Mid and Late Career Women May Hold the Power to End Gender Discrimination in the Workplace

How can you help the next generation of women to stomp out gender bias?

It’s 2020 and women make up almost half of the workforce. We are graduating with college and graduate degrees at a faster rate than men. We are breadwinners, students, leaders, and supervisors. Yet, on average, we still earn $.82 cents on the dollar and make up only 21% of C-suite jobs. What causes this disparity and how can you help the next generation of women to end institutional gender discrimination in corporate america and elsewhere?

If you are fortunate enough to have made it to a place in your career where you are comfortable with your own success, then you are uniquely qualified to help the next generation of women change these statistics. We have an opportunity as millions of Millennials solidify their place in the workforce to ride their wave of transformation and redefine the male dominated culture of corporate America.

A Disclaimer…

I know all women are not the same, nor are all men. This article is not meant to be male bashing nor is it meant to blame any individual man for the current state of gender bias. I make statements about “men” and “women” that are general observations and not an edict that everyone in the gender acts in such a way. Please don’t read it as if all men or women are represented by any one statement.

Gender Inequality in the Workplace

We’ve all seen it. Women are passed over for promotions or not given high profile projects for no other reason than their gender. Men continue to rise in the ranks and promulgate policies that inadvertently (in most cases) smooth the path for male employees and create obstacles for women. It’s unfair. It’s ineffective. And it’s time for it to stop. Women in the later half of their career wield the power to break this cycle by empowering younger women, working for organizational change, and breaking the stereotypes associated with women in the workplace.

But first, let’s look at the numbers. According to a 2019 survey done by LeanIn.org:

  • Women are less likely to be hired and promoted to manager: For every 100 men promoted and hired to manager, only 72 women are promoted and hired.
  • Men hold 62% of manager-level positions, while women hold just 38%. The number of women decreases at every subsequent level.
  • Only one third of companies set gender representation targets for first-level manager roles, compared to 41% for senior levels of management.
  • If women are hired and promoted to manager at the same rates as men, we can add 1 million more women to management in corporate America over the next five years.
  • Black women and women with disabilities face more barriers to advancement and get less support than other groups of women.
  • Women with disabilities face far more everyday discrimination. People question their judgement, interrupt them and co-opt their ideas.
  • Lesbian women, bisexual women, and women with disabilities are far more likely than other women to hear demeaning remarks about themselves or others like them.
  • At the top of the corporate echelon, there are almost four times as many men as women.

Institutional Gender Discrimination

A lot has been done to breakdown gender barriers in the workplace. Much of it has been effective but we have a long way to go. One of the most difficult challenges is disentangling women’s career paths from the tentacles of institutional gender discrimination. Workplace culture and expectations were largely defined by men. Women have, in many instances, simply taken for granted that the constructs under which we operate are inherently fair when that isn’t reality. Women work in a world organized by men’s rules and frameworks.

Regardless of how much progress we’ve made, we are still the primary family caregivers. We spend more time tending to our children and homes than our male counterparts and are much more likely to carry the emotional weight of this burden. We wonder why we can’t find the elusive “work life balance” and question how the women who have made it to the top did so. In fact, we often ask ourselves, what do they have that we don’t?

Be a “Real” Female Role Model

For the most part, the women at the top are no different than those just entering the workforce – except that they survived the climb.

But they don’t tell you that. A belief that these women are somehow superior to the rest of us fuels gender inequality. They’re not superheroes. They’re real people with strengths and flaws just like everyone else. It’s critical for younger women to know this.

You don’t hear about the winding road that took her to the C-suite or the falls she had to endure in the climb. You only see the end result. It’s like that perfect shot on Instagram. You don’t see the clutter and chaos the inevitably exists just outside of the frame. We need to show young women the full picture so they can see that they are no different than those who make it to the top.

Even if you are not sitting in a C-Suite office, you can still have a powerful influence on younger women and on your organization by challenging institutionalized discrimination and actively supporting the next generation of women. Show them that you too struggled to get where you are. Don’t sugar coat it. The road is rocky and people will toss obstacles in the way. If we don’t share reality, they will continue to fall short of their own flawed expectations.

Challenges for Women in the Workplace

There are many articles, books, and scholarly papers written about how to transform an organization. They talk about policies, networking, and mentoring young woman. I’m going to talk about something different. Something simpler and possibly more impactful. We need to change the way young women view themselves, their role in the workplace and family, and their vision of what it takes to reach their career goals on an even trajectory with men. We can give them the insight to see, and therefore the ability to fight against, institutionalized discrimination.

Strong women are not bitches

We’re taught to “be nice” and “be polite”. As little girls, we learned to play cooperatively with others and to not hurt anyone’s feelings. Society views these behaviors as stereo-typically female. When woman are assertive or straightforward, or push for what they believe, they are considered unpleasant – at a minimum. Yet these are some of the qualities that are prized in a leader.

Women are therefore in a double bind.

If she is nice, collaborative, and agreeable, the people around her are more comfortable because she acts in a way that meets their expectations. But it doesn’t paint her as a typical leader. If she displays a traditional leadership quality, such as assertiveness, she’s considered unpleasant and not qualified for leadership because of a concern that people won’t like her or want to work for her. These conflicting views feed gender bias.

Wear your heart on your sleeve

It’s true, women tend to be more openly emotional than men. This is part hormones and part culture but either way, it’s real. But, women didn’t define the cultural expectations about expressing emotion the workplace. Men did and they don’t cry and hug as much as we do. Therefore, it’s viewed as strange – behavior not suitable for a leader.

Since this conduct is outside of what has traditionally been defined as the norm, it is deemed abnormal. People often believe if a woman cries, or gets emotional, she is weak or unable to handle what is on her plate. This belief reinforces inaccurate gender discrimination.

“Balance” is a verb

I have been hearing about “work/life balance” for as long as I can remember. I obsessed about it for the first twenty years of my career. I’ve seen other women do the same, always adjusting what they’re juggling at work to allow them to better focus on their families only to pivot a few weeks later and prioritize work so they don’t fall behind. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man do this balancing act. Sure, he talks about it and he takes some afternoons off to go see his kid’s soccer game but he doesn’t agonize over it.

He grew up expecting to prioritize his career. He is therefore not letting himself down by doing so. Women grow up being told they can “balance” both.

This is bullshit.

There is no such thing as “work/life balance”. The phrase assumes an even distribution that puts everything into equilibrium. A perfect alignment of how much of you is given to work, and how much is given to the rest of your life to achieve maximum satisfaction in all areas. It’s not possible. There is only a constantly shifting load that you are always “balancing” so it doesn’t knock you over.

Something has to give – either work or life. And women need to know that’s okay.

Office life is inherently male

The workplace is sometimes described as unwelcoming to women. If you think about it, it’s at least partially true.

The layout of office space is often hierarchical with those in higher positions spread out to the corners of their kingdoms and the minions pooled in the middle. This structure removes younger women, who are often funneled into administrative roles, from interacting with those in management. It also discourages collaboration which can be one of a woman’s strongest assets.

When women leave their designated space to discuss an issue with other members of the team, collaborate and work through problems, they can be viewed as chit-chatty and being too social. Since men are more inclined to make decisions without the input of others, they are viewed as hard workers with their noses to the grindstone.

Heck, even the female bathrooms tend to be further away from the workspace in many buildings. This relic of gender discrimination is beginning to disappear but it’s still prevalent in many older buildings.

Working 9 to 5

The 9 to 5 workday was created by labor unions in the 1800s – when there were almost no women in the workforce. Men went to work daily, after their wives made them breakfast. The women stayed home to care for the home and children. At the end of the workday, men would go back home to a cooked meal, clean clothes, and a nicely made bed. It worked, at least for men.

The workday never considered the need to also accommodate the schedules of women who are still maintaining the home and taking care of children, while they also work. Some companies created “mother’s hours” but these are largely for menial jobs with no career path.

If you want to get ahead, you are expected to fit into the 9-5 workday. If you can’t then you are viewed as not up to the task and certainly not qualified for advancement. But, you don’t have anyone at home to make you breakfast and dinner and to do your laundry and care for your children.

On a related note, there is still a belief in many companies that a dedication to work before family and the rest of your life is a requirement for moving ahead. This is despite the evidence that a well rounded person is a happier and more productive employee. The 9-5 workday and the continuing reliance on women as the primary caregivers are obstacles to women meeting this archaic expectation.

Birds of a feather flock together

It is human nature to want to support people who are in alignment with you, who are similar to you. This tendency leads to men at the top of organizations naturally supporting other men because they are familiar. This practice perpetuates the selection and advancement of men over women based solely on access to opportunities. It’s not easily seen but is still gender discrimination. It leaves women behind waiting for someone to give them a chance to shine.

Who wrote this dress code anyway?

Have you every thought of how unfair it is that men wear comfortable shoes every day? I certainly have!

Why is it that women are expected to do their hair and makeup, wear heels, and have a wardrobe that guarantees they won’t wear the same item twice in a week… or even two weeks? They must look good or risk being viewed negatively by their peers and superiors. Yet men need only a few outfits, a neat appearance and comfortable shoes.

When women show up to work without makeup, jewelry, or high heels, people wonder if something is amiss. Why is this?

This disparate view of what one should look like in the workplace is a remnant of men’s desire to have their women look pretty. Men designed the workforce appearance long ago. They decided that women should dress up to be easy on the eyes. Women have accepted this, largely without question, despite the clear disparities in the male vs female dress code expectations.

What can you do to Help the Next Generation of Women in the Workplace?

In addition to the typical suggestions about mentoring and sponsoring other women, there are many simple things you can do everyday to begin to break down barriers and change culture. You can help young women to see the world through a different lens than we did. This alone could do more to advance women into positions of power than all the mentoring in the world. If they can’t see the problem, they will continue blindly down the same gender biased paths.

Be unabashedly you

It sounds effortless but it isn’t. We’ve been indoctrinated into a culture of male expectations. We behave in the workforce in a way that men defined as appropriate. Young women are afraid to resist these standards, if they even stop to think that it’s an option. Behaving differently puts them at risk of not being viewed as appropriate or “right” for leadership roles or advancement.

Women who are at a later stage in their careers can set a different expectation. Think about how you act each day and whether or not it is true to who you are and how you would like to behave in the workforce.

  • If you’re a collaborator and you’ve held back from walking around and talking things out with people, do it. Begin to change the expectations of your team and your organization.
  • Dress comfortably. Especially comfortable shoes! Younger women will see successful role models valuing an easier wardrobe and will perhaps rethink their own approach to work clothes. Minimize pretty as a job requirement.
  • Cry, laugh, hug, express your emotions in whatever way makes sense for you (without of course violating any laws!!)

Be unabashedly you which will make it more acceptable for other women to do the same.

Teach women to stop networking and start building relationships

“Networking” is so male. It’s gathering a bunch of superficial connections then reaching out to them when you need something. If a man can identify someone who can help him to accomplish a goal, he picks up the phone and taps his network.

This isn’t how most women function.

Women are more likely to work through relationships. You can see it in our personal lives. While men tend to have large groups of friends that change over time, women usually have a few close friends that last a lifetime. Your professional relationships can be similar. Teach this to young women. Networking has the word “work” built right into it. We have enough to do without more “work”. Relationships, on the other hand, are natural and rewarding to women.

Question accepted norms

This is another area where you can make a difference. Look around your workplace. Review your polices. Are there areas that you can see that support men more than women? If there are, speak up. Encourage flexible policies that give everyone fair access to advancement. Consider initiatives such as flexible schedules, job shares, off site work, and other women friendly ideas.

Don’t just talk to your boss, talk to young women. Make them aware. Teach them it okay to not blindly accept the status quo and gender discrimination. Embody change as a model for other women. You’ll be surprised how many will follow if you lead the way.

Start a Women’s Network as a place to discuss issues in your organization, review policies for inherent bias, teach woman to question accepted standards. Use this network as a way to share what you have learned over time. Teach young women to support each other and speak out. Set an expectation that those involved will continue to support women rising up the ranks behind them. Give them tools to do so.

Millions of Millenials

The Millennial generation is the largest generation in the workforce. 77% of Millennials want seek a meaningful work environment experience. They want work that makes a difference and allows them to live a full life. This is a great vision! But they can’t achieve it alone.

You can be a force for change. Champion their causes as a path to a new normal. This is a generation large enough and outspoken enough to transform corporate America. Help them by showing the way before they become indoctrinated by institutional gender discrimination. It they begin to see it as normal, they too will do nothing to change it.

More birds of a feather

Befriend the other women in your workplace, especially those in entry level or first level manager jobs. They will be buoyed by your support. Share information with them including reading material that you found helpful in your career.

I often give copies of LeanIn by Sheryl Sandberg. The book has been criticized for putting too much of the responsibility on individual women rather than changing culture. As Michelle Obama put it, “That shit don’t always work!”. While I agree with this criticism, I can’t disregard the good nuggets in the book. Gender discrimination needs to be attacked on multiple fronts. Empowering individual women is one of the.

It does, however, reinforce that you need to think carefully about your audience when selecting a title. Go beyond gender bias and think about culture, background, education level and personal experiences to find the most appropriate reading materials. One title is not right for all women.

Share articles and TED talks. I keep a collection of articles that I pass on when and where appropriate. A couple of examples that address the topics in this post, and are in my shareable collection, are a 2019 article in the Wall Street Journal about women falling behind at the first rung of the corporate ladder and a 2019 survey from the McKinsey company about gender inequality in the workplace.

To keep it simple, store a list of articles as links in a Word document with a brief description of the content. When you want to pass it along, all you have to do is click on the link, print it out, and slip it into her mailbox with a note that you thought she might enjoy the topic. The personal touch will make her feel valued. It that’s not possible, just copy the link and put it in an email with a short note.

This doesn’t require heavy lifting. Many of us don’t have time to setup formal mentoring relationships with meetings, tasks, agendas, and follow up. We can all, however, say good morning, talk for a few minutes, and share information that empowers.

Recommend women for high profile projects based on strengths over experience

The only way to get experience is through experience. This works against women who haven’t yet been given an opportunity to expand their skills. Combine this with a natural preference for leaders, in this case male leaders, to chose those similar to themselves, and women are faced with an uphill battle in getting that first big break.

By getting to know the women in your office, and working with them in a Women’s Network, you’ll begin to see their strengths.

Recommend women for high profile projects based on these strengths. Champion them if they have the skills to excel at the project, even if they don’t have the specific experience the sponsor is seeking. I have consistently found that a person’s intelligence, tenacity, work ethic, and ability to cooperate with a team are far better barometers of the potential for future success than experience.

One great project can be the step a woman needs to reach that first rung and overcome gender inequality.

Be a rising tide

I can’t stress the importance of this one enough. Women need to support other women. We are more powerful as a united group than we will ever be alone.

For some reason, which I will likely never understand, women can be nasty to other women. I suspect it comes from a history of too few opportunities for women resulting in bitter rivalries and competition. But it’s not necessary nor is it productive. We all benefit from each female advancement. As the saying goes, “A rising tide lifts all boats”. Be a rising tide.

Speak up and lay the groundwork for others to do the same. Fight institutionalized gender discrimination on every front. Don’t sit back quietly when you see injustice. Openly and publicly support women who are assertive, or collaborative. In doing so, they are less likely to be viewed negatively by others. You begin to break the cycle.

Begin at the Beginning

We often focus on the late stages of a woman’s career as the place she gets stuck but this myopic view obscures a major failure in the system.

We lose the most women at the first rung of the ladder, long before they can even see the glass ceiling. This is the biggest obstacle for women rising to leadership.

Even though women make up almost half of the entry level workforce at 48%, they make up only 38% of first line mangers. A loss of 10%. That percentage declines steadily up the ladder, though in smaller increments. We lose another 4% at each of the next three levels – Director, Vice President and Senior Vice President and a 5% decline stepping into the C-suite where only 21% are women.

By fixing the first rung of the ladder to advance into management, we can add a million women to management over the next five years.

We have the power to make this happen through cultural change, educating the next generation, and women supporting other women. We all need to do our part if we are going to drive institutional gender discrimination from the workforce. Midlife women, and mid-to-later career women, can and should lead this charge. Let this be your legacy.

One thought on “Mid and Late Career Women May Hold the Power to End Gender Discrimination in the Workplace

  1. This is such a huge issue, but I think we’ve made a lot of progress in the last few decades, and more progress will be made in the years ahead. Women have worked really hard to be reconized for their worth and what they bring to the job, and I think that’s respected a lot more these days. There’s still a lot of “lesser” jobs that are filled by women – where they are the support network but not recognized for the importance of what their contribution means to the business as a whole – that still needs to change.

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