How to ensure your company’s tools amplify women’s voices

How to ensure your company’s tools amplify women’s voices

With Pooyan Khashabi and Maren Mickeler


Julia Smith, Editor-in-Chief of ESSEC Knowledge: Hello everyone and welcome to Be in the Know, the ESSEC Knowledge podcast sharing the expertise of ESSEC professors. Today I'm talking to Maren Mickeler and Pooyan Khashabi, both management professors at ESSEC, about their latest work on knowledge-seeking in digital settings. They were actually the runner up for the ESSEC Foundation Research Award for this research. So to kick things off, can you each tell me a little bit about your research interests?

Maren Mickeler, Assistant Professor of Management: Of course, and first of all, thank you for the opportunity to be here today. My research basically studies the influence of new technologies on employee collaboration. This includes topics on knowledge exchange, but also help and advice-seeking and provision - so everything that includes the influence of new technologies on how individuals interact in the workplace.

Julia Smith: Oh, really interesting. Thank you, Maren. How about you, Pooyan?

Pooyan Khashabi, Associate Professor of Management: Thank you very much for having me here as well. My research is at the intersection of organization design, strategic human capital and technology strategy. So it's about how firms organize their human capital to gain a competitive advantage in the face of technology and also how the organization design of companies and organization of human capital help companies to innovate and get new technologies. I use empirical and experimental methods, like this paper that we’re going to talk about today.  

Julia Smith: Awesome. Thank you so much. It sounds like you both do really interesting work that complements each other really well. So for this paper, what led you to conduct this research and what were your main research questions? 

Dr. Mickeler: The start of this project was pretty interesting. We got contacted by a huge management consulting firm that faced a severe problem. They had invested quite a lot into a new knowledge sharing tool, a platform that basically everyone in the firm had access to. But the problem was that no one was using it. So they contacted us and asked us, can you help us? How can we motivate people to actively use the platform? So we sat together and we talked about a lot of different possibilities about how to do that. 

The actual route we chose to go down was motivated by my experience back when I was working in industry. I worked before I joined the PhD program. I worked in industry in two large corporations, and they also had these knowledge sharing tools. The problem was again, no one was using them, but interestingly, everyone was theoretically interested in doing so. They just didn't want to broadcast the fact that they did not know something in front of everyone else on the platform or the firm. So we thought about how we can try to mute exactly this concern. A very easy way to do so is to just take away information on the sender of this information. So this is how we started to think about whether we can maybe play around with different levels of information provision when you're active on these platforms. 

Julia Smith: Okay, very interesting. How did you go about exploring this? 

Dr. Khashabi: So this is a delicate research question because we wanted to check the mechanisms that stop people from asking questions. Because of this, we needed a controlled setting that is best probably achieved via experiments -  the first best, most of the time, is to do a randomized controlled trial in the field with companies, but it's very difficult to run experiments with companies, and also at that time COVID happened. 

That's why we decided to move to labs and do lab experiments, and most lab experiments should be informed by theory. Based on our observations, experiences of people including Maren, and anecdotes, we first categorized costs that stop people or discourage people from asking questions. As this paper is about how to motivate people, that was why we focused on the costs. We categorize things into two types of costs. One was social-psychological costs. So these are driven by others' perception of oneself. So if I feel that others can assume I'm not knowledgeable, I may feel kind of embarrassed and ashamed, or I may feel inferior. That is one type of cost that stops people from seeking knowledge and participating on these sorts of platforms.

The second one is the economic costs, or tangible costs. These refer to future tangible losses affecting individuals, in our case when they decide to participate on these platforms. In our lab experiment, we managed to kind of mute these costs separately. In one of the settings, we have a setting with full costs, which resembles the real world, in the other one we totally mute the economic costs so our participants can ask questions without having economic losses and penalties, so the only cost probably happening there is this social-psychological cost, and then in one setting we have no costs 

We measure and register how people seek knowledge and ask questions there. Of course, lab experiments are great because they are very clean and they create a very isolated environment. This comes with the cost that you have in experiments: they're good in internal validity but they are not good in external validity. This means they don't closely mimic the real world and they are not generalizable to the real world. That's why we complemented it with a survey experiment, we sent our survey questions and scenarios to real-world practitioners.  We asked them to imagine scenarios with their own platforms. And in all cases, it kind of matches our lab experiment. In one scenario, they have full costs, and in the other scenario, participating and seeking knowledge on this platform has only psychological costs, and in the other one there is absolutely no cost.

Julia Smith: Okay, very interesting. What were your main findings? 

Dr. Khashabi: So in the lab, we noticed that the first result is pretty intuitive: once you reduce seeking-knowledge costs, which are associated with seeking knowledge, people's knowledge-seeking and participation on the platform rises and this rise is quite significant. So in the case of full costs, there is a level of seeking which is not huge, and then when you mute the economic considerations and economic costs, people seek more knowledge and are more participative and then when you mute the social-psychological costs and in the scenario with no costs, people seek [knowledge] even further.

But the very interesting thing here is the difference across men and women, female and male participants. We noticed that, at least in our lab experiment, men only care about economic considerations. So, muting or not muting social-psychological costs in the lab didn't make it much different. But when you muted the economic considerations and economic losses, that really encouraged men to seek knowledge. Females were more responsive to lifting and muting social-psychological costs, so their reaction was more balanced. And when you reduce social-psychological costs, you'd see that it was a big hurdle for women's participation on platforms. And they also react to removing economic considerations and costs. Results from the survey experiment are very consistent with this, it confirms that women benefit more, female participants benefit more, from concealing their information on these platforms and disclosing their information at least discourages them from participating on platforms 

Julia Smith: Thank you. And how do you think the world of work can use these findings? Is there a way that employers can encourage equality while using digital technologies?

Dr. Mickeler: Yeah, so I think our findings are very interesting because of two main reasons. The first is that very often in companies, you soon learn that the more people you know, the more connected that you are, this gives you a larger stage to broadcast your experience and your personal success. But there's also a downside that comes with this, because your behavior gets literally broadcasted to a larger group of people. 

Now our paper nicely shows that, especially when it comes to behaviors that have some cost implications, in a way that you might feel ashamed to open up about a lack of knowledge on a particular topic. These larger stages are not always good. These larger stages are very often nowadays a consequence of technologies that are implemented in firms, because technologies like platform solutions are very cost efficient in giving you access to a large crowd of people at the same time. This is great, if you think about this from a perspective where you want to source knowledge from others that you might not know personally. But again, it also comes with the problem that a lot of people that you might not even know learn about you and your lack of knowledge on something. 

 This prevents people from being active on these platforms that theoretically have a huge benefit for everyone. We think that with the findings we have at hand, we can inform firms how to smartly set up these platforms and this is already possible by slight tweaks to the architecture of these platforms.

 We find that for seekers, so the people that actually post questions on these platforms, anonymity, or at least a reduction of information provided on their identity, can already help a lot.

But we're also very clear about the fact that this might not be the case for the people that provide the knowledge. Because if you actually contribute your expertise on the platform, you want to be recognized. So this is a very important differentiation we do. We only focus on the seeking side and we basically focus on the cost that might come with your behaviors on these platforms. We think it's a very easy way to implement all our findings in real life in a way that these platforms are very flexible in setting up. It's a very cost-efficient way of increasing participation on the platform without almost any downside. Of course, what we cannot do is to say anything about the long-term consequences. This might come with anonymity on the seeking side of these platforms, but we do believe that they do help in the first place to spur activity on the platform. 

Julia Smith: Yeah, it sounds like a very actionable item that firms can take to encourage employee buy-in. Are there any other implications that you like to share for the world of work? 

Dr. Khashabi: So I fully agree with the points that Maren makes. Let me echo them in another way: I think we have come a long way in removing barriers for female participation, historically,  I mean, removing some of the discriminations that women have faced. And it would be very unfortunate if new advancements in technology, new forms of work, virtual work, give rise to sort of a new gender gap in the workplace. Our results show two things. One is that it shows that there is a concern and you might have these issues because of the “many too many” nature of platforms, but also they point to solutions in platform and work design.

Which is like, providing information smartly, designing these platforms, considering the findings of research might be a way to solve these issues for more participation of not only women but also maybe other minorities. And I think our work kind of sits well and is consistent with these new waves of work about design of platforms. Think about interesting works about Uber or Amazon that show that sometimes managing the disclosure of information can make the marketplace more participative and safer for minorities. I think this is important.

Julia Smith: I definitely agree, especially since organizations everywhere are using this kind of online tool. So it's important to think about how it impacts the employee experience. Thank you so much for sharing this really interesting work and for chatting with me today and I look forward to reading more of your research. 

Further reading

Mickeler, M., Khashabi, P., Kleine, M., & Kretschmer, T. (2023). Knowledge seeking and anonymity in digital work settings. Strategic Management Journal44(10), 2413-2442.

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