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Is 'proximity bias' holding back women in FM?

03 October 2022

A new report suggests that hybrid working may be giving men a competitive advantage over women when it comes to promotion opportunities...

Hybrid work is often touted as being fairer and more inclusive – but research from the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) has found that that 40% of all managers said they had witnessed bias in the treatment of those who work flexibly and those who don't. The research also found that male managers are more likely to work from the office than female ones, with the result that male managers are more likely to receive promotion opportunities than female ones. In other words, instead of helping narrow the gender pay gap, hybrid/flexible working may actually be exacerbating it.

This dovetails with recent research by Microsoft, previously reported on by PFM, which suggests that 80% of bosses managing remote-working staff experience ‘productivity paranoia’ – they simply don’t believe that their employees are as effective working from home as they are in the office. The upshot of this is what’s known as ‘proximity bias’ – an unconscious tendency to give preferential treatment to those close to us, which in the case of bosses and their employees, means bosses are more likely to favour those working in the office.

And, data shows, these are more likely to be men. Women are more likely to request flexible or hybrid working, as data shows that – despite advancements in gender equality – women continue to shoulder most of the burden for caring and domestic responsibility in our society. The CMI data found that 48% of male managers work completely or mostly from the office, compared to 38% of female managers.

"Lose-lose situation"
Anthony Painter, the director of policy at the CMI, said: “Women could end up in a lose-lose situation if employers aren’t careful, needing to balance work and home life through flexible working but missing out on many opportunities that arise through in-person office interaction. That is intolerable and damaging for women and employers alike.”

The CMI survey of 1,300 managers also points to the likelihood of women missing out on leadership opportunities – something that’s particularly relevant to the FM sector. A recent report found that men outnumber women nine to one in FM leadership roles, according to reporting by Catch 22. But diversity and inclusion is extremely important; not only does research by UCL suggest that female leaders outperform males ones, especially in a crisis, but companies with more than 30% female executives are more likely to outperform companies that don’t, according to research from academics from the Universities of Glasgow and Leicester and reported on in the Guardian.

From a purely FM perspective, in business such as facilities management, where the comfort, security and wellbeing of the people the industry serves is paramount, diversity is clearly key to creating a service that truly delivers to all.

How to avoid 'proximity bias'
So what can employers do to make sure they’re not demonstrating ‘proximity bias’ that means female employees miss out on promotion opportunities, thus potentially alienating them from the FM industry? The CMI has suggested that companies should monitor the impact of hybrid working. Prof Rosie Campbell, the director of King’s College London’s Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, told the Guardian that roles need to be carefully designed for hybrid working rather than allowed to develop on their own “because existing inequalities might be reinforced.”

It seems that hybrid working is here to stay – for now – and as it’s a relatively new phenomena in the sense of the sheer scale of its presence in the UK workforce, with three-quarters of UK employers now offering some form of hybrid working, teething problems are to be expected. However, it remains to be seen whether the problem of ‘proximity bias’ is something that can be ironed out over time.

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