There is no doubt that progress has been made towards gender equity in the workplace. We have made gains in pay equity and there are some high-profile women in leadership roles. But women still earn $.77 for each $1 men earn for the same jobs, and the number of women in leadership roles is small. Progress has been very slow. The question is what obstacles are stopping us from reaching equality?
It’s a tough question with no easy answers or quick fixes. The obstacles begin long before women get to the workplace.
Obstacles at home
Obstacles exist at home for young girls as well as adult women. Our culture tends to promote caring and supportive roles for girls and women, where boys are expected to be assertive, take more risks and take on leadership roles. Awareness has increased and girls are getting more opportunities but are not getting the same encouragement as boys.
As adults, women are the primary caregivers and have more responsibilities in the home. Studies have shown that women do significantly more work at home than their partners. So women are working full-time jobs and then coming home to more work, making it harder for women to reach a work-life balance.
Career-wise, employers prefer fathers as fatherhood implies responsibility and dependability. Mothers, on the other hand, are not preferred as employers assume that they will put their family before their job. Some companies are offering flex-time, job-sharing and telecommuting options which help parents balance family and careers.
Women have to make choices when it comes to having a family also. The U.S. is one of only nine countries worldwide that do not require paid maternity leave. The right to take maternity leave is guaranteed but costs women financially as well as career-wise for taking time away from work.
Obstacles at school
Globally, girls have less access to education. One in four girls are married before the age of 18 worldwide.
In the U.S., gender stereotyping tends to push girls into more traditional female careers and away from higher levels of science and technology. While women make up 78 percent of health care and social assistance workers, we are only 15 percent of executive officers and 12 percent of board directors. This is changing. Women are now earning degrees at a higher rate than men. Women are now earning 47 percent of law degrees and 48 percent of medical degrees, so we hope to see more equality in these professions.
School-age girls are also lacking role models in leadership positions and technical fields. As more women enter these fields, girls will identify with them and be more likely to follow them in their career path.
Obstacles at work
Once women enter the workforce, they may run into more obstacles to overcome. Again, the lack of role models and mentors in executive positions put women at a disadvantage. Organizations such as Lean In, Not There and No Ceilings are trying to provide advice and support for women. Women need to build strong networks to advance at work.
Multiple studies have shown that there is a cultural preference for men in leadership positions. The gap is decreasing, but both men and women say they prefer a male boss. Leadership traits such as assertiveness, confidence and competitiveness are considered more masculine traits. Women who show these traits are negatively perceived as “bossy” or pushy.
Men and women tend to have different leadership styles. The more masculine style is familiar to most people and more accepted (but only from male bosses). Women bosses are perceived as more collaborative and compassionate. When women bosses show more dominance, they are considered less effective.
While women are not seen as traditional leaders, we are making progress and being appreciated for different leadership traits. This article shows how women are seen as more effective leaders than men, even though they advance to this level less often.
Another obstacle women face is harassment in the workplace. Sexual harassment is predominately a women’s issue. According to a study by the University of Minnesota, only 5-15 percent of women report harassment. Researchers also discovered that as women advance, harassment is more likely to occur.
The path to gender equality in the workplace has been long and difficult, and we are not there yet. Stereotyping and cultural norms still exist and pose obstacles for women and girls. Changes need to happen in homes, schools and workplaces to eliminate the obstacles holding women back.