiatives the firms have put in place.

What is happening? Here’s an example, drawn from a real workplace experience:

Will, Sree, Jared, and Rebecca just joined the firm as first-years. All come from top-tier schools, and all are products of the firm’s summer intern program. First assignments are handed out, and Will gets staffed on a live deal that has a short deadline, a demanding client, and long hours. The other three are staffed on a mixture of internal projects and client work.

An important deal comes in the following week. The senior on the matter insists that Will be put on the deal because he has experience now and the firm must put out its best work. Sree and Jared also get new client work, and Rebecca works on a marketing presentation. An important client calls with an urgent issue, and the department head grabs Will to assist because he doesn’t have time to train anyone else to do the work.

The assignments continue like this for several months. Rebecca realizes that she is not getting the type of work that attracted her to the firm, and that she is not getting the experience she needs for promotion. She talks to a supervisor about getting more challenging work like Will but is told that she doesn’t have the technical skills that Will has. The supervisor suggests that she try to get more experience, because she can learn the necessary skills only by doing. Rebecca lets everyone know her interest in getting relevant work, but little of it comes her way. She works hard on her assignments and volunteers for new projects. Still, she is not staffed on important client matters because she does not have the necessary skills and no one has time to teach her.

When bonus time rolls around, Rebecca’s weak technical skills and lack of exposure to high profile work result in a small bonus. Rebecca takes this as a sign that her supervisors believe she is not as competent as the male first-years. She knows she is as smart as they are and has the same credentials, and she is angry about being sidelined. She figures she now knows why there are so few women in her firm and declines to help the firm recruit women from her prestigious alma mater. She starts looking for a job with a competitor firm.

This pattern, played out again and again, year after year, in many departments, is a key reason that women do not advance in their careers.

Why focus on assignments? Assignments determine a first-year’s success. They can provide training, experience, client contact, and contact with more senior members of the firm. They can engage an employee and make him or her feel involved in working toward a meaningful goal.

Just as important, assignments are points on a scoreboard. First-years measure their progress against their peers by comparing assignments. Working for prestigious clients or respected seniors are signs of advancement.  Being busy and in demand are indicators of merit. First-years can internalize this view of their abilities and futures, and a negative outlook can accelerate their departure from the firm. The firm loses both the ability to develop new talent and the benefit of having enough well-trained first-years to handle the workload. It may also lose its prized top performers as they burn out.

But why does this have a particular impact on women? When individuals do not know each other well, such as when new classes of recruits join a firm, they tend to operate based on gut instincts and assumptions. We often are not aware that we make assumptions about others, but research says we do it all the time. A common assumption is that male first-years are competent – after all, they graduated from a top school and made it through the rigorous hiring process. Female first-years with the same qualifications typically do not receive the same presumption – or worse, are presumed not competent– until they have proven their competence  repeatedly with excellent performance.

The competence assumption that males enjoy has another effect. We remember things that are consistent with our assumptions. When a male does a good job, that is consistent with the competence assumption and we remember it. Moreover, if he does a bad job, we are likely to blame it on external factors (he had a lot of work on his plate) and give him a second chance because it is not consistent with what we expected. By contrast, when a female does a good job, we may or may not remember. But if she does a bad job, we will remember because we expected her to be not competent. Further, we tend to chalk it up to her intrinsic characteristics (she has trouble meeting deadlines). No second chance for her!

These patterns play out again and again, in each relationship between a supervisor and a first-year and on each assignment. It is not hard to see how unequal assignments can snowball to create a few superstars while others who are just as excellent look for the exit. This vexing management issue can turn catastrophic when it causes the firm to lose all its female recruits.

Have assignments affected the development of women in your department? You can check. Make a list of the good assignments that your department had last year, considering how interesting the work was, whether it offered the opportunity for professional development, how important the assignment was to the firm, and whether the assignment offered exposure to important seniors or clients. Note the gender of each first-year who worked on each assignment. Now think about your impression of each of the first-years in the department. Who are the top performers and what did they work on? Who still needs to develop requisite skills and what did they work on? Whom have you given up on, and what did they work on? For each response, note the gender of the first-years. 

If your department is typical, your investigation will show that one or two male first-years are considered superstars and that they worked on most of the important matters. The female first-years are likely to have received one or no important assignment, and probably are among those considered the least strong. Some women have left, and your department has few women overall and fewer still in positions of leadership.

The role of unconscious assumptions in the distribution of assignments reveals one piece of the puzzle of women’s difficult career advancement. Other puzzle pieces are well known, compounded by assumptions made involving race and ethnicity, age, and sexual orientation and identity. Firms that do not address these issues cannot view themselves as meritocracies because at every point, uneven playing fields let some cruise while others have to slog.

The solutions to the preferential assignment problem are pretty straightforward. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Track the assignments of each first-year to ensure equitable distribution of work and professional development. Your firm may already track first-years’ work, in which case all that needs to be done is to focus on the assignments in addition to the amount of time worked. Measurement is essential to tackling all problems.
  • Encourage supervisors to view themselves as leaders who develop the future talent of the firm and show them how to use assignments as tools to develop all first-years. Firm management can monitor the distribution of beneficial assignments to ensure that supervisors are carrying out their development role. Accountability increases the likelihood of a successful outcome.
  • Provide bias training to supervisors to lessen the impact of unconscious assumptions on the choice of first-years for assignments. Part of the training should be an explanation of the business reasons behind the firm’s desire for a level playing field for assignments.
  • In the first few weeks after the arrival of the new class of recruits, do not honor the requests of seniors to have specific first-years work on their matters. Rather, make sure that each first-year works with as many mid-levels and seniors as possible to gain varied experience. This will also give the firm better information for evaluating the first-years’ work.
  • Find out from the first-years if they believe they are getting a reasonable share of the desirable work, and if there are matters on which they would like to be staffed. This allows women to advocate for themselves without risking the perception that they are acting inappropriately.

The beauty of these suggestions is that they can be done easily and do not require a culture shift or even an initiative. Just one supervisor can change the careers of the first-year females in the department, and several supervisors working together can change the future of the firm. But firms must get started now, before their female first-years walk out the door.

If your company would like training about unconscious bias or solutions tailored to its unique challenges, please contact us.

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