Women and discrimination in the workplace

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Michelle DeRoche, Contributing Writer

 

Until recently, I thought gender discrimination was a phenomenon of the past. However, I read an article a few weeks ago that suggested otherwise.

The article was in The Harvard Business Review and was titled, “Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers.” It proposed that there is still a subtle discrimination against women in our male-dominated workforce and focused on the lack of women in leadership roles in the business world. This may seem obvious because many women do stop their careers to focus on having a family. Yet the article went a step further to say that because of the lack of women in the workforce there is still a bias against them. This surprised me, and I believe it is worth discussing.

The article called this bias “Second-Generation Gender Bias.” It explained in depth why there is a lack of women in leadership roles in the business world today. More specifically, the bias has to do with the lack of female role models and the narrow path of promotion for women. So there is no longer a “deliberate exclusion of women,” but a “persistent underrepresentation in leadership roles.”

Although laws today forbid blatant discrimination, there is still a “second-generation gender bias” that holds some women back in the workplace. -Photo courtesy of Public Domain Pictures
Although laws today forbid blatant discrimination, there is still a “second-generation gender bias” that holds some women back in the workplace.
-Photo courtesy of Public Domain Pictures

What causes this? While part of it is that women will stop their career, even temporarily, to have children, the other part is the innate characteristics of women and men. For example, a man typically becomes successful by being assertive. Yet when a woman does this, she comes off as aggressive, because she is expected to be selfless and attentive. So behavior that is an advantage for men is actually a disadvantage for women.

Ailsa Tirado, a student at the University of San Diego, is studying engineering, a field not many women pursue. Because of this, she has read many books on women’s role in the workplace. One such book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” by Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook at the time, specifies the importance of a woman’s presence at work. Tirado recalled this book during one meeting at her internship this past summer. She entered the meeting and realized she was the only woman in the room. She made sure to “lean in” at the table and really be a part of the meeting. Tirado commented on this experience, saying, “At first I was afraid of seeming assertive or too forward, but the managers just saw it as confidence.” Tirado was able to take Sandberg’s advice and make her presence known without being overbearing.

Women struggle with “competing” against the males in the office. This can lead to tension in the work environment because of the different ways men and women lead. One way to reduce this tension is to learn your own leadership style. I also believe women need to be themselves in the work place despite the “Second-Generation Gender Bias.” If a woman tries to imitate someone else’s behavior, for instance, trying to lead a business like a man, I believe she will fail.

Tirado described the advice a senior consultant gave her, saying, “She told me I don’t have to change the way I am to conform to a particular leadership type. I need to ‘lead like a lioness,’ feeling empathy for the well-being of the group, never working (hunting) alone, ‘grooming and being groomed by’ my colleagues (as opposed to always competing).” Such competition can lead to an unhealthy work environment, especially when men and women are working together or competing for higher positions.

Tirado concluded, “If women realized the strength of leading with empathy, care, joy, and other feminine characteristics, the effectiveness of this leadership style, and how people like it, more women would be at ‘the top’.” She said women need to lead less like men and just be themselves.

The Review article also detailed the normal occurrence of a woman leaving work for childbirth and child care. One woman in the article explained how her manager suggested she take a staff-level position upon her return from maternity leave because it would be easier to handle with the new responsibility of a child at home. When she was ready to focus on her career again, she was not able to move beyond these simple responsibilities.

Sue Zabilka, currently a sales director at Mary Kay Cosmetics, described how happy she is to be working for a company that supports her role as a mother.

“Several years ago, when I was interviewing for a pharmaceutical sales position at a prestigious laboratory in Chicago,” Zabilka said, “I was asked in the interview if I had plans of having a family. Of course, I said yes. The position was given to the gentleman who had interviewed right before me!”

After initially experiencing that discrimination in hiring, Zabilka purposefully sought out a company and position that would support her role as a mother.

When Zabilka discovered she was expecting her third child in her 40s, she was able to adjust her schedule and still maintain her job. She said, “I completely work my business around the seasons of my boys’ sports, musical theater productions, and holidays … yet I am still able to run a successful business.” She said in any other company her job would have become unavailable to her upon her return.

Zabilka was able to overcome the bias that she encountered. However, many women are unable to do so.

What makes this bias more dangerous is that many people do not address it. If this “Second-Generation Gender Bias” is so prevalent, why are people not talking about it? Many women feel their job is on the line if they even mention any discriminating scenario. When I asked some of the female teachers, those in leadership roles here at the University of Dallas, to answer some questions about women in the work force, they said they would not comment.

Blessed John Paul II gave his view on this issue in his apostolic exhortation called “The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World.” He addressed women in the workplace by saying, “Tradition has considered women’s role to be exclusively that of a wife and mother, without adequate access to public functions, which have generally been reserved for men. There is no doubt that the equal dignity and responsibility of men and women fully justifies women’s access to public functions.” He further clarified his stance by saying, “these roles [motherhood] and professions [work] should be harmoniously combined, if we wish the evolution of society and culture to be truly and fully human.”

 

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