Discrimination against working women often hardest to combat

08/13/2013 11:05 PM

08/13/2013 11:05 PM

Over the years, I’ve noticed that of all the biases and areas of potential discrimination that occur, biases against women in the workplace can be among the most difficult to get people to see or acknowledge.

That’s because, unlike race discrimination or age discrimination or discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender bias seems logical.

By logical, I mean that people feel very justified in their opinions about the opposite sex. After all, we may not know someone well (or at all) of a certain race or religion, for example, but we all know someone of the opposite sex.

More importantly, most of us have very fixed opinions about motherhood and working mothers based on how we were raised or how we thought we should have been raised.

Because of that, it’s no surprise that a recent Yale University and University of Texas study shows that managers are most likely to grant flextime to men in high-status jobs who request it to pursue career development opportunities, while women, regardless of their status within a firm or their reason, are less likely than high-status men to get a schedule change.

Also, the study shows, women in both high- and low-status jobs are unlikely to be granted flextime for either family or career reasons. Men in low-status jobs are particularly likely to gain flextime approval for family care, more so than women in low-status jobs and men in high-status jobs.

“Workers most in need of flexible scheduling — women in low-status jobs with childcare needs — are among the least likely to receive accommodations from their managers,” says Victoria Brescoll, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management. “All women workers, regardless of their status or the reason for their request, face a gendered wall of resistance to their requests for flextime, while men face status-specific resistance.”

Unfortunately, this study fed right into my observation that people openly speculate, many times inappropriately if not downright illegally, on whether a woman will be as serious about the work, either because of the family she has or the family one assumes a woman will have.

I conducted a diversity workshop in which the exercise contemplated making a decision about a single dad in the workplace. Almost everyone came up with nothing but positives about this working father. When I asked why these attributes weren’t usually associated with single mothers, there was a mixture of uncomfortable silence and of voiced opinions on why that was different.

This difference of opinion is so embedded in our society, we don’t stop to think about it, let alone stop to think about whether it’s fair.

Managers, however, do need to start confronting their biases and assumptions more. I have heard progressive, liberal men and women state some overtly biased judgments about working women — the same people who would never comment about another race or religion that way, for example.

On the other hand, I’m not sure what women need to do or can do differently. Women are roughly half the workforce. Only women can physically produce new life. That might annoy managers, but those are the facts, and women shouldn’t be penalized for them.

Also, not every woman under a certain age has children or plans to have them, and not every woman who has children needs to have her work schedule altered because of it.

Sometimes when a female employee needs a flex schedule, she simply needs a flex schedule — and it doesn’t mean she’s less serious about her career than the male employee asking for the very same thing.

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