Equality in the Workplace: Are Women Treated the Same as Men?

By  - 
Julia Méndez
Julia Méndez

Despite hopes for significant improvement in equal pay and the removal of barriers for women to advance in the workplace, progress in these areas has been slow. In the 23 years I have been consulting and training organizations on equal opportunity laws and diversity and inclusion principles, I have consistently seen cases where women are intentionally mistreated in the workplace. Often, however, employers have policies and procedures in place that unintentionally prevent women from being selected for hires and promotions.

In the second of two articles (read the first installment) about the treatment of women in the workplace, I examine the prevalence and impact of the wage gap, explain the barriers to promotion and success that women face at work, and suggest concrete steps employers can take to hasten progress towards women’s equality in their organizations.

The Prevalence of Unequal Pay
It is well known that women continue to be paid less than men, earning just 80 percent of men’s wages as of 2015. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), it will be 2059 before women achieve parity should the progression towards equal pay continue to move at the same rate as the past 50 years. For women of color, equal pay will come much later — 2124 for African American women and 2233 for Hispanic.

There are many underlying attitudes and assumptions about women and the value of their work that help to perpetutate the wage gap. For example, women have traditionally been “steered” toward lower-paying occupations. Steering occurs when employers have stereotypes or biases about a certain group of people that influence their hiring decisions, such as assuming that women are better suited for childcare or customer service jobs. This practice continues to segregate many occupations and workplaces, as is evident in the recent example of a Goodwill store in California that came under federal review for denying customer service jobs to male applicants, as management believed that only women should hold such positions.

Similarly, the last 12 months have brought to light many cases in which female employees were less valued by employers, even in the most elite and highest-paying professions. One of the most startling and public examples of this inequality occurred in Janauary 2018, when it was revealed that actor Mark Wahlberg was reportedly paid $1.5 million to re-shoot scenes for the movie All the Money in the World, while co-star Michelle Williams was paid less than $1,000.

In the tech industry, allegations of pay inequality at Google LLC came to light in late 2017 when The New York Times published salary information for more than 1,000 of the company’s U.S. employees. The report revealed that women at the company receive both lower salaries and smaller bonuses on average than their male counterparts. Several female employees subsequently filed a lawsuit against the tech giant, and the company is undergoing a compliance review by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP).

Higher education is by no means immune to this problem. While salaries for female faculty members have grown at a rate of 3 percent in recent years, this increase is still not enough to even begin to close the pay gap between male and female faculty members, according to a 2017 article published by The Chronicle of Higher Education. 

This persistent problem has a myriad of negative effects on women, their families, and even their employers. Underpaid individuals may express feelings of anger or bitterness over being mistreated, as well as jealousy towards others who are paid more for performing the same job with the same or less effort. These feelings can impact the effectiveness and quality of their work. Those who know they are being underpaid may decide to seek employment elsewhere, resulting in increased costs for employers who must then hire and train replacements. Or, as in the case of Google LLC, female employees may take legal action against an employer who pays them unequal wages.

Obviously, a pay gap also affects women and their families economically. According to the IWPR, women are the sole or co-breadwinner in 50 percent of American homes with children. Lower wages means they have less money to provide for basic necessities.

Barriers to Advancement and Better Pay
While most people are familiar with the term “glass ceiling” and the basic barriers for women seeking to advance at work, there are other obstacles that prevent women from succeeding when it comes to hiring and promotion. Many companies focus on avoiding and resolving these barriers because of the appearance of intentional discrimination against female candidates and employees. All processes should be reviewed carefully to guard against unintentional discrimination or adverse impact as well. The following are examples of how both can occur:

Concrete ceiling: In addition to sexist attitudes and assumptions, women of color must contend with overt and unconscious racism in the workplace. Akin to the glass ceiling, this term refers to the “double barrier” that prevents minority women from advancement and promotion.

Glass door: This term refers to the barriers that keep women from being hired for higher-paying positions, as occurs with steering. Another example would be a female job candidate who is expected to start at a lower rank than a male applicant with similar qualifications.

Glass cliff: This term describes what happens to women when they reach senior levels within an organization. Those who have achieved this level of success are often held to a higher standard than their male peers and are evaluated on a much stricter scale, leading them to have poor reviews and their salaries and opportunities to stagnate.

Glass wall: Many women experience barriers when attempting to move laterally within an organization. For example, a female accountant who needs to gain knowledge of marketing and human resources in order to advance at work may be denied the opportunity to transfer departments or shadow other employees who work in these areas.

Glass elevator: This term refers to the practice of quickly promoting men who work in professions traditionally occupied by women, such as nursing, even if they have spent less time on the job than their female coworkers.

Addressing These Issues
The following are best practices to improve pay equity and to mitigate adverse treatment and impact for women in the workplace:

● Require diversity in groups that decide promotions and hires. This reinforces an organization’s commitment to inclusion in the workplace and increases the likelihood of selecting the best candidate through diversity of thought, feedback, and perspectives.

● Take an implicit bias test and become familiar with how biases and stereotypes can affect decisions when it comes to hiring, promotion, and mentoring.

● Ensure job titles are gender neutral — e.g., “salesperson” instead of “salesman.” Doing so helps decrease the likelihood of associating a single gender with the position.

● Offer job sharing and flexible work schedules that allow employees to attend to family duties. Many women still assume the role of primary caregiver at home, so having policies to accommodate for other responsibilities indicates a true desire to be inclusive.

There is an urgent need in organizations for greater awareness to combat biases that prevent women from being allowed to compete fairly and be paid equitably. Through effective training, decision-makers can learn to identify discriminatory activities and learn skills that allow them to interact more effectively, respectfully, and fairly with all people.●

Julia Méndez, SHRM-CP, PHR, CDP, CELS, CAAP, is principal business consultant in the Workforce Compliance and Diversity Solutions Division for PeopleFluent Research Institute. She is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. This article ran in our April 2018 issue.