Despite dramatic increases in their workforce involvement, women continue to be paid less than men, face work conditions that are often worse, and seem to be the ones who usually have to juggle family and work responsibilities.
Therefore it is a puzzle as to why women, especially in the UK, have traditionally reported higher levels of job satisfaction than men. This was certainly the case in the 1990s.
Observers have suggested this must mean that women, on average, are satisfied with getting less in the workplace, and, insofar as job satisfaction is an overall measure of happiness with work, that women have lower than average expectations from their jobs than men.
A range of explanations have been suggested for this, most of which revolve around women’s historically lower involvement in the workforce followed by a sudden elevation in status, meaning lower expectations. However, if this is the main factor we would expect gender differences in job satisfaction to disappear as time passes, and women who have grown up with female labour force participation as the norm enter the labour market.
In Paradox Lost: Disappearing Female Job Satisfaction we returned to this issue using data that allowed us to track job satisfaction in Britain between 1991 and 2013. The main finding of our research is that the gendered difference in job satisfaction has now essentially disappeared. This reflects a reduction in female job satisfaction, while average male job satisfaction is unchanged.
It is important to note that this reduction in job satisfaction does not reflect changes in the nature of the work or rewards that women receive. Even when factoring in potential changes in work characteristics, hours worked, or pay, female job satisfaction has declined. Instead these changes appear to reflect female workers steadily expecting more from employment conditions and characteristics – something that is true for both younger and older workers.
Put simply: women in 2013 who hold the same kind of job, with the same work conditions, are markedly less satisfied than they would have been in the early 1990s because they expect more from their work.
What is concerning about this trend is that, with women still facing lower rewards in the workplace, greater calls on their time outside of work, and more challenges, we could well expect job satisfaction to decline further in the future. Is it also the case that as they are paid less, and often face less favourable work conditions, women still have higher expectations of work then men? Otherwise surely they would be even less satisfied than they appear to be?
This pattern of decline, and the prospect for further reductions in female job satisfaction, presents a challenge for HR. This is particularly pertinent in sectors that are already male-dominated.
We know that job satisfaction is a strong predictor of overall morale, productivity and the decision to quit a job. With women making up a high proportion of certain workforces, a large proportion of the labour force may increasingly exhibit lower work morale, lower workplace productivity and higher turnover levels. Taken together this suggests the potential for marked costs to employers and a general loss of productivity.
In the light of our research there is a need for HR departments to reassess their policies for women and ensure that they have an open culture in which women can voice concerns, work flexibly, receive fair remuneration for their work and get what they need from their job to fulfil their increasing work expectations.
For instance, is there a system in place for mentoring, leadership development and networking, to help females up the pipeline into senior roles? Are women treated as ‘instrumental’ in the same way as men, or still subject to unconscious bias?
This should be a priority, because if our new research is any indication women will expect more from their work over the next few years. And may also grow more dissatisfied unless these needs are met.
Colin Green is a professor at Lancaster University Management School