Why Are Women STILL Having Such a Hard Time in the Workplace?


For controversy over “women’s issues” 2012 has been a banner year in the United States.

A divisive national election preceded by a record number of state legislative attempts to roll back women’s reproductive rights have pushed the realities of women’s economic, legal and social status into the headlines.

Most recently, candidate Mitt Romney’s response to a question posed by a woman at a town hall debate ignited the issue of women’s rights in the workplace, when she asked how he would improve gender equality. The former governor recalled that when he was staffing his Massachusetts gubernatorial office, few qualified women candidates were presented.  His staff obliged his request by presenting him “binders full of women” to consider.  Mr. Romney followed up by saying, “I recognize that if you’re going to have women in the workforce that sometimes they need to be more flexible.”  Romney then recalled his former chief-of-staff who had said she wanted to be home by 5 o’clock to make dinner for her kids and be with them when they got home from school.

The New York Times followed up with a tough editorial calling the former Governor’s remarks  “a cringe inducing attempt to graft what he thinks should be 2012 talking points onto his 1952 sensibility,” adding that “true equality is not satisfied by allowing the little lady to go home early and tend to her children.”

I’m not suggesting that women (or men) shouldn’t have the flexibility in their work schedules to allow for dinner at home with their children, but flex-time is not the issue here!  To be sure, flex-time is an important work, family, social and economic issue – but it is not just a “women’s issue” which is precisely the problem with many so-called work-life balance discussions.

Without question, policies and legislation that would support true gender equality across all industries and professions are urgently needed to accelerate economic and social progress – for all. For example, without passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act (a bill introduced in the 2012 U.S. Senate which failed because it was unable to get any Republican co-sponsors) there is little evidence to show that women, currently earning 78 cents to every $1 dollar for men, won’t have to wait decades more to “catch-up.”

Critics of these legislative reforms are quick to remind us of women’s progress in the last fifty years, but on pay, women workers only gained 19 cents since 1963 when they earned only 68.7 cents for every dollar earned by men.  49 years is a long time to wait for 19 cents.

The gender-pay-wage-gap is not just, as it’s typically portrayed – a women’s issue. Economist Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, estimates that the stimulus effect of economic parity for women, would grow the U.S. economy by at least three or four percentage points.

Behind the policies and legal codification of women’s rights are the mindsets, beliefs and stereotypes that hinder women’s progress as fully equal partners in society.  These beliefs and perceptions are the less quantifiable obstacles that are embedded into the fabric of social norms that impact on mobility.

In her article, What’s Really Holding Women Back? author Audrey Quinn lays out a scenario not uncommon to many women in the workplace. Ms. Quinn profiles Kara Martin Snyder, formerly an employee of PriceWaterhouseCoopers, who recalls a common lunch office scenario where the men in the office engaged in a push-up contest that she adds, “struck her as odd.” “It wasn’t like the women were off in the corner having sewing circles,” she explains, “but these men were still carrying on the antics of a good old boys club. A lot of these workplaces like to say that there’s no glass ceiling and everyone’s got an opportunity, but in social ways, nothing’s changed.”

The article points out that many women can relate to being the only woman in the room that’s still tasked with taking notes at a meeting asked to run an errand or excluded from post-work drinks because, “it’s just the guys.”  The article also cites Stanford University gender scholar, Lauren Aguilar who emphasizes that “such situations can instill in women a damaging sense of threat – even if other women or men nearby don’t perceive them that way.”

Critics typically dismiss reactions to such perceived exclusionary activities and actions, as “hyper-sensitivity,” and suggest that women toughen up and not take it personally. Professor Aguilar disagrees, “I think that the onus is really on organizations to ensure that women and men are treated equally.  Subtle things make women more sensitive that later they might be passed over, that’s where self-fulfilling prophesies play out. It’s not the women’s problem, it’s the organization and the way individuals treat each other in organizations.”

 How Much Does Organizational Behavior Reflect Cultural Norms?

 I don’t know about you, but I am routinely shocked by the pervasiveness of gender stereotypes in this culture.  I expect more of American culture in 2012 and I’m constantly amazed at the lens through which this culture sees women (and men – but that’s a topic for another article).

I cringe when I see how women are still portrayed (and participate) in sexual stereotypes that continue the age-old objectification of the female body.  A recent edition of The Huffington Post, whose founder Arianna Huffington is president and editor-in-chief, features the latest “slutty” Halloween costumes and the daily report on female celebrities and their “wardrobe malfunctions.”

The “slut” archetype is very alive and well and in common parlance with today’s teens, especially online. 4 in 10 young people say they routinely see the word slut used against other people. 41% of young women find the slut term deeply offensive when used about others, and that percentage increases to 65% when the word is used to describe them. Only 28% of young men were offended by the term.

Earlier this year, actress Ashley Judd fought back against the comments that were being made about her appearance in the media.  Judd decided enough was enough, “The conversation was pointedly nasty, gendered and misogynistic. The assault on our body image, the hypersexualization of girls and women and subsequent degradation of our sexuality as we walk through the decades, and the general incessant objectification is what this conversation about my face is really about.”

On a more serious note, the story of rape on the august Amherst College campus has gone viral. Former Amherst student Angie Epifano’s account of being raped on campus and then ignored by college administrators spread across the country.  Another rape victim and student, Dana Bolger has put together a photo essay of the women (and men) who have been assaulted on campus to spotlight the responses of Amherst representatives and colleagues that are deeply offensive and indicative of a deep resistance to addressing the crisis of sexual abuse that exists on campus.  In the photo essay, survivors held signs quoting officials as saying, “You never took your case to court so you don’t qualify as a rape survivor,” and “Are you sure it was rape?” The actions prompted the Amherst Board of Trustees to release a statement that a special committee would be planned composed of representatives of all parts of the Amherst community to discuss next steps. A report is due in January 2013.

As we reflect on the role of women in the culture, it’s important to keep in mind that sexual harassment at work is still very much a serious factor in the equation.   A 2011 ABC/Washington Post poll reported that one in four women reported that they experienced sexual harassment at work.

Writing about the poll for Forbes, J. Maureen Henderson commented, “What’s news isn’t so much that sexual harassment still happens, but that in 20 years, we haven’t come any closer to fixing it and have actually been downgrading it as a serious workplace challenge. Only 64% of Americans see harassment as a serious on-the-job problem, down from a high of 88% in 1992. And while the percentage of women who have reported harassment to their bosses or the HR dept has increased from 33% in 1994 to 41% today, the number of men who admit they have ever done anything (even inadvertently) that could be taken as harassment toward a colleague has dropped from 25% to 10% over the same period.”

Henderson points out that a major problem is that we don’t see sexual harassment as a manifestation of gender inequality and an impediment to the ability of women to command respect in the workplace.  Henderson writes, “And you know who’s only too willing to point that finger and paint in pejoratives? Other women. Don’t be a buzz kill, don’t play the heavy, don’t do anything to ruin our in with the cool kids (aka the boys) seems to be the message inherent in the advice from some quarters.”

Shattering Myths – Changing Workplace Cultures

 In her Harvard Business Review article, Hiring More Women Means Changing You Company’s Culture, author Avivah Wittenberg-Cox offers an important perspective, “The leaders of countries, like companies, hugely affect the culture that is created internally. But nowhere is that more defining that on gender issues. Why? Because shifting the balance between men and women in organizations requires everyone to change, and move out of their familiar, and often familial, histories and patterns.”

For women, the climb to the top tiers of leadership is steep.  Despite the media excitement over three high-profile CEO appointments in 2012, as of 2011 there were only 98 female CEOs among 3,049 publicly trade companies. That represents a 3.2% increase over 2010 and 2.9% in 2009.

Wittenberg-Cox doesn’t express confidence in Romney or male CEOs like him, “I work with some CEOs like him. They simply don’t, as many women say, “get it.” They can’t. They have no idea what a modern working woman is about. They don’t know how to recognize or appreciate leadership styles that don’t conform to the dominant male norms, which they seek to perpetuate, convinced that this is the key to success.”

Wittenberg-Cox and hundreds of other voices have raised powerful questions during this campaign. Not since the Women’s Movement of the 1960’s, have gender equality issues been raised so eloquently and vociferously.  Clearly, we are at another crossroads in the culture, with important choices to be made that will determine the course of the next generation in the workplace.

The snail’s pace of progress for women will continue to translate into lopsided, status quo dynamics in the workplace.  Cultural stereotypes that do no serve the collective good and that merely speak to the power distortions of a “modern” culture will not miraculously disappear. History clearly shows that power and control are not easily relinquished.  Yet, there is growing consensus that future corporate and societal success depends upon free and open communication, consensual problem solving and influence based on competence and knowledge, not cronyism and the dying vestiges of power hoarding. In 1964, Warren Bennis and Philip Slater argued that corporate leadership characteristics would have to be altered to survive in a period of increasing social change.

The title of their prescient article, says it all, “Democracy is inevitable.”

As always, I appreciate your readership, subscriptions, comments, shares, likes and tweets!  Join the conversation and let readers know what you think about the issue of women’s roles and rights in the workplace.
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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