Career Development Issues Facing Women
Women in full or part-time employment in the US represented almost 58% of the total female population of working age in 2012, according to figures from the Department of Labor. For men, this ratio was a bit above 70%. While it’s true that many women choose to stay at home voluntarily, focusing on family rather than career because of lack of economic pressure and no desire for career development, for many others it’s a different story. There are more than enough career-driven women who encounter numerous obstacles at the workplace simply because of their gender. Generally, these can be grouped into three categories: the balance between work and family, the gender gap in pay, and the enterprise culture, which in many companies discourages women’s professional growth.
Juggling a career and a family is a fact of life for many of us. It’s not an easy thing to do but it has to be done. The problem is that women, according to stats from the Denver Women’s Commission and the Family Caregiver Alliance, are the primary caregivers in the family, whether to children or elderly relatives. This means that apart from working, they spend more time (up to 50% more) than their male partners on their families. This sometimes makes it difficult to maintain a full-time job, which is why two years ago 73.7% of all working women in the US worked full time and 26.3% were in part-time jobs. For men, the ratio between full-time and part-time work was 86.7% and 13.3%, respectively. Part-time employment clearly doesn’t present one with the same promotion opportunities as a full-time job, but many companies have yet to realize the value of their female employees and come up with more flexible work time solutions that would ensure they can grow professionally and be sufficiently productive.
The choice between family and career also not infrequently leads to women opting out of the workforce for a longer period of time to raise children, and the longer a mother stays out, the harder it is for her to return to work eventually. Although there are things a woman can do during her prolonged stay at home to maintain her work-related skills and keep up with developments in the industry she had worked in, several years out of work is quite a long time and it could make the return to work more stressful. Still, women continue to be the primary caregivers and few fathers are willing to quit their job to stay at home with the kids while the mom rises up the corporate ladder or starts her own business. While the number of dads choosing to stay at home as primary caregivers in favor of their wives’ career has risen notably in recent years, it still stood at 3.4% of all stay-at-home parents in 2011, according to the Census Bureau. That doesn’t look too optimistic but we can hope that with changing social attitudes about whose job it is to care for the family and whose job it is to bring home money, things will continue to change toward greater equality in the future.
The second type of challenge that career-oriented women face at the workplace is the still existing gender gap. Despite decades of activism and lobbying for equal pay for both genders, women were still getting around 81% of men’s paychecks in 2012, according to the Department of Labor. It’s very disheartening to see such figures today, when women have shown more than once that they can be as hardworking, if not more, as their male counterparts and as successful as them in the role of business leaders. A 2012 study by the Fit among 5,000 employees in the US revealed that 54% of women tended to work nine hours or more every day, compared to 41% of men. And still they got less money. Now, it could be that women work slower but to make such a speculation would be extremely unfair; different people have different work rhythms, regardless of gender. Still, this finding doesn’t really speak well of the state in which working women find themselves and is in tune with other research that has found that women often have to work harder than men to get a promotion or a pay rise.
A particularly unpleasant aspect of the gender gap concerns mothers returning to work after maternity leave. Research from Boston College’s Center for Work and Family at the Carroll School of Management noted that mothers are being penalized for having children by being passed over when it comes to promotion and are being considered less reliable and less committed than before the children came into the picture. This very frustrating bias on the part of employers, albeit frequently unconscious, has been demonstrated in several studies. In one, conducted in Spain, it was revealed that a man with children does not face the same promotion obstacles as a woman with children and a male academic with children is four times more likely to be promoted to full professor than his female counterpart. Another study, in the US, which consisted of showing fictitious resumes of job candidates to the participants showed that when it comes to hiring, simply the fact that a woman has children, regardless of their age, served as deterrent in the perception of HR personnel and also made them consider the woman less capable and competent than other women candidates with no children. And things don’t end here. In the same study the researchers found that mothers tended to be facing closer scrutiny when it came to performance and stricter standards in terms of punctuality and scores on the management exam. To make things even bleaker, in the study the few mothers that got hired were offered a salary that was 7% lower than that offered to women without children. By the way, there was no face to face communication between the participants and the “candidates,” all was decided on the basis of the resumes.
And that’s not all. An infuriating aspect of this bias is that men with children tend to be perceived as more committed than men without children. In other words, what’s a career deterrent for women is a guarantee for career advancement for men (Rice, 2011). This finding was made in the same study with fictitious job candidates. It turns out that if mothers are at the lowest end of the scale when it comes to hiring attitudes, fathers are at the top end. In the same study, men with children were likely to be offered higher salaries and were held to much more lax punctuality standards than men without children. The authors of the study suggest that while parenthood seems to enhance the perception of negative traits in women, it also seems to bring out perceived positive qualities in men. In other words, it’s not parenthood itself that is the challenge for women’s careers, it’s motherhood specifically.
Traditional corporate culture which is still alive in many companies is definitely dominated by men and that is the third set of challenges that women in business face. The implications of this domination for female employees are as a rule negative. For instance, many women today still find that their opinions are ignored and they don’t feel part of the team in such a male-dominated environment. This sounds like an outtake from a ‘50s movie about sexism but unfortunately it is still reality in some businesses today. A study by Australia-based international recruitment experts Harvey Nash among 600 senior executives found that a traditional, male-dominated corporate culture is in fact the biggest challenge for women’s career development. It seems that things haven’t changed much with time as more than half of respondents, 52%, said that corporate culture is making it very difficult for women to devote themselves to career growth, seriously reducing the period they are prepared to spend on this at the expense of their family lives. Among the main factors that determined this counterproductive state of affairs respondents listed the culture in the enterprise as whole, unfavorable work hours and, not least, the presence of an unconscious bias against women. A majority shared the belief that overall productivity at the company will improve if steps are taken to eliminate these challenges.
The road to improvement starts with a more flexible mind frame, such studies suggest. Employers should come to terms with the fact that the workforce of today needs different things in order to be productive. Helping women better balance their professional and family responsibilities would have a long-term positive effect on the company as a whole comes as the natural conclusion of research into gender inequalities at the workplace. Gender diversity is conducive to corporate success, it has been proven, so women should be encouraged to stay on the career path, rather than ignored and let slip from the workforce. Businesses that are more forward thinking have realized this and have introduced employee retention measures such as flexible work hours and daycare options for kids, allowing their female employees to find the schedule that works best for them, at the same time guaranteeing better productivity and, ultimately, success for the business. It must be clear that retention measures that worked in the past such as encouragement to work longer hours and take part in company-related social events are not really relevant today for those of both genders who have a family to take care of. Rather, a new approach to the concept of work is starting to emerge, together with tech developments that are making it possible for us to work from anyplace, and smart employers are getting on that wagon and already reaping the benefits of having employees that are happy and comfortable with their work arrangements. We could and should hope that this transformation of work in general will serve as a driver for removing obsolete stereotypes based on gender.
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