Women Are More Likely Than Men to Be Engaged in Their Jobs

It's not clear why, but it may be because women tend to have more flexible work arrangements.
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Most workers hate their jobs or have "checked out," headlined the Los Angeles Times last week about a new Gallup poll, "2013 State of the American Workforce." A jaw-dropping 700 million people--about 70 percent of full-time workers--are emotionally disconnected at work, meaning they only "go through the motions" to perform their jobs or worse: they do things to weaken or sabotage the organization and its mission.

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Gallup's June report from its ongoing survey of employee engagement describes three groups of American workers. About one third of full-time employees are "actively engaged"--that is, committed, invested workers. Over half (52 percent) are "not engaged"--emotionally absent and "sleepwalking through their workday, putting time, but not energy or passion, into their work." Another 18 percent are "actively disengaged" from their jobs, hampering productivity--not to mention killing the organization's culture. These people "aren't just unhappy at work; they're busy acting out their unhappiness. Every day, these workers undermine what their engaged workers accomplish."

Intriguingly, women report more work engagement than men do. Despite barriers to workplace equality--such as hiring, pay, and promotion bias--Gallup found a small but statistically significant difference: 33 percent of women feel actively engaged, versus 28 percent of men. A different Gallup database from the years 2010-2012 reveals a similar 6 percent gender gap favoring women on connection to the workplace, using relationship-based items such as "a supervisor or someone cares."

The Gallup report offers no rationale for the gender gap in workplace engagement, but some of its other findings hint at causes. First, Gallup found that 39 percent of employees work off-site sometime, and these people are slightly more engaged (32 percent) than their on-site-full-time counterparts (28 percent). Those who spend less than 20 percent of their time working remotely are most engaged, suggesting that some wiggle room created by flexible work arrangements--to attend to family responsibilities or other important needs--releases pressure and stress and pays returns to employers with engaged, committed personnel, not to mention additional hours worked. Gallup found that remote workers log, on average, four more hours per week than their non-remote counterparts.

Another reason women may feel more emotional connection and engagement in the workplace arises from the benefits of flextime. The Galllup poll found that flextime produces the greatest effect on employees' overall well being, when compared with other workplace incentives such as vacation days and reduced hours. "Engaged employees with a lot of flextime had 44 percent higher wellbeing than actively disengaged employees with very little to no flextime. Among employees who were not engaged or actively disengaged, those who reported having flextime also had higher overall wellbeing compared with those with very little or no flextime." Human wellbeing is a baseline condition or what motivation theorist Frederick Herzberg called a hygiene factor. It is a necessary prerequisite before a person can tackle other tasks such as creative, productive, invested performance in a job. Since women--particularly caregivers--value and use flextime when it is offered, they may get a wellbeing boost to propel them to higher-level functioning at work. Women's job performance outcomes, such as commitment, satisfaction, and engagement, would thus register higher than those of men.

A beneficial cycle ensues, one I describe in The Custom-Fit Workplace. Employers offer workplace flexibility such as remote working and flextime. People who participate in such flexible work options experience greater wellbeing, which makes them more available and likely to invest emotionally in tasks at work. Work flexibility cushions mothers particularly and others with significant outside-work responsibilities from unyielding demands on their time and pressure to perform seamlessly in dual roles of parent and worker. Workplace flexibility reduces work-family stress, which frees people emotionally to engage more at work and to commit their personal best to the work group, products, and organization. Commitment begets productivity and bottom line results--something every boss and business wants.

Female workers in the Gallup poll are no different from men, really. The gender gap in employee engagement has little to do with biology or sex roles. It's more a lesson in organizational dynamics that applies to both female and male workers. When employers offer working conditions that contribute to a person's wellbeing as a human, a mutually beneficial cycle results. Employees won't hate their jobs: they will engage, commit, and produce. And headlines will say American workers are digging in, not checking out.

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Nanette Fondas is co-author of The Custom-Fit WorkplaceHer work appears in academic journals as well as Psychology Today, Ms., Huffington Post and MomsRising.

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