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Workplace Discrimination Erodes Confidence in Women's Abilities

Women and men perceive women as less capable, due to discrimination

A group of business people standing in front of each other.
​International Women's Day is a time to celebrate women's economic, political and social achievements. But despite the gains they've experienced over the past several decades, women continue to be plagued by discrimination at work.While both men and women encounter workplace discrimination, the psychological consequences of perceived gender discrimination at work manifest differently in each sex, according to research by the University of Southern California (USC) Marshall School of Business.The report, published in the Academy of Management Journal, indicated that perceived gender discrimination reduces both men's and women's sense of belonging in the workplace. However, the study showed that gender discrimination decreases self-efficacy among women but not among men.Leigh Tost, the study's lead author, defines self-efficacy as a person's confidence in one's ability to carry out work tasks."We found that the stories that women tell about gender discrimination focus, at least in part, on patriarchal assumptions about women's lack of competence and suitability for the workplace and for leadership [roles]," Tost said.

For example, a woman who participated in the survey said a manager once stated that only men can handle certain professional tasks. Another female participant said she's received comments from male colleagues about how women should be at home cooking, cleaning or raising children instead of being employed.

Many men said their organizations are likely to discriminate against them to reduce inequality against women, according to the report. For example, some men believe that they weren't considered for a promotion because top management wanted to elevate a woman due to historical injustices against women.

"Early on, the biggest surprise was how often men reporting feeling that they've been discriminated against or that they're likely to be discriminated against at work," Tost said.

Discrimination Common Among Women

About 4 in 10 U.S. women have experienced discrimination at work because of their gender, according to a 2017 report by the Pew Research Center.

The study found that women were more likely than men to believe they've been treated as if they're incompetent, receive less support from senior leadership, be passed over on important assignments and experience repeated slights at work.

Additional examples of gender discrimination at work include women being:

  • Paid less than men despite having similar job responsibilities.
  • Evaluated or held to a different standard due to gender.
  • Excluded from important meetings.
  • Fired or demoted due to a pregnancy.
  • Subjected to unwanted sexual advances.

Anna Baird, chief revenue officer for the sales platform Outreach in Seattle, is familiar with gender discrimination at work.

In past job experiences, Baird was instructed by employers not to wear pants, only skirts. She was even in a situation where she begged to be let out of a moving vehicle due to unwanted advances from a colleague.

"Every woman in business, myself included, has at least a few personal stories of discrimination," Baird said. "I don't think men have had to deal with these issues with the frequency women do to survive in their career. I understand the frustration [of women], and we all deserve to be treated equally."

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Overcoming Workplace Bias

Listening Without Judgment

The USC Marshall researchers noted that the effects of discrimination contribute to lower well-being among both genders, with the negative effects being more pronounced among women than men.

Tost said the low self-efficacy, as reported by many women in the survey, is associated with low motivation, disengagement from work tasks and several other negative outcomes that can harm work performance. These outcomes can affect women's careers and organizational outcomes.

"Anyone who is not confident in their own abilities will never likely achieve their ultimate potential, feel proud of their contributions or grow their skills to the extent they could," said Deb Boelkes, award-winning author of Women on Top: What's Keeping You from Executive Leadership (Business World Rising, 2021).

Boelkes explained that gender discrimination erodes fellowship, collegiality, collaboration and teamwork. If left unresolved, it can create a toxic work environment that could undermine the success of the organization.

HR professionals should listen to employees who feel discriminated against, Boelkes said. They should allow these workers to express their feelings in confidence and without judgment. This could increase trust within the organization.

"Do not tell them they shouldn't feel the way they do, as doing so will likely make the situation worse. Simply acknowledge their feelings," Boelkes said. "Then help them come up with a plan to maximize their potential."

Baird's company, Outreach, emphasizes developing and promoting a diverse set of talent and fostering an environment where people of all backgrounds can thrive. The company created nine employee resource groups that are actively involved in creating awareness, mitigating biases and creating an inclusive environment.

As a result, women represent 39 percent of the global workforce and 45 percent of the leadership team at Outreach, Baird said.

Strengthening diversity, equity and inclusion programs can improve a company's culture and create a welcoming environment for people of all backgrounds, improving recruitment and retention efforts.

Education, promotion and equal pay can help alleviate perceived workplace discrimination and avoid the risks associated with pay equity.


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