Why Should We Even Be Talking About Women in the Workplace?

Career authors and workplace experts offer advice for the ladies on how to get ahead in the office in 2011.

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Preamble:

Happy Saturday, everyone!

Today I wanted to address an important issue that is highly relevant to ChasingtheOm, and its goal of encouraging and inspiring women in their early 20s who are just getting started professionally: women’s treatment and perception in the workplace.

As you may know, I am an academic at heart. I like facts and figures. And, while I love opinions, and I do consider myself a feminist, I am also rational and understand that an opinion/rant/etc. is only truly justified when it is supported by evidence. Thus, I realized that it may be important to share some research findings on the “gender gap” in the workplace, a topic I researched heavily for a school project during college.

This may seem a little boring in execution because its actually just a cut-and-pasted section of a research proposal I submitted to a professor last year. Regardless, it has some important information about women in the workplace, and while it doesn’t really offer any solutions to this problem- that’s what ChasingtheOm is for!- it does justify why there still needs to be public discussion around women’s roles in the workplace and why resources like these are critical to young women!

Thanks for reading; again, I apologize in advance for the academic tone!

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Background:

Today, half of all college students globally are women, and the percentage is even higher in the U.S. (57%). For the first time in history, more women than men hold advanced degrees of a masters level or higher (Yen, 2011). In light of a historical wage gap between men and women, the rise of highly educated and motivated women could suggest an ensuing transformation, or even reversal, of economic distribution. As more women are qualified for high-paying, reputable careers, presumably, we will see more women progressing into higher status positions within their careers. In fact, The Neilson Company projects that the vast majority of new income growth over the next 10 years will come from women (Anderson, 2009).

Despite women’s general advancement in the workforce, a substantive body of literature suggests that women are still subject to gender-biased evaluations in the workplace that prevent them from being judged equally to their male-counter parts. When reviewing two identical resumes, study subjects are more apt to rate one with a male name more favorably than one with a female name (Martha Foschi et al, 1994). Moreover, women often have to have higher qualifications than men for the same level position (Valian, 1998).

Existing literature suggests that gender schemas may be to blame for the unequal treatment of men and women in the workforce. Gender schemas are characteristics and behaviors that we attribute to be either masculine or feminine, but are generally shaped by the environment (Valian, 1998). Studies have identified that under typical gender schemas, men are associated with strength, drive, assertiveness and self-reliance, while women are associated with sensitivity, niceness, modesty, and sociability (Prentice and Carranza, 2002). Meanwhile, both women and men who behave in ways that are “inconsistent” with what is typically expected for their gender are viewed negatively (Pentice and Carranza).

Unfortunately, in regards to workplace behavior, this negative view places women at a disadvantage simply because the actions and behaviors that are often expected, or even required, for an individual to attain a high-status professional position typically requires him/her to behave in ways that considered more “male.”  In fact, it has been proven that a woman who achieves a high level of success in a typically “male” career will be viewed as indifferent to others, unlikable, and uncivil (Heilman et al., 2004). On top of all this, further studies have shown that it is considered more “feminine” to fail and to seem vulnerable (Valian, 1999), which, going back to the point above, would make a woman more “likeable” should she fail. To provide a famous example of this, when former First Lady, Hillary Clinton, was initially introduced to the public she became the butt of ridicule and scorn in the media. However, her perception and her popularity rose significantly after the humiliation following her husband’s public infidelity (McGinley, 2009). Evidently, when Clinton was seen as a victim, she “became more human and more likeable,” (McGinley).

On top of behavioral concerns, women are also judged more harshly than men for their appearance and dress at the workplace (Bartlett, 1994). The norms for appearance are stricter for women, and while men are more often rated as “average” in looks, women are more often rated as “above average” or “below average” (Bartlett, 1994). Meanwhile, it is more appealing for a woman to be more, rather than less, concerned with her appearances and fashion. To highlight another celebrity example, one study that sought to analyze social reactions to our current First Lady, Michelle Obama, noted that Obama’s overall likability increased when magazines began writing about her fashion sense and stylish clothing and focused less heavily on her her intellectual achievements (McGinley, 2009).

Evidently, women in most western societies today have many conflicting expectations that put them at a disadvantage to men in the workplace. Women are still expected to act in ways that are consistent with their gender schema, which includes strict expectations for dress and appearance. These findings suggest that academic credentials and a strong resume may not be enough to break the historical “glass-ceiling” (Valian, 2009). With the increasing population of highly qualified women who are employed or preparing to enter the workforce, it would seem logical that more women will fill high authority positions and be forced to behave in ways that are incongruent with typical female behaviors, and subsequently they will be viewed more negatively. Thus, I beg to wonder: does a woman sacrifice her likability when she advances in the workplace? With the information given above, it would seem doubtful that women will advance to equal or higher positions than men despite their increasingly higher academic and professional credentials. What needs to be done to create a more gender balanced professional atmosphere in the U.S. and even globally?

Sources:

1. Yen, Hope. “Women Surpass Men in Advanced Degree for First Time.” Huffinton Post [Washington] 26 04 2011, n. pag. Print.

2. Anderson, Doug. “Below The Topline: Women’s Growing Economic Power.” Nielsen Wire [London] 06 10 2009, n. pag. Print.

3. M. Foschi, L. Lai, K. Sigerso. (1994). Gender and double standards in the assessment of job applicants. Social Psychology Quarterly, 57, pp. 326–339

4. Valian, Virginia. 1998. Why so slow? The advancement of women. Cambridge : MIT Press.

5. Prentice, D. A. and Carranza, E. (2002), What Women and Men Should Be, Shouldn’t Be, Are Allowed to Be, and Don’t Have to Be: The Contents of Prescriptive Gender Stereotypes. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 26: 269–281.

6. Heilman, Madeline E.; Wallen, Aaron S.; Fuchs, Daniella; Tamkins, Melinda M. (2004), Penalties for Success: Reactions to Women Who Succeed at Male Gender-Typed Tasks.Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 89(3), 416-427.

7. McGinley, A. (2009). Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Michelle Obama: Performing Gender, Race, and Class on the Campaign Trail. Denver University Law Review, 86:709–725.

8. Bartlette, K. (1994). Only Girls Wear Barettes, Michigan Law Review.

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