How can you fight an enemy you can’t see? That’s the challenge professional women face in today’s workplace.
“Discrimination today is not as in your face as it was before; it’s often harder to see,” says Caryl Rivers, coauthor of recent book “The New Soft War On Women.” “Legally, you cant say ‘I’m not going to hire you or give you this assignment because you’re a woman and you can’t do it,’ but the old attitudes still run deep and are expressed subtly.”
Both men and women hold these views but often don’t even realise it. “It’s hard to fight this,” says Rivers, but awareness is key.
Here are 13 subtle ways women are still treated differently at work.
If women are assertive, it can be seen as aggressive. “It’s a Catch-22,” says Sonya Rhodes, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and author of new book “The Alpha Woman Meets Her Match.” “Whatever women do at work, they have to do it nicely. But the more you back off, the more they don’t take you seriously.” Women have to walk a thin line between being too nice and too forceful.
When women are successful, they’re often called “bitchy” and seen as less likable. In one well-known 2003 study, business students were given two identical resumes, one using the name Heidi and the other Howard. “Howard was judged as terrifically competent, but Heidi was judged as bitchy,” says Rivers. When the experiment was repeated 10 years later, the woman was found to be slightly more likable but less trustworthy than the man.
Women are more likely to get lower initial offers. In another study using identical resumes, female scientists were offered a starting salary of $US26,500, and men were offered $US30,200. “Hiring managers will offer a slightly lower salary because they think they can get away with it,” says Rhodes. And because women are often so grateful to get the position, she says they are less likely to negotiate the offer, which compounds and perpetuates the cycle of lower pay.
Women are less likely to get credit in group projects. When men and women work together, the men are more likely to get the credit — even if she did the bulk of the work and he’s junior, says Rivers. It may be a combination of men being assumed more competent and women not actively taking credit for their work. “Women undersell themselves, and people undersell women,” adds Rhodes.
Women are assumed to be incompetent until they prove themselves. As Linda Hudson, former CEO of security and defence company BAE Systems, recently told the authors of “The Confidence Code“: “I think the environment is such that even in the position I am now, everyone’s first impression is that I’m not qualified to do the job. When a man walks into a room, they’re assumed to be competent until they prove otherwise.” Women, however, are automatically assumed to be incompetent.
Women get promoted on performance, and men get promoted on potential. Research shows that women must prove that they are capable of succeeding in a role before they are promoted into it, whereas men may be promoted on their perceived potential. That means men often move up faster in organisations. “When a men walks in the door, he gets the benefit of male stereotypes,” says Rivers.
Talkative men are seen as competent, and talkative women as incompetent. A study comparing the volubility of powerful men and women found that male leaders talk more — and with good reason. When men and women talked the same amount, she was seen as significantly less competent and less suited to leadership.
When women show anger, they are often judged as too emotional. Research shows that both men and women think women should be nice and kind and nurturing, says Rivers, and that men should be strong. When men show anger it looks like strength, but when women do the same, they are perceived as too emotional and out of control. “These stereotypes are deeply ingrained,” she says.
Men get a fatherhood bonus, and women a motherhood penalty. While employers believe men will put more effort into succeeding at work once they become fathers, they believe women will direct more effort towards their kids. “The minute women become mothers, the attitude towards them changes,” Rivers says. “When women become mothers, they suffer financially. Women make significantly less over a lifetime.”
Women are often interrupted or ignored in meetings. Especially when there are only one or two women around the table, their voices can easily go unheard. Rhodes says it’s very common that others may interrupt them, finish their sentences, or not give them the focus and subtle encouragement to continue. More frustrating is when a woman offers her idea, and no one responds. Then, a few minutes later, a man in the room presents the same idea, and only then is it heard and received well. When Beth Brooke, global vice chair at Ernst & Young, experienced this at a board meeting, she pulled the leader aside to mention it, and he hadn’t even noticed that it happened.
When speaking in public, women have to take command of a room. Women presenters at male-dominated events have a harder time getting the attention of the room, says Rhodes. For example, one of her clients, a woman in her late 20s who works for a financial company, says when she stands up to give a presentation, she can’t get the guys to settle down. “Women don’t command that kind of attention,” she says. “They have to take control.”
Women may not be invited to social events. Getting together to drink, watch the game, or play sports is typically how social bonds are formed at the office and when valuable information, like who’s position might be opening up or how to get in the graces of a certain boss, is shared. When women aren’t included in these events, says Rhodes, it can marginalize them and limit their knowledge.
Women are judged more harshly on their appearance. In a major survey conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation and detailed in the book “Executive Presence,” senior executives listed twice as many appearance blunders committed by women than men. Additionally, women were judged more harshly. For example, a woman might be seen as lacking leadership skills if she’s overweight, while a man receives the same judgment if obese.