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Stubborn Cultural, Societal Views Still Hinder Women at Work

Years of attention to gender inequity can't shake bias, stereotypes

In U.S. workplaces, men who speak at length are considered powerful. Women who do the same are perceived as chatty and incompetent. 

In a recent Canadian study, 90 percent of respondents said that image, including looks, has a substantial impact on a woman’s career progression. 

And it’s still hard for women to land high-level U.S. federal jobs, in part because they aren’t privy to the mentoring and social opportunities that men are. 

Those are just a few findings in recent studies, polls and books on women’s career advancement in North America. All of them indicate that years of attention and analysis devoted to gender inequity in employment can’t seem to shake the stubborn societal, cultural and systemic realities that create obstacles for women to advance. 

“We were very surprised to find that male and female stereotypes remain so strong,” said Caryl Rivers, co-author of The New Soft War on Women (Penguin, October 2013). “The man is the natural leader and competent. The woman is the caregiver and not that devoted to the job. Women buy into these stereotypes the same as men do, because the power of these stereotypes hasn’t vanished.” 

The book uses peer-reviewed research at top universities and in leading scholarly publications, as well as interviews, to reach the following conclusions: 

When a man and woman work as a team, the man gets the credit even if the woman has done most of the work and made most of the decisions. 

Women are judged on what they’ve actually done. For promising men, potential is enough to win the day. 

Women in high positions in male-dominated fields suffer harsher penalties when they slip up than men do. 

When men speak for a long time they are seen as powerful, forceful and competent. When women do the same, they are seen as gabbers and unable to do the job. 

“Nobody says, ‘I won’t hire or promote you because you’re a woman,’ but what we found is that these types of [biases] didn’t go away—they just went underground,” Rivers said. “Sometimes the people discriminating against you don’t even realize it. That’s why we call it a ‘soft’ war.”

The book describes a woman in her 40s who was running the editorial department at a large publication but didn’t succeed her boss when he retired, because he hired a 27-year-old newcomer—a man whom the boss explained “reminded me of myself at that age."

“When we interviewed women around the country, we heard lots of this,” Rivers said. “They’d say, ‘Look, I conceived this idea, put together the project, was the senior person, then a guy came in later, and when we presented the project to the board, all the questions were addressed to him. It was like I was a junior person.’ Women really have to speak up and take credit.” 

Yet, based on Yale University research, women who speak up too much are considered overly chatty or too aggressive, and this can make colleagues dislike them, the book points out. 

“It’s the competent but unlikable syndrome … the Hillary Clinton bind,” Rivers said. “We need much more education in companies about how this stereotype works. What we concluded is that if you don’t speak up, you’re going to get left behind, so you might as well speak up and take the risk of not being liked.” 

Assumptions About Women’s Priorities, Abilities

Similar findings cropped up in two December 2013 publications—one by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) and the second by a working group at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). 

In a press release, the EEOC group reported six major obstacles hindering equal opportunities for women in the federal workforce. They include inflexible schedules for women who are caregivers and unconscious gender biases and stereotypes that influence hiring and promoting decisions. 

There’s an “unconscious bias that a woman with caregiver obligations is not as committed to her career, and, therefore, she will not be considered for higher-level and management positions,” said Alexis D. Howard, an attorney and the lead writer on the Women’s Workgroup Report, written by a panel of EEOC representatives, affinity groups and diversity organizations. The EEOC report also found that women and men don’t earn the same average salary in the federal government. 

Said Howard: “There is a stereotypical assumption that if a man negotiates assertively for his starting salary he is ambitious, whereas if a woman negotiates assertively, she is aggressive.” 

In a Dec. 11, 2013, study, the NALP reported that the percentage of female associates at law firms fell for the fourth straight year. 

“Every year for last 25 or 30 years, the [gender] gap [in law associates] was closing,” said James Leipold, NALP’s executive director. “Now, for four years in a row, that gap has reversed. It’s a significant finding.”

What are the reasons? Leipold said that although most major law firms offer part-time and flexible schedules, very few men or women take advantage of them. “There’s still very much this culture of face time is important; you have to be available 24/7. There’s a cowboy ethos in these law firms about endurance and being there and working through the night. [Younger] women have an increasingly different set of values about work/life balance and working remotely, and for them the large-law-firm model is increasingly less appealing.” 

Looks, Maternity Leave Play Roles

An October 2013 survey conducted for Randstad Canada, a staffing, recruitment and HR-services company, unearthed a more unsettling issue that could affect women’s advancement: looks. 

In a poll of 501 female business leaders conducted by Ipsos-Reid for Randstad Canada, 90 percent of respondents said they believe that overall image, including looks, has a substantial effect on a woman's career progression. Only 37 percent said image has the same impact on a man’s career. ​

Women also cited the potential for maternity leave as a large “fear factor,” with 24 percent saying this impeded their promotions. Nearly half said that companies fear absences among female employees because of family commitments and that this also affects career progression. 

“Much has been said about Canada’s progressive business environment removing the glass ceiling for women in the workplace,” Randstad said in a press release. “Many of the key inhibitors to female progression are not easily identifiable factors that can be addressed by corporate policies or workplace procedures, because wider societal perceptions of women and the complexities of male and female interactions are at play.”

Said Randstad Canada’s chief people officer, Gina Ibghy: “There are still vast differences in the way women are treated in corporate Canada, and it isn't just about compensation and access to the corner office. Less measurable but no less important, factors restricting advancement and being provided chances to make business-critical decisions are at play.”

Even though most companies have written policies about gender equity, studies indicate only a small fraction of managers actively support those policies, according to Rivers. It’s important, she said, for women to boldly challenge biases affecting their careers, even at the risk of stepping on toes. 

“Once you bring these things into the open, people start saying ‘Gee.’ Most of this stuff is not malevolence or ‘Let’s keep women down.’ It’s ignorance and not being aware how deeply the stereotypes run. If you enlighten people, they will change their behavior, because it hurts individuals and the company’s bottom line.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


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