Women in the workplace: far from striking the balance

Words: Sofia Nogués Segura

(Originally Published June 20, 2017)

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‘Women are not making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world. The numbers tell the story quite clearly: among 190 heads of state, only nine are women. Of all the people in parliament in the world, 13 per cent are women. In the corporate sector, women at the top, C-level jobs, board seats are 15 per cent to 16 per cent. The numbers have not moved since 2002 and are going in the wrong direction. And even in the non-profit world, a world we sometimes think of as being led by more women, the women at the top are only 20 per cent.’

These were Sheryl Sandberg’s, chief operating officer (COO) at Facebook, words at a TED Talk in 2010. Not much has changed since. The numbers are still low and, as she said then, they’re going in the wrong direction.

The higher up you look in companies’ structures, the fewer women you see. At every level of the corporate structure, the representation of women declines. According to the ‘Women in the Workplace 2016’ report conducted by McKinsey & Company and the Lean In organisation, this is due to the fact that women are less likely to receive the first critical promotion to managerial level. For every 100 women promoted, 130 men are promoted. Furthermore, women are less likely to be hired for more senior positions and receive less access to the people, input and opportunities that accelerate careers.

And what about the difficult conversations? Women who negotiate are penalizsed for it, being more likely to receive feedback that they are ‘intimidating’, ‘too aggressive’ or ‘bossy’.

Darren Baker, doctoral researcher in the Department of Management at King's College London, explained that organisations ‘often focus on biases rather than changing structural barriers to progression’.

Gender bias: the elephant in the room

The legal definition of gender bias is ‘unequal treatment in employment opportunity (such as promotion, pay, benefits and privileges), and expectations due to attitudes based on the sex of an employee or group of employees’. Although many organisations have started to tackle gender bias in recent years, there is still a long way to go.

It’s difficult to escape gender bias. It’s ingrained in the workplace: from not getting the promotion or having to jump through a number of hoops to get it, to the stereotyped feedback or to being interrupted during meetings. These are just some examples of what women face in the workplace.

Numerous studies show that women in the workforce are interrupted by men more often than men are interrupted by women. As way of example, a study conducted by Tonja Jacobi, a professor at Pritzker School of Law at Northwestern University in Chicago, and law student Dylan Schweers, revealed that male Supreme Court Justices interrupt their female counterparts three times more than they interrupt other men on the bench.

Darren Brown stated that ‘being in a meeting and women being unable to articulate and vocalise their position is how women are marginalised in organisations, and there are lots of those micro-inequalities that exist.’

There’s also the stereotyped feedback. 'Overreact', too 'emotional', 'bossy', these are all words that tend to be associated with women in the workplace for behaviours that are described completely differently when it comes to men. Brown explains that there is a general sense that effective leadership attributes are defined in masculine terms. ‘Assertiveness, decisiveness, individualism, they’re all often seen as attributes of a leader, and women often feel that they don’t embody those and, therefore, can’t take on leadership positions,’ he explains. As a result, women feel that they don’t have confidence to take on a new position or to go for a promotion. ‘This is not about women, it’s about organisations recognising that leadership attributes are much more diverse and multifaceted than they currently acknowledge.’ Organisations should, therefore, redefine what effective leadership is and what it looks like, so that it includes women.

Speaking to an account manager at a tech company, she said: ‘It's very frustrating to hear that I'm overreacting when I'm just speaking up the concerns of other team members. We are all under pressure and no one speaks up about this, it seems like you have to cry to be heard and then you’d be “overreacting”.’

Her team recently went through some changes – a couple of members departed, leaving client accounts uncovered. With no replacement in place, she expressed her concern to her manager and the risks this could cause. In response, he told her that she shouldn't overreact.

Another issue is pay. In a TED Talk this year, Pricing Consultant Casey Brown spoke about this topic, saying: ‘No one will ever pay you what you're worth. They'll only ever pay you what they think you're worth. And you control their thinking.’ To which she added, ‘In my work I've observed that women under-price themselves more so than men. The gender wage gap is a well-travelled narrative… a woman employee earns just 83 cents for every dollar a man earns. What may surprise you is that this trend continues even into the entrepreneurial sphere. A woman business owner earns just 80 cents for every dollar a man earns. In my work, I've often heard women express that they're uncomfortable communicating their value, especially early on in business ownership. I hear very different narratives in working with male business owners, and I think this difference is costing women 20 cents on the dollar.’

Is gender bias holding women back?

There are many structural changes that organisations can look at in order to enable career growth for women. Doctoral researcher Darren Brown suggests that an obvious place to start is opportunities that will enable career progression, who has access to these and how allocation decisions are made. ‘For example, someone can be allocated a strategic project that is key to their career progression or perhaps allocated a project that is less prestigious and won’t have as much value to one’s career progression.’

In an interview with Jia Wertz, founder of Studio 15, she said, ‘In the corporate world, far too often men have a much easier time getting promotions or being assigned major initiatives. Meanwhile, equally qualified women have to plead their case in order to get the same promotions or project assignments. And, unfortunately, this is something that, in my experience, I saw both men and some women in high-ranking positions subjecting other women to.’

But, who decides the allocation of those opportunities? Usually it’s men at an executive level, where women are significantly outnumbered, that hold this power. As Brown explains, ‘for change to happen, we really depend on men to be at the forefront of gender equality and we’re starting to see organisations respond to that.’ For equality to really happen, men have to be on board, especially men in positions of power who make the decisions.

What is the UK doing to close the gender gap?

A great number of companies in the UK include gender equality in their top business priorities, but are they shifting the dial? Not only is there a gap in the number of women holding senior roles, there's also a pay gap. Women in full-time work in Britain earn 13.9 per cent less than men.

The UK government has committed to closing the pay gap by introducing gender pay gap reporting rules. From 6 April 2017 employers in the UK with more than 250 staff are required by law to publish figures on gender pay. However, a month into the new regulation (which applies to about 9000 employers), only five companies had published figures on their website.

What are companies afraid of? Maybe at the fact that the overall difference between men’s and women’s full-time median hourly pay fell from 9.6 percent in 2015 to 9.4 percent in 2016, the lowest since the series began in 1997.

However, pay is not the only difference. When it comes to dress code, there’s also gender bias. The UK recently had a big blow from the government regarding dress code for women in the workplace.

Nicola Thorp, a temporary receptionist at PwC, was sent home without pay for refusing to wear high heels at her job in 2015. This was widely publicised and triggered a petition calling on the government to make it illegal to require women to wear high heels at work, which was signed by more than 152,000 people and led to a debate in Parliament.

Following the petition, the parliament’s petitions committee and the women and equalities committee issued a report that found that this case was not an isolated one and that discriminatory dress codes in the UK were widespread. The report recommended an urgent review of dress codes and changes to the law, as well as the introduction of more effective penalties against employers breaching it. Despite these recommendations and the report's findings, the government replied that the laws in place were already ‘adequate’ to deal with discrimination on gender grounds.

So, where do we stand on gender bias? Even in the UK, pioneer in employment rights, women stand far behind men and there’s no sign of change. Organisations are working hard to close the gap, but we are still far from striking a balance.