The contrast of expectation and reality for women in the workplace is difficult to tackle, writes Anna Kochetkova, but the situation is improving…and productivity is increasing.
Women in the workplace – expectations against personal goals
Often when we talk about women in the workplace, the main topic to come up is the gender pay gap, where men are paid $1.29 for every $1.00 a white woman is paid, $1.56 for every $1.00 an African American woman is paid and $1.81 for every $1.00 a Hispanic woman is paid. From university to climbing the career ladder, having children and achieving a balance, women are often blamed for not working hard enough, not making the right choices and not balancing enough. However, in reality, the reasons for the discrepancy in wages and male dominance further up the ladder are much more varied.
University student to employed graduate
According to a recent study by Universum, measuring the wage gap in American graduates, women were on average expecting yearly wages $7,700 lower than their male counterparts. This initial wage discrepancy has often been blamed on women not bargaining enough, however it seems old stereotypes have a large hand in how both female students and employees are regarded.
Women have traditionally been seen as more “communal” and men as “competent”. This plays out in the unconscious biases active in the workplace, where less is expected of female students as men are seen as being more “goal-oriented”.
“Opting out” to have children
The term “opt out’” was first introduced in a 2003 article covering women in senior management leaving to have children. According to a Harvard Business Review study of graduates, 77% of people believe that “prioritising family over work” was the major hindrance to a woman’s career. In reality, only around 10% of women left their positions to look after children, and the vast majority of those only as a last resort, leaving positions with low promotion prospects.
Women aren’t simply opting out to have children, more often they are forced out, and many women return to full time work within two years, to balance career and family life.
“Ratcheting back” career progression
Childcare is still considered a female-dominated area, with women being the primary care-giver in most relationships, while men are considered the primary breadwinners. The primary care-giver status stretches the wage gap from the age of 30 to its widest at the age of 50. Many women in business, after having children, wish to return to the workplace, as part time workers then slowly getting back to full time work.
In these cases, it is often difficult to find part-time work. Moreover, part-time female workers are often overlooked for promotion and seen as either incompetent or requiring easier work. In the workplace, returning mothers are often removed from projects they once led and their choices stigmatised when they take advantage of reduced or flexible schedules.
The perfect balance
In her 2012 article, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, Anne-Marie Slaughter spoke about why she left her job as Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, working under Hillary Clinton. She talks about the pressures on women to have high profile careers, and a family life in the balance, in a way to have it all.
A Citi/LinkedIn study showed 96% of women are expected to be able to “have it all”, with only 17% reaching career success. As there is a stigma on ratcheting back a career, moving to an easier or less demanding position (or leaving it entirely) often leads to disrespect among colleagues and peers, while not having children is almost seen as not an option.
Half-truths and reality
The expectation for women to have it all relies on a set of basic assumptions that if a woman works harder, schedules properly and makes the right decisions at the right time, she can manage the ideal career and perfect family life.
The Center for American Progress reports that the amount of professionals working more than 50 hours per week has increased since 1970. Where work permeates every aspect of life due to technology, and working life continues into the age of 60 or 70, as the population ages, “having it all” is not a sustainable idea. As Anne-Marie Slaughter comments, these half-truths about women working harder and longer to achieve goals have entered mainstream thinking and they retract from real problems, such as the difference between school and work terms, the high cost of childcare and so on.
Recent movements have been including women more in the workplace. They have also been creating a workplace which values worker commitment, replacing “parental leave” with “family leave” for those needing to care for sick relatives as well as children. A study of US companies, published by the journal Academy of Management have higher perceived firm-level performance, while a study by Catalyst in the UK showed that companies with more high-level female representation significantly outperformed those with low representation by 84% on return on sales, 60% on return on invested capital, and 46% on return on equity.
The contrast of expectations and reality for women is difficult to tackle. It is a battle against stereotypes, achieving work-life balance and conscious bias, in order to create a more equal and productive workplace, as well as more satisfied and happier employees. Saying that, as time passes, progress is catching up and new movements are changing the conditions of women’s employment also narrowing down the gap between the expectations and the reality.
This piece was co-written with Emily Hogg, a blogger, editor and community manager at Content Queen.