Gender equality in the workplace is not a new discussion. Since the 1960s tomes have been written about the gender wage gap and its effects on women, society, and the economy. The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act came into being less than a decade ago, bringing with it a torrent of press, reports, and analytical think pieces. And more recently, even some of Hollywood’s best have devoted whole Oscar speeches to motivating for wage equality.
But with wages taking center stage in the debate about leveling the playing field in the workplace, other issues are often overlooked. According to experts, a complicated mix of biology, bias, and societal fears have converged to make it challenging for women to achieve the same professional triumphs as men. Wages are a symptom and – perhaps more notably – a barometer that can be used to measure a bigger problem, according to Ariane Hegewisch, a researcher at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) in Washington, DC.
What IS Equity in the Workplace Anyway?
According to employment attorney Heather Bussing, who practices law in Sebastopol, CA, true workplace equality doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone is treated exactly the same. While on the surface her comment might seem to conflict with basic tenants of equality, Bussing believes that, while women should have equal opportunity, women and men can’t be treated identically in the workplace because men and women are inherently different.
Bussing said that for many years the feminist war cry for equality in the workplace missed the mark by not taking into account the irrefutable biological differences between the sexes and what those differences demand of us. It’s just a fact, she said, that women are the ones who physically give birth and who breastfeed, and for true workplace equality, companies and the culture must take that into account.
While it’s a great thing to give both parents time off to bond with their babies, companies must take into account that a mother’s needs are going to be different than a father’s needs by virtue of the fact that she is the one who has just given birth,” she continued. “I think a truly even playing field would mean not penalizing women for that, and looking at these broader issues so that people really can have equal opportunity.
Caregiving vs. Work: A Tough Competition
Both Hegewisch and Bussing believe that in order to create a modern workplace that is truly blind to gender, motherhood, and other caregiving responsibilities – caring for elderly parents, for example – must be part of the discussion.
Women who have children are considered less committed to their careers than their childless counterparts, a bias that does not apply to men, Bussing said. Hegewisch agrees, adding that the mechanics of biology also get in women’s way when it comes to work. The typical American career trajectory is determined in the 10 or so years after college – from, say, age 23 to a worker’s mid-30s, which, she points out, also happens to be the time in life when women who desire a family are typically giving birth and taking time off to care for children. She points to a study done by the University of Chicago in 2011 which discovered only modest wage gaps for newly minted MBAs – with men earning slightly more than their female counterparts.
However, 10 to 15 years after graduation, the salary disparity between genders rose to a whopping 40%. According to Hegewisch, the study found that anyone who had taken more than six months out of the workforce – which is typical for women with children – was left behind on the earnings pattern.
The typical American career trajectory is determined in the 10 or so years after college, which happens to coincide with the time in life when women are typically giving birth and taking time off to care for children.
Bussing is adamant that a major part of the problem with women and work is the American concept that work should come before all else – or else. She believes that a level playing field would mean a world in which work life made accommodations for “real” life, allowing for time for motherhood and caregiving experiences without penalty. During the 1970s and 1980s, she said, women saw that motherhood hampered their careers and their earning power and some delayed having children or opted not to have them at all to mitigate what they saw as an inevitable bias in the workplace.
They felt they had to out-men the men at work by being smarter, working harder…,” Bussing said. “This nearly impossible choice served to reinforce the perception that women without children were more committed to their careers. They were. Yet, I’m not sure anyone has ever truly acknowledged the impossible position and heart-wrenching choices women had to make, and often still do.
Research supports Bussing’s observations. According to a Gallup paper, “kids are a company’s greatest competition,” meaning that motherhood directly informs a woman’s decision about whether to stay in the workforce. Among women who are employed and do not have a child under the age of 18, the study found that 70% prefer to work outside the home, while that number falls to 40% for women who have children under the age of 18.
Other Issues Are Also in Play at Work
Even women who are childless are not immune to gender inequality at work. According to Women in the Workplace 2016, a joint study by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org, women are less than half as likely as men to say they see a lot of people like them in senior management. In fact, only one in five senior executives is a woman.
Even fewer women end up in line to become CEO. According to a study that tracks S&P 500 companies, in 2015 90% of new CEOs were promoted or hired from line roles, and 100% of them were men.
At senior levels, we see women shift from line to staff roles, while the percentage of men in line roles remains about the same. (A “line function” is one that directly advances an organization in its core work. These roles include production and sales, and sometimes also marketing. A “staff function,” on the other hand, supports the organization with specialized advisory and support functions. For example, human resources, accounting, public relations and the legal department are generally considered to be staff functions.) According to the Women in the Workplace 2016 report, by the time women reach the SVP level, they hold a mere 20% of line roles. This hurts their odds of getting the top job because the vast majority of CEOs come from line positions.
These inequities appear to take a toll on working women. Women are less likely than their male counterparts to think they have equal opportunities for growth and development, and women are more likely to think their gender plays a role when they miss out on a raise or promotion. Finally, at every level, women express less interest in becoming a top executive, and those who do want a top spot are less confident that they will achieve their career goals.
“It’s not quite clear yet why women are being lost at this stage, but it does look as if it’s because they are not being considered for these roles,” Hegewisch said. “At the C-suite level, it seems to me that there may be bias at play.”
She also believes that in order to eliminate this kind of gender discrimination, companies must put measures in place to make hiring and promotion fair. Using panels made up of a variety of different types of people to make hiring decisions would help even the playing field for women, she said. Additionally, making the criteria for hiring and advancement completely transparent would help ensure diversity across the board.
Hegewisch also said that, for a variety of reasons, women often miss out on the informal mentoring opportunities that men receive in and out of the workplace. American employees, she said, have often had so much sexual harassment training in the workplace that some bosses live in fear of even the slightest perception of impropriety. As a result, some don’t want to risk extra attention being misconstrued, meaning women lose out on valuable face time.
Use your energy to find the places that treat women well; there are more and more of these companies popping up all the time.
– Heather Bussing, employment attorney
What Can Be Done
For women who may find themselves in a discriminatory workplace, Bussing has some advice: Get out.
Don’t feel like you have to stay at a place that doesn’t treat you well,” Bussing said. “Find a new job. Use your energy to find the places that treat women well; there are more and more of these companies popping up all the time. I also think that women should not be afraid to start their own companies and do things their own way. It is easier now than it has ever been to build a company and there is no reason not to try new things. Women should consider finding new places and founding new places to work that cater to what people actually need.