It has been many years since the AMC series Mad Men ruled the airwaves, giving us a glimpse back into the culture of the United States in the 1950s and ’60s. The series depicted clear examples of gender bias in the workplace, from Peggy Olson’s struggle to become a copywriter instead of a secretary in the first season to Joan Harris’s fight for a slice of the partnership pie near the end of the series.
For those of us caught up in the glitz and glamour of the series, we could dismiss those struggles as “history”—not something that happens today. Yet the struggle for gender equality in the workplace is just as real today—if less overt—as it was then. Workplace gender discrimination still impacts the careers of women around the world, revealing itself via pay gaps, lack of representation in C-suite positions and on boards of directors, and now even in unemployment statistics.
A study published by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company also notes that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on working women has been more significant relative to its impact on working men. This could reverse the progress seen in recent years in gender equality in the workplace (see Women in the Workplace 2020).
In addition to those measurable outcomes, women are still facing sexual harassment in the workplace (as evidenced by the #MeToo movement) and fighting to be respected and heard in their professional roles.
The recently published study Diversifying U.S. Accounting Talent: A Critical Imperative to Achieve Transformational Outcomes by IMA® (Institute of Management Accountants) and CalCPA (California Society of Certified Public Accountants) notes nearly 60% of women respondents felt they weren’t recognized for their contributions during their careers, and 51% felt passed over for promotions they had demonstrated readiness to receive.
MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
As a woman working predominantly in the manufacturing industry, I, too, have watched men with less experience and fewer credentials be hired for the same role I held and be paid more for it. My personal style has been criticized in formal annual reviews. My recommendations have been challenged immediately as too expensive or infeasible only to be met with approval when they’re repeated later, in the same meeting, by a male colleague.
For a long time, I thought that my experiences were anomalous—surely this environment wasn’t pervasive. But I found I wasn’t alone after I started talking about the issue with men and women I met at professional conferences and workshops. I heard similar stories from female peers who were pushing back against the same discriminatory comments and behaviors that I was fighting.
Professional women from around the world shared stories of being asked to take notes at meetings because “women were better at it” or being excluded entirely from important meetings. They also encountered judgmental comments in passing and often needed extra approvals to get the same tools that were approved without question for male colleagues. Clearly, gender bias in the workplace is still prevalent—it’s now expressed through microaggressions, stereotyping, and unconscious biases of existing leaders.
How do we challenge something people may not even recognize they’re doing? We can start by pointing out the discriminatory behavior as it’s happening to us or to others around us. Something as simple as “Do you realize your comment is showing a bias?” can change the conversation. We need to stand together, both men and women, and support each other when we see these double standards around us. At the same time, we need to stay alert for our unconscious biases and be open to feedback.
Managers need to provide open, safe spaces for team members to share their experiences and grievances, and then take definitive actions to resolve the issues. When a female employee comes to you about harassment, microaggressions, or other forms of bias she is experiencing, ask for more information. Uncover the specifics and follow up with the others involved. Show the employee in question that a gender-biased work environment is unacceptable. And if the female employee continues to experience discriminatory behavior with those same people, take disciplinary actions to eliminate the problem.
OBSTACLES TO EQUALITY AND PROGRESS
At the organizational level, we need to address the obstacles to equality for all employees, and there is a conspicuous gender gap in leadership positions. According to the IMA and CalCPA study, fewer than 14% of Fortune 500 CFOs are women. Access to mentors, professional training, and high-profile roles and assignments lead to promotions at a senior level, and this access is still biased against women. (See the Harvard Business Review article on how imbalance in the assignation of “glamour work assignments” and “housework-type assignments” affects the progress of women and diversity in the workplace.)
Because fewer women are in senior leadership roles, there are fewer examples of female professionals moving up the ranks, fewer female mentors available to help guide and advise other female professionals, and fewer women on the decision-making team for promotions, board member selections, and so on. A recent study by LeanIn.org shows that men are less likely to mentor women, which impedes women’s career progress and reduces their opportunities to succeed. These conditions can lead to a lack of gender diversity in leadership roles.
Just as important as removing obstacles and sponsoring talented diverse leaders is measuring the progress made: What gets measured gets done. To resolve inequality in our workforce, we must measure it and hold our leaders accountable for improving those metrics over time.
Studies have shown gender diversity at the executive level leads to greater profitability (see Diversity wins: How inclusion matters). In light of this research, it’s in all of our best interests to ensure women leaders have strong support structures within companies. Forming company-based support groups or providing external training opportunities for current and future women leaders allows for the structured camaraderie not often available when there are few women leaders in the company itself.
We need to work together to build the gender diversity our companies need to succeed and to change the underlying behaviors that cause inequities in our teams and leadership. While considerable progress has been made in terms of recruitment and employment diversity since the 1950s of Mad Men, we still have a long way to go before we create a truly equitable workplace.