What Is Gender Discrimination?
There’s been much talk about the glass ceiling and how to break it but the glass ceiling is just one facet of gender discrimination at the workplace. The pay gap between men and women is another aspect of it, as is refusing to hire a woman for a position based on stereotypes such as that a woman would not be as willing as a man to work long hours, because she would be too preoccupied with her family. What’s interesting is that an employer doesn’t necessarily act out of a negative bias against women, they may unconsciously discriminate against female employees because of harmful assumptions like the one above. Another instance of such discrimination, identified in a Nolo article, is giving female employees fewer responsibilities than are given men or letting pregnant employees go because of a belief that a mother should stay at home and look after her children. Such actions sound outrageous and they are, and the first step toward fighting against gender-based discrimination at work is to be aware of the forms it can take, so, outrageous or not, these things are worth knowing.
It seems that the situation is particularly difficult for working mothers. Research from Cornell University, among others, has shown that they are the least desirable new employees, apparently, because of a firm belief that mothers are more likely to sacrifice their work responsibilities in favor of their family. At the same time, however, fathers were deemed very desirable job candidates, since they were perceived as more responsible than childless men. In other words, as management consultant Ben Waber puts it, men are being rewarded for being fathers while women are being penalized for being mothers. We still live in a culture ripe with gender stereotypes, such studies suggest, and it will take quite a bit of effort to erase them. Understandably, some authors suggest that women’s empowerment should focus on the fight against these stereotypes rather than on assuring women how great they are and how they can do anything that men do, often even better. According to international lawyer Anne-Marie Slaughter, for instance, an ex-State Department official and former dean of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, economic and cultural factors are among the main reasons behind women’s disadvantaged position in today’s business world. In a similar vein, New York Times author Eduardo Porter suggests that policies that aim to give women an equal footing at the workplace should focus not on women themselves but on families and, perhaps more interestingly, on men. The reason for this is that the problem with gender discrimination at work is not just a women’s problem, Porter says.
The number of women in the workforce has been stagnating in the last eight years, with 69.5% of them in employment now, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as opposed to 82.5% of men, both in the age group between 25 to 54. At the same time, 16.3% of women are officially poor, against 13.6% of men. This is a worrying development and it raises a lot of questions, especially against the background of figures showing that the proportion of women with a college degree is almost the same as that of men, at 30.6% and 31.4%, respectively, and soon expected to exceed it. What’s worrying about this is the fact that the absence of enough women in the workforce will pressure economic growth, according to estimations of the Congressional Budget Office. In its outlook for the period 2019-2023, CBO projects that GDP growth will slow to 2.25% annually, mainly driven by a slowdown in the expansion of the labor force, in its turn caused by wide-scale retirement among the baby boomers and an end to the increase in the number of women joining the workforce. Pessimistic as these projections look, they are not set in stone and encouraging more women to pursue a career would have a positive impact on GDP. Booz&Co estimated in 2012 that just raising the proportion of working women to that of men could boost GDP by as much as 5%. Women’s participation in the workforce also has wider implications, the report says, because women tend to invest more of their household income in the education of their children than men. This, in its turn, leads to better economic and social status for these children that is ultimately of benefit for the overall economy. In other words, gender discrimination that discourages a lot of women from being active professionally is affecting the national economy. This is why the glass ceiling and the pay gap are not just women’s issues they are national issues that need to be dealt with quickly.
Among the ways this issue can be addressed is, on the one hand, by encouraging more men to actively participate in child care through providing them with paid paternity leave, for example. Also, there is a trend of fathers choosing to stay at home while their wives pursue a career. Although during the Great Recession many of these stay-at-home dads were forced to do it because of losing their jobs, for some it was a conscious choice. Another, even more successful tactic is to raise children that are free of discriminatory stereotypes and assumptions. This is a long-term strategy and won’t bring change overnight but it is its long-term effect that makes it successful. Laying off gender-specific toys or simply not discouraging boys from playing with toys that are “meant” for girls and vice versa, and not shaping kids’ mentality according to the gender-specific roles of the past is what will do the trick. This is a slow process but it is the surest way to eradicate the harmful stereotypes that breed gender discrimination. In short, the cultural revolution has not been completed yet. As Anne-Marie Slaughter puts it, what has been done so far in this revolution has been changing the way women are viewed but little has been done to change the respective views on men. According to her, only when men start to be viewed as equal child care givers as women will gender inequality at work cease to exist.
There is already a sound body of research that demonstrates how taking on more women can improve bottom lines, and how more women managers make a company more efficient. This is one path that women empowerment follows but it is not the only one, though it could be an effective means of undermining those deeply ingrained stereotypes and assumptions on which so much gender discrimination rests. It’s simple — facts show that these assumptions are wrong and it’s hard to argue with facts. Another way of counteracting discriminative practices is providing women with the incentives that would ensure that they don’t have to sacrifice their career in order to raise kids and take care of their families. The biological theory of gender discrimination that is founded on the fact that it’s women who bear children and are homemakers is fine but there is no logical reason why they couldn’t handle both a career and a family with the right stimuli, just like men can. These include a reasonable paid maternity leave, flexible working schedules and healthcare benefits. This may sound to many employers like a lot at a time when businesses are looking to minimize costs, but seen from another angle, such stimuli in fact help a company retain its talent, rather than invest in hiring and training new people. Retaining women employees, in other words, is cost effective.
There is one more factor that’s working toward undermining the attitudes behind gender discrimination and this factor is the millennial generation. Millennials, who will be the majority of the workforce in just ten years, have very different attitudes toward gender equality than previous generations. They are not so focused on material success but prefer to do something meaningful with their lives, including work. They are also more caring and more willing to collaborate, and equality as a concept is very important to them. It’s no coincidence that the gap between the paychecks of younger employees is significantly smaller than for older ones. Millennials don’t have any patience for gender discrimination and they are making this clear. They hold in high esteem the same things that encourage working women not to sacrifice their jobs for their families, things like work flexibility and remote work that make it this much easier to achieve a balance between work and family. Perhaps more importantly, however, the millennials are the future bosses who will set the rules in the business world. As they rise to corporate power, this new generation of managers will bring with them their values and priorities that will further undermine and hopefully lead to the eradication of gender discrimination at the workplace.
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2. Waber, Ben. “What Data Analytics Says About Gender Inequality in the Workplace.” BloombergBusinessweek, January 2014. http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-01-30/gender-inequality-in-the-workplace-what-data-analytics-says
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4. Porter, Eduardo. “To Address Gender Gap, Is It Enough To Lean In?” The New York Times, September 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/25/business/economy/for-american-women-is-it-enough-to-lean-in.html?hp
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