Human Capital & Careers

The Critical Importance of Roles in Career Equity

Some roles accelerate careers while others depress them. Here’s how to identify and understand systemic disparities.
Haig R. NalbantianDecember 8, 2022
The Critical Importance of Roles in Career Equity
Photo: Getty Images

Many factors can impact employees’ ability to thrive in their roles at work. But one variable often overlooked is the nature of the role, itself. Some roles in an organization are simply better positioned than others to advance career prospects. And it turns out, women and people of color are less likely to be in those roles.

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  Haig R. Nalbantian

Some roles accelerate careers in organizations; others depress them — irrespective of the demographics of the person who occupies them. 

The identity of so-called “accelerator roles” can differ, depending on employers and industries. We often see the most rapid advancement associated with revenue-generating or customer-facing roles. Similarly, supervisor roles almost universally enhance career prospects within an organization. Those with direct reports are generally more likely to be promoted and receive high-performance ratings than otherwise comparable “individual contributors.” 

Women and People of Color Lack Access to Accelerator Roles

Unfortunately, the demographic distribution of employees in accelerator roles is often predictable, especially for supervisor positions. Women and people of color are significantly less likely to be people managers than their white male colleagues. They are all too often sidelined into more stagnant individual contributor roles, systematically undermining their ability to advance.

What is causing disparities in representation for accelerator roles?

  • Stereotyping or channeling. Supervisors may deliberately direct employees into specific roles, based on faulty assumptions and stereotypes about female and minority direct reports — or outright bias. For example, making a pre-emptive judgment about whether an employee is willing or able to take on the work requirements of an accelerator role.

  • Self-selection. Female and underrepresented employees may, knowingly or unknowingly, choose roles that are detrimental to advancement. Where accelerator roles may be demanding in terms of longer hours, unpredictable schedules, or travel, individual contributor roles may promise more work-life balance. Individual contributors can have highly visible internal roles that may at first appear to be a ticket to advancement — but often depend on sponsors and can become quickly less important when the pressure is on. Choices may also come from employees’ perceptions about where they belong — based on patterns or biases they observe in their organization.

Even when they do occupy these roles, women and people of color often don’t experience the same lift to their careers as their white male counterparts. It may be that they’re being assigned to lower-quality, less important supervisor positions. For women, later entry may also mean they simply don’t reap the same compounding benefit of early career access to supervisor roles as their male colleagues.  

Mercer’s recent study found that lower representation in people manager roles is similarly compounded for Black employees by a prevalent performance management bias. For Black employees, unexplained disparities in ratings and reviews significantly hampered their ability to advance, even when in accelerator roles.

Unpacking the Data Around Roles and Career Acceleration

My recently released white paper, An Employer’s Guide to Achieving and Sustaining Pay and Career Equity at Work, looks closely at some of the disparities that impact pay and career equity — and considers the part roles play in achieving equity. 

As part of that inquiry, we looked at comprehensive statistical workforce data analyses from 20 large and midsize employers from a broad range of industries. Collectively, they employ more than 700,000 people — about 40% located in the US.

In 19 of these companies, employees in supervisor roles were significantly more likely to be promoted than individual contributors — all else being equal. (The only exception was where analysis was restricted to employees already in leadership levels.)

In most cases, the increase in promotion probability for supervisors was greater than 50%. It sometimes exceeded 100%+. In 14 of the organizations, supervisors were also more likely to receive high-performance ratings, which also increased promotion probability. And most often, they were paid more. 

In 17 of the 18 organizations for which we had role representation data, women and people of color were under-represented in supervisor roles. The shortfalls often exceeded ten percentage points for both women and non-white employees. When they did occupy these roles, they sometimes didn’t experience the same lift to their promotion prospects as did their male and white counterparts.  

Five Recommendations to Understand Role Disparities

Companies looking to identify and understand systemic disparities in the way roles position employees for advancement can begin by:

  1. Undertaking an empirical assessment of your workforce data to better identify which roles in your organization are accelerators or dead ends. Evaluate these roles both in terms of their impact on promotion and on the variety of other roles that they feed. Greater breadth in destinations likely signifies the capacity to build breadth of experience which is often a key marker of leadership development
  2. Tracking and understanding the roles and job families that are gaining currency in your organization to make sure the capabilities and experience of the diverse talent you hire and develop align with the requirements of those positions.
  3. Examining the career trajectories of successful line and function leaders in your company — as well as those on the executive team — and comparing them with the careers of recognized non-supervisory professionals, taking note of any patterns related to roles.
  4. Understanding the differences in opportunity across roles that are directly linked to the business as opposed to more internally focused roles. For example, roles like project manager or chief of staff may be attractive to up-and-coming talent because of their visibility and the high level of leaders to whom they report — but they don’t always play out that way. 
  5. Using proactive career management to ensure that female and minority talent have equal access to these roles and underscore the value of your diverse talent by ensuring that they are distributed in the most vital operations of the business.

Haig R. Nalbantian is senior partner at Mercer.