The global pandemic dominated the first half of 2020, and while it continues to linger on, the second half of the year has been a genuine and widespread fight for equality. From the Black Lives Matter movement to the Supreme Court’s landmark decision regarding workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, it has undoubtedly been a year for the people. As a result, much-needed conversations are occurring, and great changes are being made to further racial and sexual equity, but what about the injustices and hardships of women that are often overlooked in our society?
Facing sexual discrimination, harassment, lack of career advancement opportunities, and gender pay disparities, women also have a lot to overcome and a long road ahead to true equality. In honor of Women’s Equality Day today, we’re diving into some of the most common issues affecting women in the workplace–but first, let’s consider one important question.
Are Women Minorities?
As human resources professionals, it’s not unlikely that you’ve heard the term, “women and minorities,” lumping the two groups together – but are women actually minorities? According to Oxford’s English Dictionary, the true definition of the term ‘minority’ is, “the smaller number or part, especially a number that is less than half the whole number.” When we look at the census data, women account for more than half of the U.S. population.1 Globally, the numbers decrease to just under half of the total population.
With that said, women are not technically minorities…but are they minorities by a different definition? The problem isn’t that there are fewer women. The problem is that women have fewer opportunities. In this instance, it’s about power, privileges, and rights–all which men certainly have more of, and in that, women are a minority. According to the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law 2020 report, women only have three-fourths the legal rights of men, based on eight legislative indicators that range from pension, pay and assets to parenthood, marriage, mobility and more.2 While commendable progress has been made over the last hundred years regarding women’s rights, there is still considerable work to be done–and much of it can be diminished by merely removing biases and stigmas that exist.
One major area where bias is trouble for women? The workplace.
Women in the Workplace
After decades spent making a place in the workforce, women still face a number of disparities in the workplace in regard to hiring rates, pay, and advancement. In a 2019 McKinsey study of women in the workplace, underrepresentation of women was found at every level within organizations, especially at the management level. In fact, for every 100 men promoted and hired to management positions, only 72 women are promoted and hired.3 And according to a recent study by the Wall Street Journal, out of 3,000 of the country’s top companies, only 167 are led by women–less than 6%.4 If women never break the glass ceiling into a management role, how can they climb the ladder to even higher, more prominent positions? It’s clear that whether unconscious or perceived, bias against women can only cause more harm than good in the workplace.
Women overthink, they’re too emotional, they’re too “family-oriented”, they aren’t good with numbers, they aren’t good decision-makers, they don’t speak up enough.
These are all common biases you may have heard or believed at one time or another, but why? In a study by Harvard Business Review, it was found that women in fact do not act differently in business interactions than men, but that their actions are perceived differently.5 Fortunately, company-wide training can go a long way in reducing workplace bias. In fact, in companies with smaller gender representation disparities, half of the employees received unconscious bias training, compared to only a quarter of employees in companies that aren’t making progress in gender diversity.3
What about the Gender Pay Gap?
You’re probably familiar with the term “gender pay gap’, but what does it mean and just how significant is this gap? The gender pay gap refers to the difference in pay between men and women for doing the same job. For reference, in 2020, women only make $0.81 for every dollar a man makes, and the gap widens for women as they progress to higher-level careers.6 And what if you’re a woman and a minority? American Indian and Alaska Native women, Black or African American women, and Hispanic women earn only $0.75 for every dollar a White man earns. Going even further, women who have children typically make less than men with children or women without children, which is often referred to as the “motherhood penalty.” 6
At this time, it is estimated that it will take more than 200 years to close the gap and finally reach equality in pay for men and women.7
Harassment is Real…and it’s even happening remotely
It’s certainly not new, but with the onset of COVID-19 and fewer people in the physical workplace, has harassment, sexual or otherwise, been on the decline? Unfortunately, it has not. In fact, the EEOC found that decentralized workplaces and remote workplaces are two of the organizational risk factors for sexual harassment.8 Why? Employees often don’t understand those company policies and rules extend outside the office, especially in such a relaxed and private environment–and access to HR is harder to come by. Additionally, a lack of in-person witnesses and challenges in monitoring employee conduct make it harder to report and verify. In May, we hosted a webinar with EEOC representative Brien Shoemaker on this very topic. We highly recommend having your team review this valuable resource and take note of the shared insights.
How about the effects of COVID-19?
We’ve talked about the effect of children on a woman’s wages, but what about their effect on her ability to work during the COVID-19 pandemic? When quarantine initially went into place, many parents found themselves forced into remote work and also the role of pseudo-homeschool teachers. This scenario presented an abundance of challenges, forcing women to take leave or work nontraditional business hours (nights and weekends) to make up for the extra workload. On the other hand, for essential workers whose jobs cannot be conducted remotely, many are unable to work at all due to a disruption to their childcare arrangements and stringent eLearning requirements.
While fathers certainly play an important role in familial obligations, it has historically been the mother who is responsible for the majority of childcare, which continues to be true during the pandemic. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women ages 25-44 are almost three times as likely as men not to be working due to childcare demands due to the pandemic.9 As children return to school, many are doing so via eLearning methods (either full-time or a hybrid schedule), many parents are also being called back to the office. This scenario creates a new level of challenge: How do I go into the office each day and also be home with my children who are eLearning? The answer is clearly “more flexible hours and fully remote options,” but these choices aren’t always a possibility and stand to corroborate some of the long-standing biases against women by simply asking for these accommodations.
So how do we fix these issues? Just as with race and sexual orientation, simply being aware and undergoing bias and harassment training can go a long way in making changes for the better. Additionally, leading with empathy and being flexible and open-minded to others’ plight is a great way to step into someone else’s shoes and see things from a perspective you may have never previously considered. Regardless of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., we’ve all got a long road ahead – let’s work together to do better for all of us.
Happy Women’s Equality Day!
 “Quick Facts United States”. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/LFE046218. United States Census Bureau. Accessed 2020 August 20.
 “Women Business and the Law 2020: How does the law affect women’s economic opportunity?”. https://blogs.worldbank.org/opendata/women-business-and-law-2020-how-does-law-affect-womens-economic-opportunity. Accessed 2020 August 20.
 “Women in the Workplace 2019”. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/gender-equality/women-in-the-workplace-2019. Accessed 2020 August 20.
 “Webinar Recap: EY’s Chris Crespo and DiversityInc’s Carolynn Johnson Discuss White Women Who are Intentional Allies to Women of Color”. https://www.diversityincbestpractices.com/webinar-recap-eys-chris-crespo-and-diversityincs-carolynn-johnson-discuss-white-women-who-are-intentional-allies-to-women-of-color/. Accessed 2020 August 21.
 “A Study Used Sensors to Show that Men and Women Are Treated Differently at Work”. https://hbr.org/2017/10/a-study-used-sensors-to-show-that-men-and-women-are-treated-differently-at-work. Accessed 2020 August 21.
 “The State of the Gender Pay Gap 2020”. https://www.payscale.com/data/gender-pay-gap. Accessed 2020 August 21.
 “When will women get equal pay? Not for another 257 years, report says”. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/12/20/gender-pay-gap-equal-wages-expected-257-years-report/2699326001/. Accessed 2020 August 24.
 “Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace”. https://www.eeoc.gov/select-task-force-study-harassment-workplace#_Toc453686305. Accessed 2020 August 24.
 “Working Moms Bear the Brunt of Home Schooling While Working During COVID-19”. https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2020/08/parents-juggle-work-and-child-care-during-pandemic.html. Accessed 2020 August 24.