Science Isn't Golden

Matters of the mind and heart

Women as Subjects of Employment Discrimination

Workplace sexism causes human rights violations, major report shows

Think back to a time when women earned less money than men for doing the same jobs and confronted demeaning stereotypes and barriers to promotion at work, as well as struggling to overcome obstacles keeping them out of fields like science and technology and those making balance between paid work and family life impossible to achieve. How demoralizing for women to know that their employers were not committed to reducing, not to mention eradicating, those manifestations of misogyny.

I started to learn about those factors when, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Second Wave of the women's movement began to teach us about them. As we learned, we assumed that the very public disclosure of these unconscionable disparities would lead to their eradication. There were some improvements between then and the 1990s, but there was also backsliding, even backlash, the arousing of rage in some who wanted to keep women in their second-class status.

Sometime in the early 1990s, when I was living in Toronto, one of the most astute feminists convened an informal gathering to discuss the fact that younger women seemed unaware of either the history of the women's movement and its achievements or of how essential it was to keep the movement strong. I remember saying that I shared that concern but suspected that when younger women, who -- unlike our generation -- had been raised to believe that there was no discrimination against women, hit the glass ceiling or discovered that the guy in their office who was doing the same job as the women was getting paid more, and when they had children to raise or older parents to take care of and discovered how hard the workplace rules and culture made it, they would be shocked. I said I hoped that that would motivate them to work hard to end sex-based discrimination.

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If you are a woman or man who is concerned about sex-based discrimination in your workplace, I hope you will read on.

A report just issued by a work group on women in the federal government's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the entity charged with eradicating discrimination in both federal and private workplaces, reveals how little has changed over the decades. http://eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/12-12-13.cfm Look at the problems I listed in the first paragraph at the beginning of this essay. Those are the problems the EEOC work group found to characterize the federal workplace today. And in many ways the federal government has a better record of committment to equity than many other employers.

I had the honor of providing some input to the EEOC work group, in part because of what we learned from the Voices of Diversity Project we conducted at Harvard University's DuBois Institute and Educational Testing Service, thanks to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., at the Institute and Michael Nettles at ETS. The work group's other dialogue partners reflected the intense interest in the EEOC project, including Federally Employed Women, The Women's Bar Association of the District of Columbia, Federal EEO Directors and Special Emphasis Program Managers, The Equal Justice Society, Workplace Flexibility 2010, The Equal Rights Center, Blacks in Government, and African-American Federal Executives Association. The nature of many of these entities reflects the fact that the subjects addressed by the work group are nothing less than matters of human rights and of law, and the work group supports each of its findings with solid research.

Quite simply, although of course some women earn more than some men, and more women than before hold high-status positions, women remain more likely than men to be paid and promoted less and to be expected to take care of the lion's share of home and family work while also doing their paid jobs. What is crucial is to consider how these factors affect the way a woman thinks and feels about her job. Objectively, she is undervalued and disrespected if she is paid less than a man for doing the same work. Knowing that she is less likely than a man to be promoted is demoralizing and pressures her to work harder than a man to get the promotion. As for work-and-family juggling, it is widely believed that such policies as flextime or flexplace (allowing people to work from home at least some of each week) are especially helpful to women, but although in principle that is true, here is the reality for those in many workplaces: The top boss may issue these policies, but it is up to middle managers to decide when to give the OK. Women, often socialized to think that asking for anything means they are unwomanly and selfish, hesitate to request this option, for fear they will be regarded as asking for special favors. Many have learned through experience or observation that those whose requests are granted become objects of resentment by co-workers who indeed believe they are getting away with something and by managers who are uneasy when they cannot keep an eye on their workers right in the workplace. And women know, as the EEOC report authors write, that they are perceived as having diminished commitment to their work as a result of having caregiving responsibilities.

I had direct experience with this last problem when a member of the team I was on reported to our team leader that I was not doing my share of the work. The team leader checked this out and found that I was doing more work than all but one other team member (not the one making the complaint). To her credit, the one who had reported me came to see me after getting the relevant information and said, "I have to apologize. I don't have kids, and I just assumed that because you have kids, you couldn't possibly be doing your share." I appreciated her apology, but I have often thought how such assumptions create a distressing environment when they are not tested and shown to be false, and those who are the subjects of such assumptions are highly unlikely to be able to pin down why they feel so uncomfortable at work.

Related to this, the EEOC work group points out that many stereotypes about women are alive and thriving in work sites.

The EEOC work group's report http://eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/12-12-13.cfm is clearly written and includes many wonderful, to-the-point recommendations for remedying specific problems. It strikes me as in a way ironic that the one recommendation that appears throughout the report with regard to the many issues is: We need more talk about this. Why ironic? Because one of the stereotypes used to silence women is that we already talk "too much." Yet the more that discrimination happens under the radar, the more likely it is to persist. So whether in formal presentations, staff meetings, or informal discussions in the workplace and everywhere else -- and I do mean pretty much everywhere -- more talk is needed. We must educate ourselves and others about the persistence of these problems and their detrimental effects on far too many women and children as well as, in somewhat different ways, on men. For the hard data to back up your discussion of these problems, I urge you to have a look at the report. http://eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/12-12-13.cfm

After one of my earlier essays here in which I dealt with the need to achieve real equality regardless of a person's sex, someone posted a comment to the effect that given, as I had written, that the overwhelming majority of Americans mistakenly, believe that the United States already has an Equal Right Amendment, that proved (the commenter argued) that such an amendment is unnecessary. In that connection I want to mention the EEOC work group's strong recommendation that data about sex discrimination in the workplace must be gathered to document the nature of that discrimination and effective ways to reduce it. Every workplace should conduct such research on its own. Every workplace should be a place where not only the work but also the obstacles to work and to feeling comfortable in the workplace are not rooted in misogyny or in problematic and discriminatory attitudes toward men.

©Copyright 2013 by Paula J. Caplan                                            All rights reserved

 

 

Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D., a clinical and research psychologist, is an Associate at Harvard University's DuBois Institute and former Fellow in Harvard Kennedy School's Women and Public Policy Program. more...

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