The Unequal Rewards of Peer Support at Work and How to Level the Playing Field

According to new research released in MIT Sloan Management Review, men benefit more from supporting colleagues than women do.

A recent study conducted by Nancy Baym, a senior principal research manager at Microsoft Research and Constance Noonan Hadley, founder of the Institute for Life at Work and a lecturer at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business reveals that men and women might not experience recognition equally for being a supportive colleague at work.

In their new article, “The Unequal Rewards of Peer Support at Work,” Baym and Hadley argue that social support among employees is vital to the success of any organization. They identified 13 specific behaviors broken into five categories of workplace support: emotional assistance, esteem reinforcement, social companionship, information or advice, and instrumental help (providing tangible goods or services). [See image attached.]

While both men and women offer social support to their colleagues, men more frequently offer social companionship and instrumental support, while women more frequently provide emotional and esteem support.

Men’s overall rating of the level of encouragement and rewards for social support available at work was 11% higher than women’s. Women reported a higher level of investment (frequency of providing social support) than men but a lower potential return (organizational rewards and recognition). These findings indicate a lower social ROI for women.

Based on their findings, the authors offer two likely explanations for this gender discrepancy: First, the overall investment made by women may be less noticeable, and second, the types of investments made by women may be valued differently from those made by men.

What Can Managers Do?

“Organizations need to focus on social ROI for all employees. Every employee deserves a high return for investing effort in their workforce community, regardless of their demographic characteristics. Managers need to: provide clarity about which behaviors count, make the invisible visible, provide training and education, and revise performance management systems,” said Hadley.

“While organizations continue to seek ways to better retain women and members of underrepresented groups, reduce the isolation with remote and hybrid work, and bolster job engagement and satisfaction, they should reexamine how they define, encourage, identify, and reward socially supportive behaviors at work,” added Baym.

The Research

To examine patterns in social support and relationship-building during the pandemic, the first author conducted a survey of American office workers in late 2020.

For the analysis, the authors compared the results of the 836 respondents who self-identified as male (n=438) or female (n=398) in gender.

Respondents represented more than 15 industries in companies of varying sizes. A total of 61% of the respondents were managers, and 39% were individual contributors. At the time of data collection, 44% were working full-time in a company location, 39% were working full-time remotely, and 17% were working a mix of onsite and remote (hybrid).

The findings were verified by statistical analyses,  including bivariate correlations, means comparisons, and regressions. Major findings reflect a two-tailed significance level of p <.05 or below.

Nancy Baym is a senior principal research manager at Microsoft Research. Constance Noonan Hadley is the founder of the Institute for Life at Work and a lecturer at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.

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