What’s Really holding women back?

Mar 18, 2021 | Gender Equality

“Life is not fair, get used to it” Bill Gates “11 Rules you will never learn in school”

The under- representation of women in the workplace and the difficulty faced by women to progress economically and professionally is a consistent and pervasive problem. When we ask why, you will often hear the typical responses which are the direct consequences of a deeper problem. It goes something like this; the talent pool of skilled female workers is small, senior level jobs require long hours, women’s family obligations make it difficult for them to balance work and family obligations, women are choosing to opt out of careers to care for their families.

Rooted in these explanations, whilst true, is a deeper, pervasive problem which, according to Harvard researchers, places the persistence of outdated gender stereotypes and societal pressures at the heart of the problem. You will often hear that women are X and men are Y, when in fact there is no compelling evidence to suggest that intrinsic personality traits are gender specific, rather they are misconstrued, misused and misallocated to support the existing status quo and power structures — and in a perverse twist, sometimes leading women to question their own abilities.

This two-part series will firstly explore some of the direct effects of gender stereotypes on gender inequality, and secondly, offer suggestions on how organisations can be more deliberate and intentional in their efforts to pivot toward impactful change.

Gender stereotypes create a precarious “double bind” which compromises women’s access to personal and professional growth

While men are generally portrayed as having agency characteristics such as competence, achievement-orientation, inclination to take charge, autonomy and rationality, women are associated with communal characteristics such as concern for others, affiliation tendencies, deference and emotional sensitivity. The oppositional interpretation of these characteristics have led to the belief that men should not be excessively warm (communal) and that women should not be excessively dominant (agency). Research on these generalizations is extensive and consistent.

The impacts of gender stereotypes have created a grossly unequal society.

Regardless of how where and how prescribed gender norms originated, there is little evidence to suggest that there is an inherent biological connection between intrinsic personality traits and gender. Research shows that the sexes are not so different, in fact meta-analyses shows that men and women are far more similar in their attitudes, skills and inclinations than popular opinion would like us to believe.

We will not level the playing field if we continue to focus on how the sexes are different, but rather shift our attention to the underlying outdated gender stereotypes, structures, practices and patterns of interaction that position, reward or punish men and women differently, creating systemically different experiences and access to opportunities for them.

If the evidence is pointing in a different direction, why do gender stereotypes continue to persist?

Beliefs in outdated gender norms continue to have staying power, partly because they are consistently reinforced in pop culture, they are a convenient way of preserving the gender status quo and power structures and they require little to no upheaval of existing organizational practices.

Secondly, what scientists call the mere exposure effect, i.e. mere exposure to a continuing narrative, makes people believe that the statements are true. And, thirdly, once people believe something to be true, the brain subconsciously seeks out, notices and remembers, and in some cases provides evidence to confirm this belief and ignore or forget evidence that challenges it. This is what psychologists refer to as confirmation bias and is now widely adopted in Diversity and Inclusion work.

The impacts of gender stereotypes have far more dire consequences as you move down the prosperity ladder.

Unpaid work

One of the more pervasive and persistent gender stereotypes is that women are natural nurturers and hence automatically associated with being the primary caregivers or steered towards professions which confirm this stereotype. To consider nurturing as a trait inherent primarily to the female person has created a grossly unequal society.

The “care work” performed by women is not typically regarded as ‘real work”. It is commonly seen as a moral and emotional duty that women are entitled to perform selflessly. According to research, if we take into account the unpaid labour working women are performing at home and in society, a woman is working approximately 3 months more per year than a man.

The International Labour Organisation research of women across the globe reports that if women had to choose between paid work, caring for their family, or doing both — a staggering 70% of women prefer to work in paid jobs.

“Our economies all over the world are built on the backs of women’s unpaid labour. And so, we’ve got to recognize it. We’ve got to look at how to reduce it, and we definitely have to redistribute it in our homes.” Melinda Gates

Access to education, paid work and skills development

The impacts of gender norms have far more dire consequences as you move down the prosperity ladder. In many countries’ girls are encouraged from an early age to take on care work and family support tasks like household chores, caring for the elderly, sick and young instead of pursuing an education. A women’s personal preference of choosing between paid work or caregiving is often heavily influenced by socio-economic constraints and pressure to conform to traditional gender stereotypes. This pressure increases once women have children of their own, rendering them the primary caregivers and systemically removing women from access to financial opportunities as a result of a lack of exposure to a formal education or skills development outside of unpaid care work.

‘The pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems…” United Nations Policy Briefing April 2020

Impact of COVID on women

The pandemic has widened the gap between the paid and unpaid labour a woman performs, as she has been forced to take on more domestic duties when schooling systems around the world came to a grinding halt.

Mckinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2020 reports that almost a year into the COVID-19 crisis, working women in general are having the hardest time, and working mothers in particular are the most severely affected. The stress of the “double shift” continues to be a gender issue and the effects of home-schooling and increased household responsibilities has taken a greater toll on women.

“As a result of these dynamics, 1 in 4 women in corporate America are contemplating what many would have considered unthinkable less than a year ago: downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce”

Unsurprisingly we have seen the impact of gender stereotypes more broadly as women in general take on the responsibilities of caring for elderly and sick families, especially during the peak of the pandemic, rendering them unable to meet professional obligations and increasing their risk of infection.

Female dominated professions like nursing and teaching has seen first-hand the dire consequences of the pandemic in their professional and personal lives. Female teachers with children have struggled with home-schooling their own children whilst providing remote support for their students. Nurses have had to navigate the very real threat of infection and increased family responsibilities.

A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that mothers in the UK were 1.5 times more likely than fathers to have either quit their jobs or lost it during the pandemic.

If a woman chooses to make career decisions in favor of family obligations, that is a choice, but we cannot assume that all women want to or should do so.

Widening of the gender pay gap

Netflix’s “Why women are paid less, Explained’ puts forward that the gender pay gap is not just about discrimination against women. It is more about being a mother. It is not the automatic association of the communal characteristic to only women which has created vast inequalities between men and women, but rather the misuse of this characteristic and the prejudiced systems and praises put in place to rob women of agency and to penalize them for being (or potentially becoming) primary caregivers. These practices are often enforced under the banner of “parenting accommodations” targeted at women, the unintentional consequences of which further reinforces gender stereotypes.

Hilary Clinton assert that the gender pay gap is about mothers and everyone else. While there have been many advancements which have helped narrow the pay gap, one factor has remained: women have the potential to bear children and the popular expectation remained in society that they would still do most of the work in raising children.

Women have every right to be mothers without being penalised at work — Hillary Clinton

I recall a conversation I was having with a fellow senior executive where I was actively advocating for one of my female career counselees for promotion. She was a rising star with a bright career path ahead of her and had recently been married. My male colleague interjected to inquire, off the record, as to whether she had any immediate plans to have children. The demands of the type of work we did, as he put it, were ‘too consuming for new mothers, as he had seen time and time again”. When I pointed out that I myself was a mother and a high performer within the organisation, rendering his argument nonsensical and irrelevant to the employees abilities, he quickly turned towards the impact of maternity leave on client projects.

What he was actually pointing to were the larger systemic inequities which held a woman back and which were in fact a consequence of gender stereotypes which he himself maintained. The woman in question was not a mother, but the mere perception that at some point she may be able to become a parent, and may possibility opt for various parenting accommodations aimed primarily at mothers, had already set her back.

While a woman may still work the same job as a man, according to research, a woman in still doing up to 3 months more work per year than a man in unpaid labor.

If we had any doubt that the gender pay gap is more about motherhood, than being a women, lets take a look at Iceland. Iceland’s policy of paternity leave encourages both men and women to take equal parenting leave. An employer now knows that regardless of whether you hire a man or a woman, they will both take childcare leave when they start a family, thereby leveling the playing field. Iceland’s gender pay gap is now almost closed with women earning 96c to the dollar every man makes.

While a woman may still work the same job as a man, according to research, a woman in still doing up to 3 months more work per year than a man in unpaid labor. Parenting responsibly typically falls to the mother, increasing her overall workload, requiring her to turn down assignments and promotions which impact her parenting responsibilities and in some cases, either structurally removing her from the workplace completely or opting for a career accommodation, in the form of part time of flexible hours.

The resulting impact over time is a vast divergence between a man and women’s earning potential, setting a women back comparatively regardless of whether they started their careers off at a similar professional and academic level.

Rewind thirteen years, my now husband and I were at comparable professional levels. When I became pregnant with our first child, we discussed what the implications would be for us personally and professionally. We had both long maintained that when we had children, we would both want to be more available to them. I was however, at the time, travelling internationally extensively and on a leadership track which would potentially require us to relocate to our European headquarters. He had just started a new company with operations primarily in South Africa.

I took an extended sabbatical from my career to focus on my young family. Fast forward five years, when I re-entered the workplace, I was already comparatively set back by being assessed against the level I was at five years ago. My husband’s career trajectory on the other hand was growing exponentially, with him taking on more responsibilities and growing his business globally. While I worked harder than my peer set to access the next promotion level, I was constantly mindful of taking on responsibilities which would require extensive travel or extended periods of time away from home as our family support structure was now significantly skewed towards me being the primary caregiver. The result was a vast divergence in both our earning potential and in our individual ability to access opportunities.

Even well-intended organisations inadvertently reinforce outdated gender norms

Access to promotion opportunities

Confirmation and implicit bias have wide reaching implications in the workplace. Women are typically held to higher standards than men. Research shows that women are held to stricter standards for promotion: promoted women have higher performance ratings than promoted men, and performance ratings are more strongly related to promotions for women than for men.

Whenever women are working with men on male gender-typed tasks, men are more likely to be credited for joint successes and women are more likely to be blamed for joint failures. These negative performance expectations can only be overturned when the woman’s individual contribution is unquestionable, or her task competence is very high.

A Working Mothers report shows that women with increased household and care-giving responsibilities are less likely to be able to take on additional roles and responsibilities at work.

As a result, this already unequal, biased situation becomes exacerbated when mothers in the workplace have to balance the pressures of conforming to gender stereotypes, along with the typical pressures faced by any working individual, and further more by the gender bias which demands that they have to significantly outperform their male counterparts to get promoted. Men are promoted on potential, women are promoted for proven performance.

Leaning in is not always enough. While there are aspects of Lean In that still hold value: the idea that women should advocate for themselves at work and at home, that they should negotiate unapologetically for better salaries and benefits, and champion their own projects and ideas, it places so much responsibility for success on individual women rather than the societal structures and norms which neutralizes their efforts. Being able to simply lean in comes with a certain degree of privilege that many women do not have, particularly women of color and working mothers.

“It’s not always enough to lean in, because that sh%& doesn’t work all the time.” Michelle Obama

Automatic association with supporting roles or stereotyped professions

Women are often associated with roles which support gender norms and encouraged to pursue professions which support these outdated beliefs. The lack of women in male-dominated and high-paying industries such as STEM is often cited as a critical factor behind the gender gap. Even though girls perform as well as boys in math and science standardized tests at school, fewer women consider a professional career in these fields.

A pervasive stereotype in the workplace is that women are “helpful” and “supportive”. This belief often precludes women from P&L and senior leadership positions, encouraging women into supporting or care-giving roles.

When I was younger, I was encouraged to purse a career as a teacher or a health care worker. I pursued a career in business instead, but even in the business world, I was often associated with project management or client services roles, even though my skills set and track record consistently indicated that I was more adept at P&L and leadership roles.

I was often automatically asked in my career to perform activities outside of my role like organizing events, lunches, and team building sessions, by presumption that it would be work I would want to do or be good at, neither of which were true for me personally. The same was seldom asked of my male colleagues. When I would decline, I would often be labelled “uncooperative”, “unhelpful”, or “arrogant”.

“I spent all my time hoping that no one would remember I was female.” Susan Athey, Economist

The Backlash Effect

When women begin to challenge these stereotypes, they pay the cost: dominant women are perceived as less likeable and less hireable than men. A 2016 survey of more than 30,000 employees found that women who negotiated for promotions were 30% more likely than men to be labelled intimidating, bossy or aggressive. I often hear when coaching and mentoring high performing women, that when they ask for what they believe to be worth, or if they set appropriate boundaries, it is suggested that they are too ambitious, impatient, aggressive and intimidating.

When women conform to gender stereotypes (e.g. by showing emotional sensitivity and concern for others), they are likely to be perceived as less competent. But, if they defy these stereotypes and behave “like a man” (e.g. by showing dominance, ambition and rationality), they will be penalized by a backlash effect.

This double standard and misuse of the traits needed for effective leadership places women in a precarious double bind. It is never quite right.

In the second part of this series, we will explore how organisations can pivot towards a more inclusive and equitable workplace with greater urgency and intent to get us to, and sustain us, at equal. And more importantly, to enable us to finally thrive beyond equality.