Yep, this thing still exists (image via the Wall Street Journal)

An Uphill Battle for Women in the Workplace

Despite increasingly proving their worth, women still face many obstacles on their path toward equal recognition and treatment in the workforce.

Culture x

Despite increasingly proving their worth, women still face many obstacles on their path toward equal recognition and treatment in the workforce.

In the past year, much of the media’s attention has been devoted to society’s treatment of women. From the Wonder Woman movie to the #MeToo movement, the cultural spotlight on social media trendsetters, actresses and athletes speaking out against sexual harassment, brilliant innovators and world leaders.

Despite this, people often overlook the ordinary working woman: she who wakes up at 6 a.m., gets her kids to school, then goes to work. These ladies currently make up nearly half of the U.S. labor force.

They are a unit 74.6 million strong who keep the markets running, the stores open and society on its feet. Without women in the workforce, the economy would surely stagger. 

However, even as women have made remarkable progress in fighting for equal pay and recognition, 2018 bears witness to the fact that gender still plays a large role in workplace treatment.

Simply being a woman affects one’s wages, the possibility of promotion and relationships with coworkers. For the men out there, consider that these issues affect your family members and significant others every day. 

Madeleine Albright once said, “There’s plenty of room in the world for mediocre men, there is no room for mediocre women.”

It is something that has always stuck with me — a forceful reminder that women are consistently paid less and given less than their fair share of credit for their work, that female employees often must outperform their male coworkers just to get a chance of being treated as equals.

Even the most extraordinary women, like the diplomat herself, must always rise to the occasion and strive to take credit where credit is due.

Women everywhere are fighting for acknowledgment and better opportunities in the workplace. The best way to fight, I believe, is to arm oneself with knowledge. In that vein, here are some facts and figures about women’s standing in the workplace to take with you.

1.  Imagining the perfect leader

The test began with Professor Tina Kiefer of the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. The professor instructed a room full of executives who spoke minimal English to picture a leader.

In the test and all the adapted versions, the result is overwhelmingly the same: both men and women almost always draw men. I admit to having tried this myself and falling in line with the majority of participants.

In a follow-up study published in the Journal of the Academy of Management, researchers found that the ability to lead is seen as predominantly male characteristic. The authors honed in on one leadership capability in particular: the act of sharing ideas during a meeting.

In one experiment, participants were asked to take part in a sales meeting of a fictional insurance company, during which they would hear from an “Eric” or an “Erica.” Although both people offered the exact same ideas, participants were far more likely to identify Eric as a leader. 

Co-author of the study, Professor Elizabeth McClean, suggests that the result ties back to Kiefer’s study. “People have these prototypes in their head about what a leader looks like,” she says. “When we see an individual, we ask, ‘Do they fit that?’”

If women do not fit into one’s mental idea of a leader, it’s often difficult for them to earn respect from others — even when they fully deserve it. 

2.  Discrimination against women of color

In addition to sexism, racial inequality is still rampant in the workplace. Though it’s often ignored in discussions of gender inequality, women of color must confront obstacles beyond those that their white, female co-workers face.

For example, women of color are consistently shown to experience lower median weekly earnings, higher rates of poverty and greater unemployment. 

White women report a median weekly wage of $703; in contrast, black women only earn $595 and Latina woman $518.

Similarly, the poverty rate of white, non-Hispanic woman was 10.3 percent in 2008, compared to black women at 26.6 and American Indian women at 27.6 percent.

But it’s not just wages; it’s also corporate relationships. One study by McKinsey & Company finds that “Although women, in general, are more likely than men to report they never interact with senior leaders, black women are the most of all to report they never have senior-level contact.”

3.  Women in STEM

In the ever-advancing world, careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are growing more important. In 2015, the Department of Commerce reported that women made up 24 percent of those in STEM.

This statistic represents a marked increase from previous years; in 1970, only 7 percent of women had STEM careers. Given the total number of women in the workforce, however, the number of women in STEM is still incredibly low.

Furthermore, multiple studies have testified to the fact that women in STEM jobs do not receive equal treatment. I think of the example provided in the film “Hidden Figures,” which tells the story of three female mathematicians of color to gain recognition at NASA during the Space Race.

Even as their work proved crucial in getting a U.S. rocket into orbit, the scientists were often ignored and disrespected. In fact, before the making of “Hidden Figures,” almost nobody remembered the names Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. 

And, despite the rise of women in STEM since the 1960s, not much has changed. Just this year, in their study on men and women in STEM, the Pew Research Center found that only 19 percent of men reported gender discrimination compared to 50 percent of women.

The study explains that for these women, “gender is perceived as more of an impediment than an advantage to career success.”

On a brighter note, women are increasingly proving their value in STEM fields. In 2010, Dr. Carolyn Bertozzi, an American chemist, became the first woman to win the renowned Lemelson-MIT Prize, which recognizes those who create products which have significant value to society.

In 2014, entrepreneur and engineer Megan Smith became the first female Chief Technology Officer of the U.S.

In addition, there’s been a rise in movements to encourage young girls to pursue STEM interests. Many initiatives focus on providing girls visible role models or creating all-female summer STEM programs.

Experts also advise avoiding phrases like “math person,” which inaccurately suggest that STEM is only available to certain types of people, and other ways to stop telling girls that STEM is a guys-only field. 

4.  Climbing the ladder

A bold header in one Women in the Workplace study by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org pronounces that “Women are progressing more slowly than men, and it’s not for lack of asking… so unsurprisingly, women are less optimistic they can reach the top.”

The report explains that while women are just as interested in being promoted as men, and ask for promotions at comparable rates, they do not rise into the corporate ladder at equal rates.

In the average company, women are 18 percent less likely to be promoted as a manager. This may be related to the “leader” fallacy; since women aren’t perceived as leaders, it’s difficult for them to get into positions where leadership is a necessary quality.

Another factor in this equation is women’s relationships with senior leaders. Those who get advice from managers and senior leaders are more likely to get promoted; however, due to gender inequality, women are less likely to receive said advice and support.

Advising women on how to make their way to the top, experts suggest finding a willing mentor, building a network of support and being unafraid to ask for what they deserve.

5.  Hope for the future

In her interview with The Guardian, former managing director of Penguin publishing Helen Fraser says that “it is particularly crucial for young women to find successful women who can be those role models.”

Luckily, there are more role models than ever. In the United States alone, approximately 11.6 million firms are owned by women. 

Women are increasingly stepping up, owning their power and demanding their worth. Increasingly, companies are recognizing this.

Brands like Apple, Adobe and Intel have begun working towards equal pay among all their employees. Only a few weeks ago, Starbucks announced it aimed to eliminate pay disparities based on gender and race.

In addition, more women are taking on leadership positions in typically male-dominated fields. For example, in 2014, former WNBA player Becky Hammon became the first female coach in the NBA when she joined the San Antonio Spurs as the assistant coach. 

Admittedly, the facts can sometimes seem bleak. But I take heart in the knowledge that women have always proved themselves to be fighters, despite the torrent of injustices in their path.

I think of my grandmother, who was one of the only women in her law school class. Or of Sheryl Sandberg, author of “Lean In” and COO of Facebook. More so today than ever, women are speaking out and proving themselves capable. Seeing this, it’s hard not to be optimistic for the future.

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