Gender Inequity: How to shatter the glass without getting cut

Glass ceilings, glass labyrinths, glass escalators, glass cliffs…part of the trouble faced when trying to draw attention to gender inequity in the workplace is the use of metaphors that are literally impossible to see (more on this later). So, let’s take a step back and look at some quantifiable metrics:

Researchers at conduct an annual assessment of the advancement of women by collecting employment data from companies in the S&P 500. Their reports consistently show a stark underrepresentation of women in the upper levels of management. Across industries, women make up only 5.8 percent of CEOs, 9.5 percent of top earners, 19.9 percent of board seats and 25.1 percent of executive and senior-level officers and managers. Even within industries where women comprise the majority of the workforce, such as retail trade, representation in the upper echelons of management are far from commensurate (3 percent of CEOS, 30.1 percent executive/senior level).

However, despite these readily observable metrics evidencing the obstacles to opportunity for women in the workplace, many, especially men, seem to turn a blind eye to it. A recent survey by Bishop T.D. Jakes of the perceptions men and women hold regarding economic opportunities suggests that many, especially men, are unwilling to acknowledge that gross gender disparities, such as those evident in the Catalyst reports, are indicative of systemic bias. While two thirds of the female respondents agreed most strongly that women have less economic opportunities than men, a full 50 percent of men believed that women do have equal opportunities.

This may be because oftentimes those not directly affected negatively by a systemic bias find ways to rationalize its observed byproducts. This brings us back to those glass metaphors and specifically to implicit bias coloring lay perceptions of gender inequality. Gender bias at the individual level is very hard to see both in our own behavior and the behavior of others because it is so ingrained in the fabric of our lives. However, I think a very important point to make here is that any attempt to rationalize observed gender disparities as personal preferences in job segregation, workplace participation, etc. does not actually mitigate the core issue that systemic differences in the workplace experiences of men and women do exist. It is not a choice when there are social disincentives systematically leading people down different paths. The obstacles women face in the workplace are greater than those faced by men and this is precisely the definition of unequal economic opportunity. Whether women are able to make the same choice as a man is not the issue of equal opportunity, it’s the fact that the path women must take to succeed at that choice differs systematically.

Gender inequities are not just hiding behind the invisible glass metaphors. From that same survey by Bishop Jakes, almost half of female respondents (47 percent) believed wage and opportunity disparities are due to “overt gender discrimination.” This is far more extreme than being a passive victim of a biased system to think women are still being actively discriminated against in the workplace.

When commenting on these findings, Bishop Jakes noted, “These results are disheartening, particularly when many may think we have made so much progress. Whether differences are real or perceived, making someone feel less valued or less appreciated is a poison that robs them of their dignity for today and their hope for tomorrow.” “Clearly,” Jakes added, “we have much more work to do as a society.”

Putting aside this debate about socialization of preferences since it has no actual bearing on the observed issue that the economic opportunities of men and women are not created equal, what we need is to find ways to help align lay perceptions of opportunities with the concrete evidence of inequities:

• One key is awareness, both spreading awareness to others and taking a hard look in the mirror to gain in self-awareness as well. Often victims of implicit bias suffer from a denial of personal disadvantage, they may acknowledge that generalized bias exists, but do not believe that they personally succumb to it. Turning a blind eye in this way only further perpetuates the discrepancy between perceptions and reality. It is important to take a close look at your everyday interactions and have open and honest conversations about the possible implicit biases and obstacles that could be coloring your experiences especially in comparing differences that might be experienced by men or women in similar situations.

• Another way to identify and subsequently combat inequity is to seek out others to serve as your advocate. There is power in numbers and having a strong support network, with both mentors and sponsors, will help in diagnosing situations potentially rife with bias.

• By the same token, you should seize opportunities to advocate for others. If you witness bias, speak out against it and find ways to support women in their efforts to combat inequities.

All in all changing something that we cannot see and that is only measurable in the aggregate is hard to do at a personal level. Nonetheless we must continue to try and to do so we must harness the power of awareness, support and advocacy to identify and combat gender bias in efforts to create equal economic opportunities for all.