In Focus: What’s Really Holding Women Back at Work?

By Dana Wilkie September 30, 2015

Why don’t more women rise to the top? Cue the broken record:
Women rein in careers to spend time with family, are less ambitious than men and don’t have the confidence to be commanding in the C-suite. Not so fast. A new study finds that women aren’t abandoning careers in large numbers, that motherhood increases their appetite for promotions, and that they have the ambition and confidence to take on big jobs. Yet only a third of men and women say that advancing women is a priority for their direct boss. In fact, managers create barriers for women in ways they don’t intend. (Wall Street Journal)

Yet Anne-Marie Slaughter says, “It’s not a women’s problem, it’s a workplace problem.”
When Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote her 2012 article in The Atlantic titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”—which explored the difficulty of balancing a high-powered political job with raising her two sons—she ignited a debate about how far women’s lives were from the feminist dreams many had grown up with. In her new book, Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family (Random House, 2015), Slaughter looks at gender roles, the work world, and how public policy can reframe the issue of caring for children, the elderly and the larger community. (Salon)

In some industries, the problem is a ‘macho’ mentality.
Here’s the story of two companies, where the jobs were mostly blue-collar and labor-intensive, where women did work traditionally performed by men, and where physical strength and stamina were valued. And at both companies, female employees filed sometimes shocking charges of sexual harassment and discrimination—leading to millions of dollars in government settlements or plaintiffs’ awards. This is the sort of nightmare every HR manager wants to avoid. Yet how can an HR department be effective in companies where a “macho” culture can be a breeding ground for sexual harassment and discrimination? (SHRM Online)

Then there’s that old bias about ‘aggressive’ female bosses.
Shortly after news broke that Google ads for CEO positions targeted mostly men, a leading academic journal reported that some men are so threatened by female executives that they compensate by being aggressive toward female superiors. In an era when women are told gender equality will follow if they “lean in,” news and studies like these prompt questions on whether bias against women in the C-suite is so deeply ingrained—so much a part of our culture—that even the most proactive workplace diversity programs are fighting a losing battle. (SHRM Online)

Or the ‘Mommy Dead End.'
There’s the “mommy track”—which refers to the diminishing opportunities afforded working women after becoming mothers. And then there’s the plight of those trying to re-enter the workforce after staying home to care for children—which might well be called the “mommy (or daddy) dead end.” Women and men who try to restart their careers after spending years at home parenting often encounter interviewers skeptical that they’ve lost “the edge”—meaning the contacts, industry savvy and technical skills that one acquires while consistently employed. (SHRM Online)

Is there hope? Maybe. Some workplace benefits—like paid parental leave—may give women a leg up.
Working parents have been around for a long time. And it’s likely that any one of them could have told you that juggling a job while caring for an infant or newly adopted child can be mentally and physically exhausting. So why, just over the past few months, has there been a rush of companies offering paid parental leave, when it’s something working parents would almost certainly have welcomed decades ago? (SHRM Online)

Some leaders are pushing for paid paternity leave as an antidote to the ‘Mommy Track’
Until U.S. businesses give their male workers paid paternity leave—and insist that fathers use it—then taking time off a job to care for a newborn will continue to stigmatize mostly women, stalling their careers and deflating their earnings, argued several panelists during a New America Foundation seminar. (SHRM Online)

Pioneering companies are tackling ‘hidden bias’ head-on, investing in speakers and training.
“Hidden biases are not a sign of a bad person,” says Zabeen Hirji, CHRO of the Toronto-based Royal Bank of Canada, which in 2013 co-hosted, with Ernst & Young, a forum on hidden bias for 300 corporate and community leaders. “Most people have them. Once we accepted that … it allowed us to talk about these issues in a nonjudgmental way. What’s bad is not trying to understand what your unconscious biases are.” (HR Magazine)

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


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