Gender Inequality and Women in the Workplace

Women have made great strides in the workplace, but inequality persists. On average in 2010, women only made 77 cents to every dollar a man earned. There’s still a gender gap that needs to be rectified.

Women pressers demanding higher wages

Mary Brinton, the Reischauer Institute Professor of Sociology at Harvard University, has taught Men, Women, and Work at Harvard Summer School.

She answered questions about how the United States compares to other countries on gender inequality and where women can go from here.

The book Lean In has renewed conversation about gender in the workplace. Is this helping or hindering women?

Rather than telling women to be more confident and ambitious, I think that it is more important to talk about how workplaces need to adapt to the “whole person,” both women and men. This way everyone can strike a better balance between working and spending time with family, friends, and their community.

Women have caught up with men in terms of education. In fact, in the United States and a number of other countries, women now actually surpass men in educational achievement.

So there is not a problem with female achievement. The problem enters in when young adults try to balance work and family, and women end up carrying nearly all of the caregiving responsibilities.

Where does the United States stand in terms of gender equality?

The gender wage gap in the United States is lower than in many other countries. But what is troubling is that the gap has barely narrowed since the mid-1990s.

Also, the contribution of men to housework and childcare has grown significantly over the past 25 years, but is still far below women’s contribution.

So many working women continue to have two jobs—one in the workplace and one at home. Childcare is very expensive in the United States. And we are way behind most European countries and many Asian countries in terms of offering affordable, high-quality care.

What do you think is the root of gender inequality?

Gender stereotypes are hard to break, and like it or not, we are all prone to engaging in stereotyping at one time or another. This is demonstrated in the work of Mahzarin Banaji here at Harvard.

Women factory workers

As a society, we need to continue to encourage people to go beyond stereotypes and recognize the contributions that each individual, male or female, can make to the workplace and to relationships.

What do you think is the biggest obstacle for women in the workplace today?

The necessity in many prestigious jobs is to put in very long work hours and then leave the more mundane aspects of daily life—like cooking, grocery shopping, and picking up the kids—to other people.

This generally means that women put many more hours into these household activities than men. This greatly disadvantages women in the workplace. It is unrealistic to expect gender equality if workplaces demand that women be available all the time.

As one female economist wrote some years ago, “Who’s minding the kids”?

Interested in gender studies? Stay tuned for completed listings of our studies of women, gender, and sexuality courses in 2015.


Andrea Hill replied:
I am a working professional and my experience and as a full time employee and mother of two young children, I can attest to the lack of affordable and quality childcare options complicating gender equality in the paid work force. Parents who elect to stay home with their children risk "falling behind" competitively with their paid working collegues (if they are not tied into a professional work environment at some level); and those who are working outside of the home may be "penalized" for staying at home (with sick children for example). If I am paying for daycare and I need to stay at home with my child, I still have to pay for that "day" of daycare, lose personal "sick leave" time (God forbid I get sick and need time off), and risk losing wages if I have used all of my sick leave. I have been fortunate (and VERY lucky) I haven't gone in the "hole" with my sick leave, but I know parents who bring their sick children to school because they have no other options with regards to who can care for their child (or children) if they fall ill.
dcdcdc replied:
Hi! I'm currently a student at Greenwich High School. I was wondering if I could use your story and examples for a research project about women's rights? Thank you!
ccbcsteph replied:
In my opinion the first step that needs to be taken to create more gender equity would be to create a standard amount/ equal pay for all job titles. Another step would be to decrease horizontal segregation by marketing certain field positions to female genders. For example when I see a commercial ad for an auto service community school, the ad is filled with men working on cars doing "manly" stuff and there's always that one girl in the commercial. This to me tells me most girls either A. Don't excel in this field of work of B. Most girls probably would not like this field of work. Unfortunately I don't think adding more programs to solely benefit women helps create equity but the opposite. Instead programs that equally benefit both sexes, and programs that put both sexes on the same playing field should be introduced.
Twiss Butler replied:

Unequal treatment of women in the workplace is not a natural occurrence like rain Instead, pervasive inequality in opportunity, status, pay, and external arrangements that produce inequality are all evidence of a pervasive social strategy that pays off for men at women's expense. Why keep blandly repeating the same facts in the same trite women-blaming language as in paragraph 1 above? To say that "On average in 2010, women only made 77 cents to every dollar a man earned" is to say that the man is entitled to more than the women received. One can search the mountains of research focusing on problems for women in paid employment without once finding straightforward discussion of the source of these disabling problems in men's policymaking, legislating, and day-to-day decision-making. It all adds up to a highly successful strategy for cutting women out of competition for economic rewards at every level. That is only barely hinted at without analysis in the above article as: "Parents who elect to stay home with their children risk "falling behind" competitively with their paid working colleagues." For "parents" read "women" and for "stay home" read "unpaid labor." To break through and destroy the barriers cited above, women scholars need to publicly address what is inhibiting them from identifying women's inequality in the workplace as men's ongoing strategy for maintaining men's superior position. in the society as a whole.

Carrie J replied:
As a university student in China, I believe gender inequality and its consequence have mutual influence on each other. A woman, in the eye of a traditional pattern, ought to take responsibilities as child-rearing, feeding the family members and doing the laundry ect. In turn, employer who holds such bias would provide less challenging and flexible work, which means less opportunities in promotion and salary increasing. Noticeably, since there are less job oppotunities for female, rendering women earn less than men, bias in the society is emphasized and proved right in its reasons. Guess the point to narrow the gap would has something to do with the broken of the mode as well as the potential connections between the two.
Anonymous replied:
I am a working professional optometrist in Britain. I am a single mum of two, and my full time salary is £23,000 less than my ex partners who works for the same company doing the same job at a different store 20 miles away. I have used maybe 5 'sick days' in 10 years whereas my ex partner regularly uses his 4 months annual 'sick leave'. I am appalled at the difference in approaches between our salaries and outlooks on our identical jobs. Inequality at its best!!
Anonymous replied:
Childcare issues aside, what about mostly male dominated work fields? Such as construction, automotive, law enforcement...and so on. There are women, like myself I must add, who are in these fields, and are just as equally capable of completing the same tasks. I have been in the automotive field for 8 years already, and still my salary doesn't compare to any male I work with. I was with one company for 6 years straight before I changed companies. The second company was the worst thing I've ever experienced, in terms of shear inequality on just about every level. My personal feelings aside, I have met other women in the field who find it just as equally difficult. Now, on the other hand with female dominated work places, if a male is working there, is he getting paid the same as the other women? If so, that's pretty much a double standard isn't it? It'd be especially worst if he was getting paid more! My point is, women are body builders, fire fighters, pilots, marines, and whatever else they decided to be that no male thought possible. As stated in the above article, I entirely agree with seeing each male and female as just a "person" and paying each person equally for the set of skills they both have. No one should have to be paid less for their achievements based on their gender. What right does anyone have to do such a thing? Because yes, there are single mothers that have to work two jobs, and that's why we have family and friends to help with our kids in these times. I do also understand that's unfortunately not the case for all, but we put ourselves through these hard times at work for our children to make sure their needs are met. So why do employers insist on keeping this financial gap so large? Women have every right to pursue whichever career they desire, the same as any man regardless if it's male dominated or not.
Carol Ng'ang'a replied:
I am not turning a blind eye to the the fact that gender inequality has been there since time immemorial. However,we women tend to look at what others can do to curb this issue whereas the solution lies with us. Efforts have been made to achieve gender equality but this cannot change if we do not do something about it. We need to be confident and ambitious too and strive to do our best before we look to others.
Link replied:
My boss is a woman, she works as Manager and I as Assistant Manager. She is sometimes rude. She once told me "only women should work here". As we work at local housing association, she even told me "I hope you're paying full $1700/month" sarcastically in a snide way. As my rent is lower I replied "I have five kids to feed" and she replied "so"... she is sometimes too vicious to people. Are we suppose to report these kind of incidents to HR?

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