Key to retaining women in the workplace lies in fair processes, not just fair outcomes, study finds

Schulich School of Business

Managers trying to retain valued female employees should be aware that women are more strongly affected by the process used to achieve workplace equity than the actual outcome, finds a new study from the Schulich School of Business.

That’s because women tend to care more about the aspects of a fair process that let a person feel they can participate in and have some control over important decisions that affect them, according to the study published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology.

The study, “Organizational powerlessness, dehumanization, and gendered effects of procedural justice,” is important because the researchers found that procedural justice and related feelings of control have an impact on women’s stated intention to change jobs, and so directly influences staff turnover.

Chris Bell
Chris Bell

“Paradoxically, women may be more concerned about the process being fair than about the outcome,” said Chris Bell, lead author of the study and associate professor of organization studies at Schulich. “To reduce staff turnover, managers and organizations should be aware of the different gendered needs of their employees and the different impact that may be based on the way in which decisions about equity and justice are arrived at and communicated.

“At the same time, women should be aware of this gendered difference so they can be diligent in assessing justice and their response to being treated fairly,” said Bell.

Bell conducted the research with Careen Khoury, a PhD student with the Department of Social Psychology at York University. The researchers recruited men and women to participate in a two-wave survey of workplace attitudes by distributing flyers at subway exits in downtown Toronto. The authors controlled for and tested alternative models for distributive and interpersonal justice.

Most research on gender differences and responses to fairness has been based in the stereotype that women care more about relationships than men, said Bell.

“We took as our starting point the assumption that women may be confident in their own abilities but may also be aware of the widespread inequities in workplace outcomes, and so may have concerns that their outcomes can be controlled by others,” said Bell. “Procedural fairness directly addresses these kinds of concerns.”

Managers may feel no need to intervene if some workers receive a higher bonus than their co-workers, as long as the manager perceives the bonus distribution to be fair. However, this research suggests that it is especially important to communicate to women that workplace bonuses are arrived at through a just process than it is to distribute bonuses of fair amounts. The research suggests that female employees will be more accepting of a bonus distribution that is arrived at through a procedurally fair manner, even if their own bonus is less than what they would like.

The finding rests on a complex mediation of a procedural justice effect on organizational powerlessness and dehumanization in the workplace that in turn is related to turnover intentions.  Research and lay theories have emphasized that women value procedural justice because of inherently stronger relational needs. The findings of this study suggest gendered effects are due to broader social conditions affecting women’s instrumental and existential needs, or more particularly their need to feel control over their lives in an inequitable and so unpredictable world.

Most importantly, the finding is not related to innate gender differences but to endemic social inequities, the researchers say. Procedural justice is associated with basic human needs and the gendered effects in the study may be socially constructed.

The study has just been published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology and can be accessed online at