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Gender inequality in the workplace: The fight against bias

October 15, 2021 - 21 min read


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The fight against gender discrimination

What does it look like today?

Steps managers can take to eliminate gender inequality in organizations

Steps employees can take to combat gender inequality

True gender equality is intersectional

The Equal Pay Day, a symbolic event created to highlight wage inequity, fell on March 24 this year. This day shows how far into the year — 83 more days in 2021 — women need to work just to be able to earn the same that men earned in the previous year.

Gender inequality in the workplace isn’t limited to unequal wages, either. Women, especially black women, LGBTQ+ women, and women of color, continue to face barriers to move into leadership positions and are likely to face microaggressions — offensive statements or insensitive questions — related to race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual identity.

Leaders need to close gender gaps in career advancement and eliminate workplace discrimination. There are concrete ways to achieve this ideal — transparent salaries, flexible work options, training opportunities for women, and a focus on well-being and mental health. Employees, too, can play a part in ensuring gender equity on all fronts by becoming allies, speaking up against instances of discrimination, and giving honest feedback to leaders.

Before we lay down some tactics to combat gender inequality, let’s take a look at how and when the first steps were taken.

The fight against gender discrimination started in the 19th century

In 1872, Belva Ann Lockwood, an attorney, persuaded the U.S. Congress to pass a law guaranteeing equal pay for women employed as federal employees. Nearly a century later, the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, making it law to pay equal wages to men and women in all workplaces. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 granted equal rights to women in all areas of employment and was amended in 1991 to allow women to sue employers for sexual harassment.

Despite the federal law against gender inequality and discrimination, it creeps into workplaces in insidious ways. While some progress has been made, gender inequality continues to persist even today.

Gender inequality in the workplace: What does it look like today?

Gender inequality in the workplace takes many forms — unequal pay, disparity in promotions, incidents of sexual harassment, and racism. Often, it presents itself in more nuanced ways, like fewer opportunities for women who are mothers and a higher incidence of burnout in women.

Unequal pay

Equal pay for men and women is still not a reality. In 2020, women earned 84% of what men earned for the same job, and Black and Latina women earned even less. This gender pay gap has persisted over the past years, shrinking by just 8 cents in 25 years. There are multiple reasons to blame, including “sticky floors” that result from traditional social norms that keep women from choosing higher-paying roles and male-dominated industries, unequal access to education, and discrimination.

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In addition, women, especially those living intersectional realities like transgender and immigrant women, grapple with a fear of negotiating pay and being penalized if they do. One recent study questioned this idea and found that women ask for pay raises just as often as men, but they get it only 15% of the time as compared to 20% when men ask.

Barriers to Promotion

There is a “broken rung” at the manager level: “For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 86 women are promoted.” This problem is compounded at higher levels of leadership: fewer women managers means there are fewer candidates to promote to heads of department, directors, and C-suite positions, too. You can see this lack of representation clear as day: 62% of C-suite positions are held by white men, compared with 20% taken up by white women (greater than the 13% occupied by men of color) and a mere 4% by women of color.

gender inequality 1 representation by corporate role

Plus, managers frequently identify candidates for employment opportunities by relying on their personal networks for recommendations, which usually consists of “people like them” (same gender, race, identity). This further perpetuates the imbalance in representation.

Bias against mothers

Mothers, and women of child-bearing age, are less likely to receive a callback from hiring managers, even when their résumés are identical to the résumés of male applicants or childless women. This points to gender biases rooted in the “work/family narrative,” which views women through the caregiver/mother lens. The (erroneous) conclusion is that their devotion to family and childcare makes them less committed and unable to put in long hours like their male counterparts, especially at high-level jobs.

The pandemic’s “gender effect” dealt a further blow, driving nearly 2 million women, especially mothers with young children, to consider downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce.

Higher burnout in women

Research shows that more women than men, especially in higher-up positions, are burned out and dealing with constant stress in the work environment. The pandemic nearly doubled the burnout gap between men and women. This makes women more prone to accepting “accommodations” like part-time work or internal roles that further derail their careers and contribute to gender inequality.


Incidents of sexual harassment

Thirty-five percent of women in the U.S. experience sexual harassment at some point during their careers: a sign that sexism is overlooked in the workplace. Sexual harassment could also be a direct side effect of disparity in pay and promotions.

Following the #MeToo movement that started in October 2017, incidents of sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention declined. But there has been a sharp increase in hostility towards women — a survey uncovered that gender harassment (sexist remarks and inappropriate stories from male colleagues) spiked to 92% in 2018, from 76% in 2016.

Experiences in racism

Compared to white women, women of color and women with marginalized identities face a higher rate of disrespectful and “othering” microaggressions like being questioned or interrupted. Women of color also do not have active allies at work. White employees think of themselves as allies to women of color, but less than half actually take even basic actions like calling out bias or rallying for new opportunities for women of color. Often, this is because white "allies" and women of color have very different ideas of what’s helpful.


Steps managers can take to eliminate gender inequality in organizations

According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2020, none of us will see gender equality during our lifetimes. Before the pandemic, the report estimated it would take us 99.5 years to achieve gender parity. The Covid-19 pandemic set us back by a whole generation — the 2021 report states that the gender gap will not close for 135.6 years because it impacted women (especially mothers, black women, and senior women) harder than men.

However, these predictions are based on the current state of gender inequality. We can start making a meaningful impact now to bridge the gap:

1. Educate employees on unconscious gender bias

Everyone can have unconscious biases and prejudices about people or groups. Offer implicit bias training through the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to managers to make them aware of these hidden biases towards minorities so that they can actively avoid discriminatory behavior and make more informed decisions to promote gender equality.

2. Appoint diverse interviewers and implement longer shortlists to hire more women in top positions

Research shows that an extended shortlist of candidates for open positions creates more gender diversity because it pushes managers to think beyond the gender stereotypes associated with a role. Train Human Resources managers on how to make these types of longer shortlists when hiring, especially for male-dominated roles, so that more women get recruited in top positions.

Take steps to ensure interviewer diversity when reviewing résumés and conducting interviews. Research shows that women are more attracted to roles when they see that the interviewer is a woman.

3. Conduct an audit and make salaries transparent

Conduct a company-wide audit to ensure that men and women in the same roles get paid equally. Use the findings to adjust salaries and close any gender wage gaps. In 2013, Buffer adopted complete transparency and disclosed all salaries. As a result, their job applications rose from 1,263 in the 30 days before the announcement to 2,886 in the next month, expanding the talent pool.

4. Give employees the flexibility to work when and where works for them

The pandemic has proven that remote work is equally, if not more, productive. Provide flexibility in when and where employees can work. For women, this flexibility in work hours can prove to be a “critical enabler” of retention in the workforce because it allows them to maintain a work-life balance. However, if your organization follows a hybrid model, beware of falling prey to presenteeism, where men who choose to go to an office may be more ‘visible’ at work and therefore disproportionately rewarded.

5. Provide development opportunities to enable women to transition to higher-skilled roles

Provide women with opportunities to learn new skills and become more tech-savvy. Between 40 million and 160 million women globally are estimated to transition to higher-skilled jobs by 2030, which could lead them to more productive and better-paying work. Prioritizing women’s advancement has many benefits for organizations, too, including high revenue growth, more innovation, and increased customer satisfaction.

6. Empower women through coaching sessions

Women are disproportionately affected by Covid-19, and coaching empowers them to stay and advance in the workforce. But there is a gender gap in access to coaching, too. Provide women with regular coaching sessions so they can build skills and develop the mindsets they need to thrive, especially in leadership roles. BetterUp Labs coached 440 women across different organizations and found that the coaching sessions helped women achieve giant strides in self-awareness, inclusive leadership, and overall employee experience.

7. Provide resources to improve well-being and mental health

At any given time, 55% of the workforce is languishing. Make mental fitness part of the company culture by modeling empathy and training managers to be more empathetic. Offer personalized support to meet women where they are at and help them grow in their careers.

8. Establish mentor-mentee relationships

Give employees scheduled time to participate in mentoring programs. Mentoring programs benefit the mentor as much as the mentee, according to a recent study. Provide opportunities for women to take up mentoring positions because it helps them see themselves as leaders and role models. There’s another benefit when women mentor men — it helps to eliminate gender bias.

9. Offer at least 4 months for paid parental leave

Paid time off to nurture a new child has immense health and career benefits. Establish generous policies for maternity leave, with a minimum of four months. Provide separate parental leave for fathers, like Sweden and Iceland, to encourage men to take time off and share in household responsibilities as well as let women back into the workforce.

Steps employees can take to combat gender inequality

Employees, too, can play an active role in advancing gender equality in their workplaces. Individuals who are proactive at work help in creating a better future and prevent the recurrence of existing problems.

1. Participate in DEIB initiatives at your organization

DEIB initiatives benefit everyone in the workplace. When you participate in DEIB initiatives, you can bring your own experience and use it to promote change. Even if you are not part of an underrepresented group, using your voice to help others who may be facing barriers helps you grow too.

2. Call out instances of gender discrimination or biases

Just like the #MeToo movement started with one instance of speaking out against sexual harassment, taking a stand even if you are alone can bring about lasting change and empower others to speak up.

3. Join or build a women’s Employee Resource Group

ERG groups help develop internal leaders, educate employees, and have a positive impact on retention. Join or create an ERG to help build psychologically safe spaces for women, women with disabilities, women of color, and LGBTQ+ women.

4. Become a mentor to women and women of color

Your lived experiences are far more valuable and truthful than any other resources provided to other women in the workforce. Use them to share lessons while mentoring women.

5. Provide honest feedback to leaders on their gender inequality initiatives

Employee feedback on initiatives around advancing gender equality can be a driver of change. Be honest with your employers about what’s working and what’s not.

We won't achieve true gender equality until it is intersectional

“All inequality is not created equal,” Kimberlé Crenshaw said, pointing to the fact that varied and overlapping identities compound experiences of discrimination. Some women experience discrimination based on their gender, while other women may face, in addition to gender, inequalities arising from race, ability, sexual orientation, caste, and class. Even Equal Pay Day is not equal for all women: white women may have had to work until March 24, 2021, to make as much as their male counterparts did in 2020, but Black women would have to work until August 3, 2021, to earn what men did in 2020, and Latina women, until October 21, 2021.

Until workplaces acknowledge these complex layers and make systemic changes, gender equality will remain a distant dream. Learn how BetterUp can help your organization support women and underrepresented groups and help change behavior and culture across the organization.

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Published October 15, 2021

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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