Businesses Can Fight Sex Discrimination 14:40, May 18, 2017

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Businesses Can Fight Sex Discrimination

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Women are still not treated as equals to their male counterparts. A recently published manuscript identifies major factors that create “unequal outcomes for working women at the end of their career.” In other words, sex discrimination. Not all factors arise in the workplace, but many of them do. Knowing what they are, and what companies can do to change the tide, can make a difference in solving larger societal problems like gender discrimination.

In the first chapter of Lifetime Disadvantage, Discrimination and the Gendered Workforce, professors Susan Bisom-Rapp and Malcolm Sargeant identify nine major workplace factors that cause the unequal treatment of women.

(*) Education and Training. According to Bisom-Rapp and Sargeant, women are more likely to anticipate working in high-status careers than men and are more educated.  Notwithstanding, women traditionally have not pursued fields in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) as much as men. This is important because these fields tend to have lower wage gaps between genders and are predominantly male, forcing “occupational segregation.”

(*) Stereotyping. Despite decades of workplace discrimination laws, sex stereotyping is rampant in the workplace. Sex stereotyping is “forcing an employee to fit into a gendered expectation – whether that expectation involves physical traits, clothing, mannerisms or sexual attraction,” as one court explains. It affects how hiring and promotion decisions are made, for example, and has “enormous ramifications for women’s occupational advancement over time,” according to the authors.

(*) Multiple Discrimination. Multiple discrimination involves women having additional qualities that “complicate” how the workplace sees them, such as being older, of a certain ethnicity or race, or sexual orientation. Having these other qualities set women back even more.

(*) Caregiving. Women are more likely to have caregiving responsibilities, and spend more time doing it than men do, according to the authors. In effect, caregiving places women at a disadvantage because time spent caregiving conflicts with work. This is especially true in workplaces with inflexible or demanding schedules that favor men with fewer or no caregiving responsibilities. Women are also more likely than men to quit or reduce hours to take care of family, preventing career advancement.

(*) Unequal Pay. Women simply earn less money than men for the same or substantially similar work. Unequal gender pay is connected to other discrimination factors, like stereotyping and caregiving. And even seemingly innocuous actions like asking about salary history have been shown to deepen the gender pay divide.

(*) Occupational Segregation. Some occupations are dominated mainly by men or women. Research shows that the more women join an occupation, the more wages drop. Additionally, fields with mainly women are linked to less pay, power, and prestige than male dominated occupations. The causes of occupational segregation are multiple, and complicated.

(*) Non-Standard Working Arrangements. Non-full-time standard employment, like part-time, tends to attract more women than men. These types of jobs usually do not offer benefits like health and retirement, which prevents women from saving for retirement. The increasing use of independent contractors, a compliance issue found in the gig economy, naturally contributes to this phenomenon.

(*) Career Breaks. The authors show that the majority of women rear children, a biological fact which has profound implications. “For women, disadvantage is rooted in timing since the childbearing and child-rearing years coincide with the period in which career paths are traditionally forged.”

(*) Retirement and Pensions. The authors contend women experience the biggest disadvantage when they are older and retired. Lower pay, career breaks, and caregiving hinder women’s abilities to save money as well as men do. In fact, older American women have a poverty rate almost twice that of older American men. Less savings, pensions, and retirement means less ability to take care of oneself.

Employers cannot be held completely responsible for the unequal treatment of women in the workplace. Deep social, cognitive and historical reasons contribute. This doesn’t mean, however, that employers cannot be a part of the solution. For example, employers can offer better retirement plans or caregiving support services, or they can “audit” their compensation policies to ensure equal payment, as my colleague Chris Day recommends in her post, Economic Conditions Don’t Justify Wage Discrimination.

Many companies promote gender diversity and inclusion through hiring and retention of women in traditionally male dominated industries, like technology. While diversity programs are not always effective, at the very least companies should avoid making the problem worse. For example, a well-known survey by Elephant in the Valley, a collaborative project, shows that 75% of the interviewed women indicated an employer asked them about their family life, like marital status and children, in interviews. Sex stereotyping has a lot to do with this, as the same survey indicated that 66% felt excluded from necessary networking events, and 84% were told they were “too aggressive” as a negative. Sixty percent have reported unwanted sexual advances (which can amount to sexual harassment).

Training employees can help change the tide. Online training is no silver bullet, and diversity training can be problematic, especially with a deep and structural phenomenon like gender discrimination. For example, if all employees understand how to work and include people with different characteristics, like age or gender via language, conduct, and decisions, they can make a difference on behalf of an employer.

But if online compliance training is effective, it can help. An employer cannot just plop a course in front of an employee and expect change. A tone from the top needs to communicate a genuine commitment to diversity and inclusion or gender parity and follow through, like Pinterest is attempting. There are many reasons for gender discrimination. But we, and the organizations we work for, can make it better.

LawRoom (powered by EverFi) delivers online training to help your business meet compliance requirements both dynamically and scalably. In addition to our award-winning online courses, LawRoom delivers a robust, cloud-based learning management system to help you easily deploy and track our growing library of ethics, anti-harassment, data security and employee conduct courses.

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Douglas Kelly
Douglas Kelly is EverFi's lead legal editor. He writes on corporate compliance and culture, analyzing new case law, legislation and regulations affecting US companies. Before joining EverFi, he litigated federal and state employment cases and wrote about legal trends. He earned his JD from Berkeley Law and BBA from Emory University.

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