Women in the workplace: The millenary fight against gender bias

October 12, 2021 - 21 min read

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A historical perspective on women in the workplace

What is the gender pay gap?

Women in the workplace statistics

Is race still a factor?

How did COVID-19 change the game?

6 ways your company can fight gender bias

August 2020 marked a century since the ratification of the 19th amendment. 

While the U.S. has made some progress towards gender equality, most Americans (both men and women) say we haven’t done enough:

  • 77% report that sexual harassment is a major obstacle to women securing equal opportunities
  • 66% point to different societal expectations for men and women
  • 64% say that not enough women have positions of power

Women have been climbing the ladder and banging their fists against the glass ceiling for centuries. Although we as a country have reduced the gender pay gap, the fact that one remains means there’s still work to be done. 

To make significant progress, however, we must start within our own work environments.

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A historical perspective on women in the workplace

Women have always held important jobs in society. Although not traditionally regarded as careers, childrearing and agriculture are how most women historically contributed to their households.

In the 1700 and 1800s, women were more prevalent in factories and larger agricultural operations. In fact, women staged the country’s first factory strike in 1824.

It wasn’t until the early 1900s that women worked their way into historically male-dominated roles—mostly as secretaries. Yet only 20% of women were “gainfully employed,” and most women dropped out upon marriage. 

Over the decades that followed, more and more women joined the workforce. By 1930, almost 50% of unmarried women and 12% of married women held jobs of their own, typically clerical work. 

By 1970, over 50% of unmarried women and 40% of married women were working. A rise in high school education produced more educated women. New technologies required more operators—typically women. And with so many men abroad during World War II, women were called up to replace many of their roles.

If a woman was able to get a job in the early 1900s, it was typically cut short when she gave birth. However, the increased demand for working women in the mid to late-1900s lengthened a women’s expected career by decades. Because of this, more women began to attend college and graduate school in anticipation of a longer-term career. 

Changing perspectives and attitudes around women at work led to other cultural shifts, too. The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963. In 1974, women could apply for credit for the first time without a male co-signer. Sexual harassment was recognized in 1975, and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed in 1978. Birth control became more commonplace, allowing both married and unmarried women greater control over starting a family and their overall work-life balance.

By 1990, 74% of women aged 25 to 54 were gainfully employed. However, despite this increase, chasms still existed between men and women in the workplace: most notably, the gender pay gap.

What is the gender pay gap?

The gender pay gap refers to the inequity between what working men and women are paid, on average.  Despite the Equal Pay Act, a significant gender pay gap persists to this day.

Research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that, since 2004, the ratio of women’s to men’s earnings has hovered between 80% and 83%.  For every dollar made by a man, women make around 80 cents. According to this, women would need to work an additional 40 days to make the same as men.

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A recent Pew Research study corroborates this trend: in 2020, working women made 84 cents for every dollar earned by men. 

This is a significant lift from 30 years ago when women earned 36% less than men. Since then:

  • More women have moved into traditionally male-dominated — and higher-earning — roles
  • With the help of birth control and family planning, more women have been able to delay starting families to focus on career and income growth
  • More women have pursued higher education: from 1970 to 2019, the proportion of women ages 25 to 64 in the labor force who held a college degree quadrupled

Yet these economic and cultural shifts can’t account for underrepresentation in lower-earning roles. Moreover, despite extensive training and legislation, gender discrimination still exists. 40% of women have experienced gender discrimination at work.

Lastly, without the proper support at work and at home, motherhood can easily interrupt or derail a woman’s career. Women require more time off work after pregnancy, and mothers tend to carry the burden of household responsibilities — even those working full-time. Moreover, working mothers are much more likely to say they can’t give 100% at work, which can affect their chances for promotion and higher wages.

Women in the workplace statistics

Let’s look at some other statistics regarding women in the workplace.

  • In January 2021, women’s labor force participation dropped to 57% — the lowest it’s been in America since 1988. (We’ll discuss how COVID-19 has affected working women in the next section.)
  • As of August 2021, the unemployment rate for women is 4.8%, down considerably from 15.5% in April 2020. 
  • Never-married women are the most likely to work, at 65% in 2019. Separated and divorced women are more likely to participate in the labor force (63.7% and 60.8%, respectively) than married women (58.6%).
  • 72.4% of women with children under 18 participate in the labor force, which is lower than the rate of 93.5% for men with children under 18 years old. Unmarried or unpartnered mothers (78.2%) are more likely to participate in the labor force than partnered mothers (70.1%).
    • Asian women earn 90 cents, although it’s important to note that the gender pay gap is substantially larger for some subgroups of Asian women
    • Black women earn 63 cents
    • Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women earn 63 cents
    • Native American women earn 60 cents88.9% of registered nurses, 80.5% of elementary and middle school teachers, and 61.7% of accountants and auditors are women, whereas 18.7% of software developers, 27.6% of chief executives, and 36.4% of lawyers are women.

      Is race still a factor?

      Yes. Gender bias is doubly difficult for non-white women, as they are often also discriminated against for their race. 1 in 8 women of color is a “double Only,” i.e., often the only woman and the only person of their race at the proverbial table. Women of color are also far more likely than other women to experience microaggressions.

      Women of color face a wider pay gap.  For every dollar earned by white men:

    • Asian women earn 90 cents, although it’s important to note that the gender pay gap is substantially larger for some subgroups of Asian women
    • Black women earn 63 cents
    • Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women earn 63 cents
    • Native American women earn 60 cents
    • Latina women earn 55 cents
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Women of color also tend to hold lower-earning positions, such as cashiers, nurses, and teachers. More than 50% of home health aides are Black women, and nearly 70% of maids and housekeepers are Latina women.

Moreover, a 2018 American Progress survey found that 67.5% of Black and 41.4% of Latina mothers were the primary or sole breadwinners for their families, compared with 37% of white mothers. The gender pay gap for women of color impacts more than these women alone — many families rely on the economic stability of the mothers’ jobs.

Race remains a factor in promotion potential and C-suite representation. It’s no surprise that men still get promoted at a higher rate than women: for every 100 men promoted, only 85 female employees are promoted. Moreover, of those women, only 58 Black women and 71 Latinas are promoted.

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This isn’t even considering a severe lack of diversity among S&P 500 directors and board members. According to SpencerStuart, “Between 2010 and 2020, female representation grew from 21% to 47%; over that same period, new minority director representation increased by just 10 points to 22% in 2020 — attaining the same level of representation women reached 10 years ago.”

How did COVID-19 change the game?

The total number of women who’ve left the workforce since February 2020 is now 2.3 million; by comparison, only 1.8 million men have left in the same timeframe.

Most of these women were forced to leave their jobs due to school closures and challenging childcare schedules.

It goes without saying that, although the COVID-19 pandemic affected the workforce as a whole, it heavily impacted working mothers.

Research shows that women do more housework and childcare than men — enough that women who work full-time have been said to work “double shifts.” This phenomenon has increasingly worsened over the last 18 months, placing a heavy burden on women in the workplace.

According to a recent McKinsey & Company report, “mothers were more than three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for most of the housework and caregiving during the pandemic. In fact, they’re 1.5 times more likely than fathers to be spending an additional three or more hours per day on housework and childcare.”

This doesn’t take into account the one in five unpartnered mothers, who’ve undoubtedly struggled with childcare, household responsibilities, and financial concerns more than partnered mothers.

Regardless of marital status or family size, the pandemic pushed many mothers to their limit—or out of their jobs altogether.

The McKinsey report also found that “many mothers are considering downshifting their career or leaving the workforce, and mothers are significantly more likely to be thinking about taking these steps than fathers.”

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Among these women, most acknowledge that childcare is their primary concern. Given the erratic returns to school and work, this comes as no surprise.

The COVID-19 pandemic also affected the gender pay gap as large drops in employment — particularly among low-wage workers — changed the median earnings distribution. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics: “This abrupt shift in the earnings distribution during [2020] manifested as an upward bump in the rate of earnings growth in 2020; however, the underlying rate of growth in workers’ median weekly earnings during the year is more difficult to discern because of the sudden, dramatic shift in the earnings distribution.”

6 ways your company can fight gender bias

In addition to educating your team on the history and current statistics regarding women in the workplace, here are some important ways your company can fight gender bias.

1. Understand that more women mean more success

Research shows organizations with more representation at higher levels report higher profit margins, have an easier time attracting and retaining talent and see upticks in innovation, brand reputation, and customer-centricity.

Put another way, your organization can’t afford not to fight gender bias. “Companies should look at gender balance as a bottom-line issue, not just a human resource issue,” said Deborah France-Massin, Director of the ILO Bureau for Employers’ Activities.

For this reason, gender inequality and the gender pay gap shouldn’t be managed through a monthly DEI initiative or an asterisk for recruiters. Gender bias is a responsibility for everyone, from frontline managers to C-suite executives.

By neglecting to widen your talent pool and maximize the potential of women across your organization, you’re holding your company back. “Organizations must take a lead, promoting both effective policies and genuine implementation,” shared Deborah.

2. Examine your benefits

Healthcare benefits are an important deciding factor for job-seeking women, especially mothers. To attract talented employees — both men and women — examine your benefits.

We’ve done the same here at BetterUp. BetterUp’s Director of Solutions Consulting, founder of our women’s ERG group, and Ph.D. Ashley Yousafzai commented on what attracted her: “[BetterUp’s] family leave policy caught my attention early in my job search. The infertility benefits are also incredibly valuable, particularly for women like me who spent their 20s focused on education and career planning and might be pursuing parenthood in their 30s and 40s. I feel supported in living a well-rounded life where financial pressures are not forcing me to choose between doing the work that I love and being a great parent.”

Whether your employees are raising a family, anticipating a child, or delaying to start one, examine how your healthcare offerings benefit women in all stages of life. 

3. Offer mindful support to new mothers

On average, new mothers take about 12 weeks off of work. While the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) protects their jobs, it doesn’t provide compensation. 

Consider how your organization can support working mothers and parents. Some companies provide fully-paid or partially-paid leave, while others offer unpaid leave with benefits or part-time work for a partial salary until employees are ready to return.

However you choose to navigate maternity leave, don’t neglect working mothers in your benefits package or return-to-work game plan. More importantly, don’t forget how important these moments are for your employees.

Daniil Khomenko, AB InBev’s Europe Talent & Development Lead, partners with BetterUp to better support their employees before, during, and family leave: “Maternity and paternity leave is a special moment for our colleagues, and an amazing moment to discover what we as a company can offer.”

4. Provide coaching for women

Women not only want coaching more, but BetterUp research and experience show that women use coaching more, and in some ways even benefit more. 

Whether your female employees are new to their roles, looking to level up their skills, or pursuing leadership positions, supplementary coaching is a powerful way to support their career growth. 

Ashley Yousafzai also shared why women’s coaching is so important: “Women come to coaching with a greater desire for growth and more specific goals for coaching than their male counterparts. Women are also less likely to have previous experience with coaching, largely because coaching was historically limited to higher levels of leadership”.

We’ve found at BetterUp that, once in coaching, women focus on topics like career planning, effective communication, collaboration, developing influence and assertiveness, and managing stress and well-being. 

“As women, we are well aware of the challenges we face,” said Ashley. “Coaching provides a safe space to process some of these experiences and develop skills in negotiating, influencing, or resilience to take on these challenges.”  

5. Offer bias training for interviewers and management.

Everyone struggles with unconscious bias;  it’s only when we ignore or lean into them that they become an issue.

Bias training for those in leadership roles will help your them address any biases that may interfere with how they interact with their employees. While 70% of companies hold senior leaders accountable for progress on race and gender diversity goals, only 30% hold managers accountable, even though managers play a critical role in hiring and promotion decisions.

Bias training will also help your employees gain a deeper understanding of who they are, what they believe in, and why. According to Marissa Andrada, Chief Diversity, Inclusion, and People Officer at Chipotle, “If you aren’t clear on what you stand for you, really can’t show up for others.”

6. Scrutinize your new work model

Finally, whether you’re calling your employees back to the office, offering a hybrid work model, or allowing remote work across the board, take a moment to consider how your approach affects the women in your organization.

While it’s important to hold everyone accountable to the same goals and guidelines, it’s also important to consider how working mothers are likely faced with more unpaid responsibilities than most. 

COVID-19 has also increased this burden — with inconsistent childcare and school schedules, women are now performing over 15 hours of unpaid labor per week.

On top of this, women are more likely to experience burnout than men, especially during the pandemic.

Review your work model with the women in your organization — lower-level and senior-level women alike. Gather their feedback on how it can be improved or flexed to leave space for working mothers and fathers.

When your female employees feel seen, understood, and empowered, they’ll work harder and help your business grow.

Bottom line: pursuing the road to progress

It’s been 100 years since women gained the right to vote, but we haven’t made 100 years’ worth of progress towards gender inequality and bias. A significant chasm exists for women in the workplace: a stagnant gender pay gap, persistent microaggressions for women of color, and an alarming lack of women in leadership. And this is just what’s been reported.

Organizations have the responsibility to better the lives of their female employees. Considering that research shows that more women lead to more success, companies are also foolish to neglect the talent and potential of the women they employ.

It goes without saying that organizations must focus on reducing gender bias and providing workplace environments that support women. Our country will be better for it. BetterUp can help organizations support women but also support managers and leaders across the enterprise to create more effective, inclusive environments.

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Published October 12, 2021

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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