As society and science continue to come to terms with the somewhat opaque nature of gender, new ideas about sex-based roles, networks and hierarchies are emerging in that great American Petri dish of innovation and progression: the workplace. Recent research has shown us how central yet subconscious our own sex is to our varying experiences in business. While being either male or female is certainly not an antecedent to office success, it often has an indirect relationship as it colors our perspectives, how we look at others, and how we feel about ourselves.
According to a 2009 study by psychologists studying organizational alliances, gender can affect both sides of the equation when it comes to occupation type, position in the organization, salary, work values, work behaviors and more. However subliminal the influence may be, it is nearly impossible for us Americans as a society to not contextualize someone’s actions and responses within their gender. This is why women in authority are more often seen as bossy, whereas men in authority are seen as confident. Even sexual harassment is a form of punishing gender role deviance by “putting someone in their place.”
A DARK PAST
From a very early age, males and females are given expectations for their future lives. Women play with kitchens, boys play with trucks. These early behaviors wear a groove in our mental propensities, encouraging women to become cooks, nurses, secretaries, stewardesses and more. Men, on the other hand, take jobs in construction, business and technology. The biology of family planning also necessitates that females take time off work to bring children into the world. In turn, women are less likely to climb the career ladder.
“There’s this mindset that men are supposed to put work first and women are the caregivers,” said Dr. Valerie Morganson, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of West Florida (UWF). “But some recent research supports that these stereotypes are disadvantageous to men and women alike.”
Replicating and extending the work of other researchers, Morganson and her students have found a double-standard when it comes to family leave, for example. Men who ask for time off to care for a child are viewed as having lower work ethic when compared to women and others not requesting family leave. Researchers from Rutgers University have found that career penalties faced by men asking for leave occur because men are viewed as weaker when they put family first. As a result of gender role prescriptions, a couple may “choose” for the women to stay at home with a newborn, leading to a cyclic reinforcement regardless of our best intentions.
Perhaps this should not be surprising. After all, organizations are social constructs just as much as gender is, and with these seemingly arbitrary assignments come seemingly arbitrary standards and expectations. Women still make less than men for many reasons, including disproportionate placement of men over women in high-paying jobs. They are awarded disproportionately fewer contracts than their male counterparts. They are less likely to get business loans, and they are leaving corporate America in droves as a result, creating less diversity and even less opportunities.
“We still see widespread discrimination of both sexes when they try to break out of the mold,” said Margot Dorfman, CEO of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce. “Lenders inevitably ask women for their husband’s signature. Women comprise only 5 percent of federal contractors and only 16 percent of business loans.”
The American economy suffers because of all this, according to Dorfman. Women make up 85 percent of consumer spending and have between $5 and $15 trillion worth of purchasing power.
Though not to as large a detriment, the male sex also suffers when desiring to enter an industry seen as traditionally female. Male nurses, librarians and teachers would have been unheard of a few decades ago, but as they become more common, these individuals are stigmatized not just by patients, clients and students, but by coworkers, as well.
A 2000 study by the University of Illinois found that while men experience less sexual harassment than women, the negative psychological, health and job-related outcomes are similar. Similarly, a landmark 2002 study found that, except during intimate procedures and evaluations, female nurses are preferred to male ones (the greater the intimacy of a clinical situation, the more same-gender clinicians were favored).
A BRIGHT FUTURE
Thankfully, change is coming to the American workforce, in much the same way progress is being made on social and legal fronts across the country. Not content with how they are treated in boardrooms across the country, women have begun leaving corporate America to start their own businesses, and are often finding great success. The rate of women-owned small businesses has skyrocketed 265 percent since the 90s. There is a considerable amount of research out there that suggests women create a shorter perceived power distance between themselves and subordinates, in what is often referred to as the female leadership advantage.
Recently, the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce announced Seed Federal Credit Union, which will provide access to capital and help ensure fair lending practices to members across the country.
“It’s a game-changer for women,” said Dorfman. “After decades of challenges in securing fair access to capital and being targeted by predatory lending practices, women are now in the driver’s seat to control and operate our own national financial institution. Through our national federal credit union, women lead on the inside of the financial and lending system rather than standing on the outside looking in.”
As with any new business venture, Dorfman advised research before embarking on any new pursuit.
“Have a plan before you quit your day job,” said Dorfman. “Don’t use retirement savings or loans with high interest rates, because it can take years to recover that. With this program, we’ve enabled women to run lean and mean and not take any debt they don’t have to.”
Women are beginning to realize these things earlier and earlier. By age 27, 30 percent more women than men have a college degree. More and more, women are seen as the primary breadwinners, thanks to the changing economy and the ways their parents lived.
“I think that millennials growing up today are more likely than any generation to have both parents active in the workforce,” said Lindsey Walk, assistant director of career planning at UWF. “They don’t think it weird when women want to make money and provide for themselves and their families.”
Girls are also taking on leadership roles earlier than ever through programs at school, and diversifying their future opportunities by partaking in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs.
Family planning is still difficult for women, though, according to Walk.
“Coming back to work after being gone for months or even years is difficult,” said Walk. “A potential employer may be hesitant. For those moms, I suggest volunteering and remaining active in the community as much as possible. Employers understand taking time off, but they’ll be more understanding if you keep your skills as current as possible.”
Locally, there are lots of programs and seminars to help women be more viable and confident in the business world. UWF’s Women in Leadership conference always draws a large crowd and returns March 4 of this year. It features speakers like Dr. Judy Bense, Debbie Calder and Carol Carlan, among others.
Lean In Pensacola is the local chapter of the global organization. It is comprised of small groups, or “circles,” which meet regularly to learn and grow together. There are 25,000 circles in 126 countries, and up to 80 percent of the participants credit the program with a positive change in their life. The inaugural Lean In Pensacola event was held Jan. 26, 2016.
Sacred Heart’s annual Power of E3 (educate, enlighten, empower) event is a women’s only seminar going on for three years now. The focus is women 55 and older who seek financial and professional tutelage for continuing on in the last chapters of their lives.
Men, too, are becoming more comfortable in this landscape of fluid workplace gender roles. A New York Times study recently found that occupations that are more than 70 percent female accounted for almost a third of all job growth for men, doubling the previous decade’s share. Additionally, the percentage of males in nursing and dental hygiene sectors has grown two percentage points.
There is still much progress to be made, of course, but most experts agree that these issues are tracking in a positive direction. These trends will continue for the betterment of all only if we dedicate as much time and energy as we do to all systemic social changes worth making.
“Both genders need to change their conversation,” said Dorfman. “Women need to step up and take ownership of our industries as leaders and affect political change.”