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Column: Gender Inequality in the Workplace By Emma Wang

Tremendous amounts of talent are being lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt.”

-Shirley Chisholm, former Vice Chair of the Democratic House Caucus.

Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Union Commission, sat down hesitantly on an adjacent sofa as the president of Turkey and her colleague Charles Michel took the only two seats in the room. It was an awkward diplomatic situation at a top-level E.U. visit to Turkey; by protocol, von der Leyen should’ve sat next to Michel, but she was left standing as the two men nonchalantly looked around the room.

The moment took Twitter by storm. Soon, #GiveHerASeat and #Sofagate were trending, branding the snub as a sign of enduring sexism. As von der Leyen addressed a room of European lawmakers after the incident, she asked, “Would this have happened if I had worn a suit and a tie?” She had risen to the top of the executive branch of the EU, they were surrounded by cameras and still this incident was allowed to happen. What if there had been no cameras and no official status? How many more thousands of “sofagates” go unobserved and what price are we as a society paying for them?

There were almost 700 students in last year’s graduating class here at North. 50% of them were girls. Those who chose to go to college might become part of the class of 2025, where, if current trends continue, they will now outnumber their male counterparts. In fact, in the United States, girls earn 57% of the undergraduate degrees, 60% of the masters degrees, and 53% percent of the doctoral degrees (Sandberg, 15).

Enter the workforce. Women make up 48% of entry-level employees, but by the time we ascend to the C-suite, that number has sunk to 22%. Only 41 of the Fortune 500 companies (a ranking of America’s largest corporations by revenue) are led by a woman, twice the number in 2013, but still only 8%. Women – particularly women of color – remain dramatically underrepresented in the executive world.

As for outside the corporate world, we need look no further than our own government to see the same trend: a meager 27% of our representatives in the United States Congress are women. Globally, 22 of the 195 independent countries in the world have a woman head of state or government, and the United States has never been among their number.

How did this happen? How did 50% become 22%? How many women and young girls decided to give up after their “sofagate”? And more importantly, how can our generation do better?

Part 1: Childhood Impressions

I’m too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it with me.”

–JCPenney T-shirt for girls, 2011.

When I was in elementary school, we used to have spelling quizzes every week. Whenever we got 100%, my girlfriends and I would mute our achievements, even to each other, while the boys openly compared scores. It seemed presumptuous and brazen for us girls to broadcast our achievements, and when we got older, it felt unnatural – unattractive, even. Why? Were girls naturally more timid than their male peers, less willing to speak up?

Across the country, in the classrooms which deeply shape our beliefs and values as children, gender biases endure. Studies have shown that unconsciously, teachers tend to expect higher performance from boys than from girls. A 2015 study found that girls often score higher than boys on math tests, but “once presented with recognizable boy and girl names on the same tests, teachers award higher scores to boys.” Further, from preschool to university, men receive more instruction and attention from teachers than women. Teachers are more likely to call on male students even when both sexes volunteer equally; they give as much as ⅔ of their time to male students; they prompt boys to speak more and reward quietness from girls; and perhaps most importantly, they are more likely to give male students constructive, positive criticism while offering only vague and superficial remarks to female students. For example, women are more likely to receive feedback on an assignment about neatness and appearance, and men are more likely to hear about the innovativeness of their work and be encouraged to explore deeper.

These discrepancies give many women the impression that their input is less important, or that it is better to sit down and wait to be spoken to by their superiors. But, as Sheryl Sandberg said, in a world where “career progression often depends on taking risks and advocating for oneself,” and calling out answers is rewarded more often than silent hand-raising, the instincts that so many women leave the classroom with are not a formula for success.

Part 2: Likeable or Successful

A man has to be Joe McCarthy to be called ruthless… all a woman has to do is put you on hold.

–Marlo Thomas, actress

By the time we reach the workplace, these implicit biases are entrenched, so much so that they impact who gets employed, fired, promoted and demoted. In 2003, researchers from Columbia Business School presented students with the hypothetical resume of a Silicon Valley venture capitalist. Half of the students were told that the applicant was male; the other half was told that the applicant was female. The consensus was that the applicants (named Heidi and Howard) were equally competent, but the students liked Howard more. Men and women alike thought that Heidi was not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for.” Deborah Gruenfeld at Stanford University observed that “the more assertive a student found the female venture capitalist to be, the more they rejected her.” Heidi, an assertive and successful woman, flew in the face of stereotypes of nurturing, communal women and strong, assertive men. The result was that the students disliked her and admired Howard, who had the exact same credentials.

This study demonstrates a hard truth that may explain why so many women are hesitant to share their achievements and own their success: for women, success and likeability are negatively correlated. When female managers are forceful and assertive, as their job requires, they are seen as rude and socially inept. Carly Fiorina, the first woman to run a Fortune top 20 company, recalled being routinely referred to as “either a bimbo or a bitch.” We not only expect a woman to be more nurturing than a man; we expect her to be nurturing above all else, and when she defines herself first by another quality, such as ambition or assertiveness, we feel uncomfortable. In the workplace, this means that a woman who advocates for herself is likely to be seen as selfish, while a woman who helps others often doesn’t have her favor returned or compensated because she is expected to be communal in the first place. Studies have shown that women know this, and act accordingly: Harvard Business Review found that “men [rate] their performance 33% higher than equally performing women,” and when it comes time for employment or promotion, workers who rate their own performance highly and assert their good qualities are more likely to be hired or promoted. So, while a woman is doomed to stagnate in the workplace if she does not assert herself, she is rebuked as selfish and unlikeable if she does.

This “likeable or successful” phenomenon is present in politics as well as the workplace. A study at Harvard Kennedy University found that “voters are less likely to vote for female politicians when they perceive them as power-seeking, though male politicians are not penalized.” To both men and women participants, power-seeking men were viewed as competent and tough, while power-seeking women inspired moral outrage and contempt. Aside from the blatant examples of sexism at the highest levels of government (see Representative Ted Yoho’s remarks to AOC last year), some voter perceptions shift more subtly. Each time Hillary Clinton announced a run for office – in 2000 for the Senate, and in 2008 and 2016 for the presidency – her approval rating plummeted; no such phenomenon was observed for men. In 2016, Clinton was described as “flawed,” “disconnected,” “polarizing,” and “unlikeable” by critics who insisted that their view of her was uninfluenced by her gender and suggested Elizabeth Warren as a viable alternative. Four years later, Elizabeth Warren was running for president, and news pundits began comparing her to Clinton, deeming her too cold, too divisive, too shrill, too… unlikeable. The moment she declared her ambition for more power, critics turned on her; after all, a female senator is much less unnerving than a woman running for president.

Other than the hypocrisy of such attacks, the problem with the way these women and countless others are treated in public discourse is that young women of the next generation perceive that this is the cost of being ambitious. Sarah Hamilton, a 21-year-old in San Francisco, recalled her admiration for Hillary Clinton as a female role model, but admitted, “All of those women have shown you can rise above that stuff, and you can be in those positions and succeed. But I think for a lot of little girls and people like me, they see that and think, ‘If that’s what it takes to achieve that position, I don’t think it’s worth it.’”

While changing biases may take decades, easier changes are being made. The current administration under President Joe Biden has the most diverse cabinet in American history, and research shows that the more adolescent girls see high-profile role models from one’s ethnic or gender group in the media, the more likely they are to become politically involved; it is safe to say that this correlation also applies to other fields such as business and management. Within each of these spaces, it is important to reach critical mass, or a point at which being from a particular ethnic or gender group is no longer notable; for example, we will no longer say, “female vice president,” but simply, “vice president.” Reaching critical mass at the leadership level gives others the initiative they need to follow suit. Meanwhile, reaching it within any group can dissipate stigmas about formerly underrepresented groups, increase faith in everyone’s competence, and normalize having leaders from all different groups.

Part 3: Parenthood and Domestic Responsibilities

Instead of a structural solution and policies, we’ve relied on the unpaid labor of women, who are at a breaking point.”

–Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, chief executive of MomsRising

During the COVID-19 pandemic, economies around the world suffered from spikes in unemployment. These layoffs disproportionately affected women in the workplace: women make up 39% of global employment but accounted for 54% of job losses. One explanation for this discrepancy is that men and women tend to cluster into certain fields, and those in which women cluster, such as retail, arts and public administration, are more vulnerable to job losses during an economic crisis. But in the United States, even before the pandemic, women made up 46% of the workforce and 54% of job losses. Studies suggest several reasons for this difference: first, women overall bear the brunt of household chores and childcare. The annual American Time Use Survey from 2018 found that 20% of men did housework compared to 49% of women. On an average day where a man and a woman have a toddler under the age of 6, the woman spent 1.1 hours on childcare, compared to 0.4 for the man. Globally, women do about 75% of unpaid work at home, meaning that many working mothers work a “double shift” – a full day at work, and an evening of household chores and childcare. Because women often bear so much of this burden, they are much more likely to give up and leave the workplace. Further, in times of crisis, such as during a pandemic, the burden of childcare increases: a study conducted by CNBC found that since the pandemic, women are 28% more likely to experience burnout than men due to unequal demands at home, and because of the way their communities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, “cases of burnout are higher among Black, Asian and Latino mothers compared to their White counterparts.”

Uneven responsibilities at home help explain why so many working women are asked, “How do you do it all?” or “How do you balance your career and your kids?” questions that working men rarely face. Many women fear that they will be seen as prioritizing family over work and thus fired in favor of a worker who does not deal with such a conundrum. Their fears are unfortunately justified; research has shown that “even when women maintain their professional ambitions, motherhood often triggers strong and blatant workplace bias.” An employer is 21% as likely to hire a new mother than a childless woman, half as likely to promote her, and will, on average, offer her $11,000 less. Some women are happy to take unpaid leave when they have a child, but those who want to continue working often see their careers stall. Eventually, they may give up and tell employers that they are leaving for family reasons, when in reality they have found the workplace hostile and unwelcoming to new mothers. “In other words, to remain employable, women sometimes find that they have to stick to gender stereotypes.” The price we pay for these biases is that women suffer burnout and leave the workplace, worsening the gender gap in the workforce. One path towards correcting implicit biases against mothers in the workplace begins with reform at the highest levels which changes the status quo. For example, the United States is the only rich country in the world who does not mandate paid maternity leave, and one of few without subsidized child care; if we are serious about change, we must amend this.

On the other hand, just as women face challenges in the workplace over the responsibilities they bear at home, men confront similar challenges at home. While women are commended (and rightfully so) for the work of raising the next generation, men face stereotypes and societal expectations which diminish their role as fathers. Stay-at-home dads often feel isolated from the stay-at-home moms, who drastically outnumber them at a ratio of 1:15, and ostracized from other men who view child care as non congruent with traditional masculinity. Men who are not breadwinners are at risk of being ridiculed by their friends, family, and community, and their spouses: in a 2011 study by Chelsey, one female participant even acknowledged that she felt that her husband should “go get a job.” Despite the social backlash, a study from Merla (2008) found that many stay-at-home dads report feeling closer to their partner and children, and view themselves as making choices with their spouse that they believe to be in their family’s best interest. Nontraditional parenting roles can also cause working women to feel more committed to their children, and help men learn skills of nurturing and communication that can be applied in all of life’s relationships.

If we want to support women in the workplace, we need to equally support men in the home. Evolutionary history of men being strong, capable providers and women being nurturing, communal caregivers does not have to dictate our conscious choices in the modern world. Just as we learn to control our survivalistic urges to eat foods high in fat and carbohydrates, we can learn to break out of traditional gender roles at home and in the workplace so that each person, regardless of their gender, can pursue a purpose that fulfills them.

Part 4: Women of Color

If you look like the people who are making the decisions, it’s easier to advance.”

-VICE PRESIDENT [LEAN IN]

After the vice presidential debate last year between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence, pundits branded Harris “Hillary Clinton in blackface.” They complained that she was too arrogant and catty, and found fault with her facial expressions and the tone of her voice. When Pence interrupted Harris, she reminded him, “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking,” and for this, she was called snarky, rude and aggressive. Actor James Wood tweeted, “Kamala Harris behaved like a ‘Valley Girl,’ smirking and rolling her eyes like a petulant brat, dodging every question she was asked.” Could the institutionalized racism and sexism, and the acceptance of degrading stereotypes about women and women of color, be any more obvious?

A discussion about gender inequality in the workplace would be incomplete without addressing these women who stand at the intersection of race and gender. For example, the “likeable vs. successful” dilemma is compounded for Black women, who are “no more likely to express anger than any other group of Americans,” but are, like Kamala Harris, stereotyped as angry black women. Microaggressions, subtle actions which discredit someone on the basis of their gender or race, are a common experience for women, especially women of color. 40% of black women, 28% of white women, 28% of Latinas, and 30% of Asian women have needed to provide evidence of their competence after having it questioned.

These incidents, though perhaps insignificant when isolated, can add up over time: “women who experience microaggressions are three times as likely to think about leaving their job than those who don’t.” Further, surveys indicate that Black women receive less support from mentors and managers, and are less likely to interact with senior leaders. In a corporate world where making connections is invaluable, this means that many Black women are left out of the loop and remain at lower-level positions. Indeed, Black women are severely underrepresented at the executive level – they make up 7.4% of the US population, but about 1.4% of C-suite positions – and for every two promotions received by white men, black women receive one.

Often, underrepresentation can be a self-perpetuating cycle; the less women of color there are in the workplace, the harder it is for them to identify with their colleagues or climb the ladder when their presence is an anomaly. Despite the fact that black women are equally motivated as white men to be a leader and improve their workplaces, the truth is, we are a long way from a world in which women of color can expect equal opportunity and treatment in the workplace. Changing the status quo will mean difficult but absolutely necessary progress inside and outside of the workplace.

Part 5: Women in STEM

Diversity drives innovation – when we limit who can contribute, we in turn limit what problems we can solve.”

–TELLE WHITNEY, FORMER CEO OF THE ANITA BORG INSTITUTE FOR WOMEN AND TECHNOLOGY

From childhood, a confidence gap in the STEM fields appears between the genders. By second grade, before there is any performance difference, boys are more likely to say they are strong in math. Meanwhile, by third grade, many girls lose confidence in math. Throughout elementary and middle school, a masculine culture envelopes the STEM fields: girls and boys hear the same lessons about Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and many more men who founded the technology companies which students use every day. Especially in computer science, stereotypes of scientists almost always include that they are male and narrow stereotypes attract a narrow group of people. The stories of women in STEM are rarely told and slowly, young girls and boys alike begin to see STEM as a masculine field and liberal arts as a feminine field.

Once we get to high school, these cultural perceptions begin to have a serious effect on performance. A study from 2008 which analyzed data from an AP Calculus AB test found that girls who reported their gender before taking the exam performed 33% worse than girls who reported their gender after taking the exam (a phenomenon known as the stereotype threat). Researchers estimated that 5.9% of girls who would’ve otherwise gained college credit for the exam did not, simply because they selected “female” at the top of their test. Here at Naperville North, 11 of the 38 members of our math team are female. If you visited math classes in increasing difficulty from Precalculus to Multivariable Calculus, you would see a lower and lower percentage of girls with each classroom. If current trends continue, by the time our graduating class of 2022 reaches college, only about 20% of engineering and computer science majors will be women, even while numerous studies have shown no cognitive biological difference between male and female abilities in STEM. Therefore, the most plausible reason for this gender gap is that implicit and explicit social messaging, from elementary school to the workforce, cultivates the idea that STEM is an inherently masculine field.

We have made significant progress since a century ago, when women heavily occupied jobs as teachers, waitresses, nurses and telephone operators. But in the last two decades, female participation in the STEM industries has flatlined, and the United States still has one of the world’s largest gender gaps in high school STEM performance tests. The cost of this discrepancy is one we cannot afford to pay in a field like STEM which many deem the future. For example, AI facial recognition software created by Microsoft in 2019 identified an image of Michelle Obama as “a young man wearing a black shirt” with 80% confidence, and deduced that she was wearing a “hairpiece” with 94% confidence. Similar facial recognition software from Amazon identified both Oprah Winfrey and Serena Williams as “male.” It’s easy to laugh at these mistakes, but they become less surprising when we learn that as of 2019, only 2% of employees in technical roles at Facebook and Google are black, and women hold just 27% of the jobs in the tech industry. These facial recognition software, overwhelmingly created by white and Asian men and tested on the same demographic, are just one example of how a lack of diversity hampers progress. We are on the cusp of a third industrial revolution driven by the STEM industries, but a lack of gender diversity in these industries, particularly at the executive level, not only excludes women and girls from this economic boom – it also hurts the industry by hampering its ability to reach everyone in society. We owe it to future generations to ensure that this third industrial revolution, which is happening just as we come of age, taps into the talent and innovation that all people, regardless of their gender, have to offer.

Final Thoughts

So please ask yourself: What would I do if I weren’t afraid? And then go do it.”

–SHERYL SANDBERG, COO OF FACEBOOK

In 2019, the Wall Street Journal published an article summarizing their analysis of the S&P 500 companies, and the first sentence read, “Diverse and inclusive cultures are providing companies with a competitive edge over their peers.” This is one of the largest analyses which tries to address the question of whether diversity really makes firms more productive and innovative. In other words, can gender equality be approached as more than a social issue – can we correlate it with the core motivation of every business model: economic performance in the long run?

A cumulative analysis conducted by Harvard Business Review across 35 countries and 24 industries yielded a nuanced answer: “Countries and industries that view gender diversity as important capture benefits from it.” They found that in societies like the United States and Europe where working women were normatively accepted, workers valued gender diversity, even considering it when scouting a potential workplace. They also developed more innovative ideas when part of diverse teams because their culture better emphasized the value of all voices. Columbia Business School professor Katherine Phillips wrote, “Diversity jolts us into cognitive action in ways that homogeneity simply does not.” Differences of thought force us to anticipate alternate viewpoints and help us avoid the psychological phenomenon of groupthink, but only in environments where we value diverse voices. Thus, diversity is a self-fulfilling prophecy: its benefits are dependent on what firms and societies expect to gain from it.

How to approach diversity programs and policies in the workplace is a complex question with many conflicting viewpoints that society must answer. But there is a difference between company policy and individual effort; the former without the latter is meaningless. If our generation is to reap the benefits of diversity, as firms in the studies above did, we must recognize that each of us has the agency and the responsibility to act. Gender equality in the United States is now closer to fruition today than it has been perhaps in the history of the modern world. We stand on the shoulders of activists who have given us this moment, a moment which we must seize. We have a responsibility to future generations to educate ourselves about the biases that are present in our lives, to challenge traditional gender roles in the workplace and at home, and to encourage people of all genders to pursue the field of their passion without having it labelled as “masculine” or “feminine.” And individual by individual, family by family, we can move closer to inclusion and equality for all.

Finally, each one of us is more empowered than we realize to effect change because we are all privileged in some way. As a minority woman in STEM, I may face an uphill battle, but I’m also grateful for my personal privileges: I grew up in a family where my parents supported my brother and I equally in the fields we wanted to enter and gave us the same resources and opportunities to explore all different subjects. They did not assume that I would go less far or be less ambitious because I was a girl, or that my brother would be naturally authoritative or interested in the sciences because he was a boy. My teachers inspired me to pursue my passions, and my math teachers, particularly those at Naperville North, were inexhaustible in their support and dedication towards any extra-curricular activities my peers and I wanted to explore. I am wildly privileged to have enjoyed such a nurturing environment. Through tutoring middle school and high school girls in mathematics, helping them through their struggles, and writing this article in the hopes of bringing awareness to this subject, I have discovered the power of my privilege.

I believe that the first key to social change is awareness of a problem with the status quo. Only once we have learned about what is wrong in society can we hope to change it. Awareness gives us the power to act on a cause we believe in; therefore, it is also a form of privilege. So I ask you, my fellow classmates: what will you do with yours?

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