The Bias Battle Is Real

By Marilyn Faulkenburg and Sharon Allen August 3, 2022
The Bias Battle Is Real

​Women make up more than half of the current workforce in the United States, but they are dramatically underrepresented in higher levels of management. Only 6 percent of the highest-paid Fortune 500 company executives are women, and women in these positions earn  7 percent less than their male counterparts, on average.  The typical workplace reflects inconsistent views and cultural barriers that impede women's ability to move into senior levels of leadership.

Given these disparities in representation and salary between men and women at higher echelons of organizational leadership, executive management must review the characteristics that have enabled women to break through barriers at all levels of an organization, paying particular attention to the trait of grit and its role in career path trajectory. This process may prove instrumental in shaping policy and practice, ultimately removing barriers and facilitating the elevation of females into senior-level positions.

Race and Age as Challenges

In a recent study of women ages 60 and older in senior leadership roles, all survey respondents mentioned biases and stereotypes as significant barriers to career success. Whether they're based on age, gender or race, biases involve attitudes or beliefs that affect one's understanding, actions and decisions.

One survey participant stated, "I was in an environment of 'haves' and 'have nots,' and they were segregated very much on racial lines."

Another respondent painted a grim picture in stating, "Politics was the worst glass ceiling in terms of women; the political system is designed by men for men, by white men for white men."

Ageism can result from perceptions that an employee is either too young or too old, as demonstrated by another participant who stated, "I think that [older] women, if they don't have some credentials behind them, they're dismissed the same way that young women are."

For women to break through to higher echelons of leadership, these stereotypes must change, primarily through increasing awareness and professional development.  

In the fall 2014 edition of The Journal of Cultural Diversity, Eleanor Wilson emphasized the potentially devastating effects of stereotyping, stating:

"There is no situation within an organization or corporation where stereotyping of any kind should be tolerated. … It is the responsibility of executive level managers and leaders to model a no-tolerance policy regarding stereotyping. Without a firm foundation against stereotyping, transforming corporate America away from the glass ceiling phenomenon will be impossible and perpetuate further barriers."

Gender as a Challenge

In the business world, female leaders are still in the minority. This statement comes as no surprise to most of us. Men outpace women in leadership roles across every sector: corporate, nonprofit, government, education, medicine, military and religion.

During the past three decades, women have achieved parity with men in terms of labor force participation and representation in middle-management positions. Women now make up 57 percent of the total U.S. job market and 52 percent of all management roles and professional occupations, such as physicians and attorneys. They account for 60 percent of bachelor's degrees earned at U.S. universities and also outpace men in the total number of master's and doctoral degrees.

At Fortune 500 companies, however, women hold only 19 percent of board seats and 15 percent of executive officer positions. The number of female CEOs at these companies is a paltry 4 percent; that's 20 female CEOs, with male CEOs running the remaining 480 companies.

Can Women Have It All?

In a 2013 interview with Ann-Marie Slaughter, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated, "I do think women can have it all, but not all at the same time. Our life comes in segments, and we have to understand that we can have it all if we're not trying to do it all at once."

Albright was married for 22 years and raised three daughters. She candidly stated it wasn't until after her divorce that she began to focus on the potential of her career.

Despite a stellar career as a politician and diplomat, which included serving as the first female secretary of state, Albright said she faced gender biases borne out of the belief that familial duties are women's domain. For example, while taking care of some business on Capitol Hill as secretary of state, she was called upon to organize a carpool for her kid's school, prompting her to ask, "What in God's name does a woman have to be so that she doesn't have to worry about the carpool?"

Achieving balance between work and family obligations occurs when a person can sufficiently meet family commitments and adequately perform responsibilities at work. There is nothing wrong with working hard to get ahead, but this focus on career advancement can take a toll on people and relationships. For women, finding a balance between work and family is particularly challenging—and some are more successful at it than others.

The survey respondents in the study referenced earlier in this article frequently discussed the concept of balance, including managing the delicate equilibrium of family and career life, as well as the importance of self-care.

Leaha McCrite, co-owner of McCrite Milling and Construction Co., stated that the need for balance is critical. When she began the business with her husband and had a family, she had to figure it out. "The everyday challenges of all the things we just talked about, plus, if you're a woman leader—I hate to say it this way, but it's the truth—you've got to balance. You've got to balance that with your family, your children. To try to raise them pretty well. And that's a tough one."

Past studies of work/life balance rarely included leaders at the top with substantial family care responsibilities; this is not an issue that is considered important to men as leaders, and there are few top female leaders to be studied.

Continuous, full-time employment is typically a prerequisite for career success. If women are to achieve genuine equality in all aspects of life, that perspective will need to change. Careers should be customized to fit the reality of women's lives, allowing them to make meaningful investments in both occupation and family roles.

Employer Policies

To help mitigate or remove barriers, employers must provide strong C-suite support. They need to have policies that are inclusive, that address preconceptions and stereotypes, and that emphasize accountability. In addition, employers need to establish flexible work arrangements and work/life balance policies; create pipelines that identify, develop and promote women; and create mentoring programs to help women move up the career ladder. There should be flexible working conditions and social support to make it possible for women to combine work and family.

Clearly, female representation in leadership will not increase substantially without a significant shift in the culture, policies and practices of the organizations in which women work.

It is increasingly evident that employers with established flexible work arrangements, including work/life balance policies and tangible pipelines that identify, develop and promote women, will continue to make significant strides in elevating women into senior leadership roles—and then retaining them.

Marilyn Faulkenburg is a professor at Sullivan University and previously was vice president of human resources for Caesars Indiana, part of Caesars Entertainment. and a district manager for Target.

Sharon Allen is assistant dean and director of graduate business programs at Indiana University Southeast. 

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