On Jan. 28, President Barack Obama indicated in his State of the Union Address that women earn 77 cents for every dollar that men earn for doing the same work. He said that women should not encounter hardships when they must take a day off to care for their children and should have more equal opportunities in the workplace.
According to a survey by Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that focuses on increasing opportunities for women, only about 14% of Fortune 500 leadership positions have been held Fortune 500 leadership positions since 2009. Over 40% of new mothers take unpaid maternity leave from their jobs, while an additional 25% quit or are forced to leave. About 71% of Americans who are unemployed because of family responsibilities are women. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 60% of all people not in the workforce are women.
While women’s roles in the workforce have increased significantly over the past several decades, women are still not on an equal footing with men. The disparity is most prevalent at the executive level of corporations, where stereotypes, external stress and a lack of confidence could be holding women back.
What is the current status of women in the workplace? How do women in the workplace actually feel? How can women’s position in the workplace improve?
HOW MUCH PROGRESS?
In recent decades, women have entered new career fields and increased in number in the workplace, but they still receive lower pay and hold fewer top jobs than men.
In the past 20 years, women’s presence in many industries has grown. Manufacturing, for example, was considered one of the last frontiers for women in the workforce, but Mary Barra shattered the glass ceiling on Jan. 15, 2014 when she was named Chief Executive Officer of General Motors, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. automaker.
“Women are moving up in all industries. Manufacturing may be late to the party, but manufacturing has arrived. It’s a good time to be a woman,” former Chrysler Vice President of Marketing Bud Liebler said.
Some companies have prioritized promoting women. Ilene H. Lang, former President and CEO of Catalyst, noted in a press release: “Shareholders beware: a company with no women at the top is missing one of the biggest opportunities in the marketplace today.”
Studies have shown that having senior level female employees can boost a company’s performance and increase profits. Kevin Daly at Goldman Sachs has determined that eliminating the gap between male and female employment rates could improve the gross domestic product in America by 9%. Organizations such as the United Nations, the World Bank and the Organization for the Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) have focused on improving workplace conditions for women, and many institutions have initiated studies and held summits on how best to put female potential to work.
“It seems that women are very good team builders and leaders. I think it’s still hard for [older] men to give up control, but as younger men who have grown up seeing women in power move into higher positions, I think they’re more open and encouraging to women, and that will help their situation,” Liebler explained.
Head of School Barbara Wagner has observed that, although many women have successfully moved up the corporate ladder, women still struggle to gain promotions to leadership positions.
“I look at women who are in prominent positions, and that wouldn’t have happened when I was in elementary school. But I still don’t think it’s a completely level playing field…I think that a lot of doors are open for women now in kind of entry level positions, but I think that as you move up, it does get harder,” Wagner said.
Despite the emphasis some large companies have placed on advancing women in management positions, top jobs still tend to elude women. In 2013, 95.2% of Fortune 500 chief executives were male. Only 16.9% of corporate board seats were held by women in 2013. Ten percent of Fortune 500 companies have zero women on their boards. Out of the top Fortune 500 companies, 135 still have no female chief executive officers.The problem extends far beyond corporate boards. In 2013, only 8.1% of Fortune 500’s top earners were women, up from 6.2% in 2008.
“For those [companies] that have not improved [their representation of women], you have to wonder how long they can be successful if they are only hiring from half the talent available,” Thomas Falk, Chairman and CEO of Kimberly-Clark, said in an interview with Catalyst.
Liebler said he believes that Barra’s promotion will open doors for women across industries.
“Mary Barra’s career started on the shop floor and her ascent to the top will clear the way for more women,” Liebler said.
WOMEN AT WORK
Some professional women feel disadvantaged due to their gender, while others said that they have not experienced hardships as women in the workplace.
“As a woman, I don’t really feel disadvantaged in terms of the opportunities that are given [to me],” Jessica Yi, head product officer at Fandango, said.
She elaborated, however, that a woman’s field might determine her treatment in the workplace.
“I think it’s because I’ve always been in this Internet web design field, being a woman has never been a problem,” Yi explained.
Yi said that the fields she has worked in tend to be more progressive than “old school” fields like manufacturing. Yi suggested that another problem may be “the nature of the business and whether there’s any sort of residual personas that are placed on women.” If women do not already hold important positions, other women may not be inspired or motivated to further their own careers and improve their job titles.
A focus on hiring women for technology jobs may also contribute to Yi’s sense of equality in the workplace. Currently, women make up less than 1% of all employees in the technology sector. Nonetheless, according to the Institute of Engineering and Technology, technology companies aim to recruit 10,000 women engineers every year through 2020. Tech companies like eBay and Intel already strive to hire women.
A greater number of men than women in a work environment may contribute to women’s struggles in their careers. Emily Smith, the Senior Vice President of Digital for The Los Angeles Times, explained that sometimes relationships between male executives and male employees can develop faster and more efficiently than those between male executives and female employees. Smith added that these friendships “turn into mentoring opportunities and turn into promotions.” Simply having a male boss may prevent women from forming bonds that could propel their careers.
While Yi said that she does not feel inequality in terms of opportunities and promotions, she said that women can struggle to maintain a “work-life balance.” For instance, according to Lean In by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, 43% of women with children eventually leave their jobs.
“The home balance has been shared more, between husband and wife. But, generally, I don’t think we are at 50/50 yet,” Yi said.
While household responsibilities could be one reason why few women hold upper-level management positions, Smith noted that some women doubt themselves and tend to question their abilities when there is often no need to do so.
Similarly, Yi explained that women often do their jobs very well but are modest about the output.
“Men act differently; they tend to be more vocal about their accomplishments and volunteer for things and have an attitude that’s more like, ‘Yeah, I’m just gonna take it and figure it out,’ whereas women are planners and want to be confident about their capabilities before they do it,” Yi said.
SHATTERING THE CEILING
Those who were interviewed said that women’s positions in the workplace can be improved by changing educational systems, altering women’s attitudes and encouraging companies to hire women.
“I think that there has been a significant shift in how women are perceived, but, like many people say, we still have a long ways to go,” Ruby ’14 said.
Many said that women need early opportunities to gain the qualifications for leadership roles, indicating that girls’ educations should involve all fields, including technology, business and law, as well as the skills necessary for executive positions.
“If you don’t have girls studying math, and you don’t have girls studying science then that won’t create engineers…That’s kind of the starting point for girls in high school and girls in college to really think of their careers as being broader [than] they ever imagined,” Yi said.
Others have suggested that the key to ensuring that more women hold leadership positions is not only exposing young girls to leadership skills but teaching women and girls to have confidence in themselves.
Many women have also indicated that combating derogatory stereotypes about women is necessary for their elevation in the workforce. Preconceived notions that girls are not smart enough to handle certain responsibilities limit women’s chances. Many agree that because these stereotypes have existed for so long, attitudes toward women in the workplace are difficult to change.
“There [are] a lot of early biases like, ‘Girls aren’t engineers,’ or, ‘Their brains aren’t engineered to understand science and math’ which [are] bogus,” Yi said.
Doreen Lorenzo, president of Quirky, a product development company, said in a 2013 New York Times interview that conversations about confidence in women need to begin at young age. She also said that the corporate world needs increased awareness of the disadvantages faced by women. Lorenzo argued that both men and women need to understand that women are capable of holding positions and competing with male colleagues.
“We still don’t encourage girls to speak up, to use their voice, to use their instinct, to not be afraid, and teach them how to combat the bullying…You have to believe in yourself, but I think many women don’t. And you watch some men just take advantage of that,” Lorenzo said.
Wagner agreed that self-assurance and determination are among women’s greatest assets in the workplace.
“As a woman who has worked all my life, I would say that confidence and problem solving skills and sticktoitiveness got me through a lot more than sheer intellect did,” Wagner said.