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?
Anonymous replied:
Yes you should report the behavior of your boos to the human resources department. There is such a thing as reverse gender discrimination/harassment where women treat men poorly. Just because she is the boss does not give her the right to treat you bad.
Devin replied:
There is no biggest obstacle. Life is complex, made up of so many moving and ever-changing variables. The obstacles could be categorized into material and non-material, as in ideology. I am relatively young, still in my early 30’s, University degree in psychology and a paralegal certificate, no children and do not want children, no debt, no major health problem that would impede on vocational progress but I still cannot shake this notion that lives in my head for whatever reason it has a hold on my thoughts whether it was implanted by society, this time in history, my family, friends, co-workers, my self or advertisements or a combination thereof and so on. This is the idea that I could be seen as a woman and not a little girl or secretary or in some supportive role. I want to feel equal, valued, and powerful. But instead I have currently given up. I have given up hope because when I am asked what I think, what… i…. think… is the biggest obstacle my mind is so flooded that I do not know where to begin or whether that list could ever end. I am petrified to re-enter the workforce because I have worked so hard for my education and have only found secretary jobs where I have had thick legal books strewn across the table at full force towards me, “Look up the LAW! Don’t you know what I mean by the letter of the law?!” Or that day I finally was able to come into work after a terrible cold which left my voice box so thrashed that I could not talk for several days and on the first painful day back I was not asked how I felt but had the senior partner lean in and say, ‘I like your voice like that, all raspy. It’s sexy.’ He proceeded to suggest I go on a date with his step son. I kindly declined and he insisted and kept insisting despite my declines and even brought his step son into the office to meet me after weeks of declines. This partner was my first job as a legal secretary and would be my only contact as a reference at that point in my career. The job right out of college was a secretary job for $12 an hour. That was an animal hospital and within the first week they left me to manage the hospital with 5,000 client’s files 6 veterinary doctors and to weigh and room all animals and run a kennel service they offered on-site. I had to run the pharmacy filled with drugs that had they been for humans (which quite surprisingly most drugs used on pets are also given to humans) I would have been required to have a degree to manage but I was left to not only take in calls and fill the prescriptions but to run the cash register answer the phones clean up after any sick animals in the waiting room, run the front desk including checking up to three clients out from appointments seamlessly while checking in up to three clients including ringing up any orders for pet care items or medications including explaining the medications. Have you ever tried to weigh a strangers cat? I had large clips thrown across the lab table yelling at me to, “Put them in a room!” while throwing his arms up in the air giving a look of anger and disbelief as if this girl 6 inches below him is less worthy than the excrement he sifts through under a microscope for worms. When clients called I was often treated just as the title “receptionist” suggests - replaceable and less than. It was a job as if I, including other women, did not believe had value as a human let alone a woman. Women are just as disrespectful as men but women do not make as many if any inappropriate sexual advances. One day a female co-worker said, 'Don't worry, that feeling after work, like you had a double shot of espresso even though you are exhausted and your feet are killing you. You'll adjust. You get used to it.' That job let me go after three months saying that I do not know how to multi-task but that I am very friendly, very nice. Contrary to popular belief, based on my gender, I am not good at stereotypical female tasks. In two different interviews I was asked something the effect, “You know this isn’t the kind of place where you can chat online all day?” I was shocked and did not know how to respond other than disbelief and focusing on trying to hike my shock and shame that after working so hard for my degree that I was already not taken seriously in just a short interview within the first 10 minutes and I wondered if any man was interviewed for that law firm receptionist/clerk job or had been asked that same question. One of the firms had his wife interview me even though she was not an attorney and I wondered if he had her interview and ask offensive questions inappropriate coming from a man. A co-workder at the last law firm I worked for had a friend who would always call the front desk and talk to me even though I always cut him off and complained numerous times to management about him calling the front desk when I was covering at lunch time. This co-worker's friend was some retired older man whom I had never met in person. I was covering for the receptionist during the receptionist’s lunch break (I was the file clerk at this firm and filled in for the receptionist even though I had a paralegal certificate) and one day that friend of his called the front desk and asked, “Do you date men or women?” I was in complete disbelief and my knee jerk reaction was to do what made me feel shameful for lying yet protected. To my humiliation I was now in a position to bring up this topic to the office manager and my experience at that firm went down-hill from there, to say the least. All these obstacles are the minutia of every day. It is that look and tone of, “What you don’t have time to file this document or is it that you just don’t know how to because you're stupid?” It is that constant questioning that goes on of whether they are judging your work or your stereotype as a women because I can no longer tell the difference since I have seen females in the workplace turn a blind-eye to how men treat us and women have been just as insensitive and degrading. I have a B.A. in psychology from UC Davis (admittedly with a low GPA). Paralegal certificate from SF State with a 3.79GPA. I speak read and write basic French. I read and write music. I play the piano. After two years of lessons from age 14-16 I composed a song in the AP music theory which the teacher compared to Rachmaninoff. I am the only one in my family who has graduated college. I received a 99% on my final statistics project in college (so yes I am good at math too) and I am even athletic, just broke my lifetime record to run a 6 minute 15 second mile just a few days ago but I am female and under 5 feet 4 inches. So compared to my brother who is over six feet and male who works as a senior project manager for a top Silicon Valley tech company. I could not even interview or be trained for his position, so how did he manage to land that without a college degree in anything? His Christmas bonus was 5 months of my salary. My story and his story represent a problem that society is willing to create a blind spot to allow a man to “prove” himself as “self-made” because that is what we and he has been taught to expect of himself while the female college graduate cannot even receive a call back from Google as an executive assistant i.e. a glorified secretary and we wonder what message that may give a woman as she internalizes everything she has been told and taught. My brother does not speak any other languages. Did not graduate college or even obtain an Associates degree or technical certificate in anything and makes the mistake of confusing the spelling of meat vs. meet, so he cannot be that much of a genius to land such a great gig, but he has always been social and fits in. The world just isn’t fair but we just seem to make it harder for some reason. The obstacles are as complex as each story, as complex as life. Life doesn’t happen in a vacuum nor is our vocational ventures so sterile to diminish the ups and downs to one obstacle. If only there was such an easy inoculation I would be its first test subject! Some days all I can do is cry and hope that if there is re-birth that I am born as a white man - tall handsome and fits in because apparently that's the current cure. I struggled in college, so I do not have good enough grades to go on, I am a hermit, so I have very little if any connections (but I mostly like it this way since I spend my free time reading everything and anything) and I am a woman with a worthless degree. I think I am intelligent maybe more intelligent than anyone in my entire family but a top Silicon Firm will never see that potential to use in a career and from this vantage point it is impossible to tell whether I will or ever can.
Anonymous replied:
There are so many holes that can be poked in these studies. You would think someone from Harvard would have the intellectual capacity to examine how these studies can be flawed. In order for these studies to be valid we must examine the following: 1. Are women applying for the same jobs as men? 2. It is an innate quality for women to view a man as being the breadwinner in the family. How many of these women are seeking a supplemental income to help support the family instead of seeking a career? 3. There aren't any studies regarding men in the workplace, only women in the workplace. We don't have a full understanding as to the inequalities on both sides. For example, I was in a workplace where the majority were women with women bosses and the males were complaining that the females were getting all the promotions. Does it not work both ways? 4. Do the women have the same level of experience as the men? Are they achieving the same scores in their interviews? In terms of gaining respect, women need to attack popular culture, not men. The predominant factor in pop culture is that women value men with status. 50 Shades of Grey, The Bachelor, how women swarm the rich and famous. If women want more respect, I suggest changing popular culture for females and strive for values beyond that of materialism.
Anonymous replied:

This article really helped me in my essay on womens rights! Thank you!!

M. replied:
I was recently fired for using the word ass-hole in an incident with a male coworker. This same male coworker used the word dumb-ass in a prior incident with me. He was not fired. Do women need curse word equality or profanity equality? Using a curse word in the workplace is inappropriate; however we both should be fired or none fired. I reside in Rural Southern Ohio Appalachia.
Juan Pablo II replied:
Watch your profanity please.
Juan Pablo II replied:
Watch you profanity
Devyn replied:
I'm a high school student and I wrote this paper for my English class, using this article as a source. Thanks for reading! Women and the American Dream Traditionally, the American Dream is defined as the ideals of freedom, equality, and opportunity expected to be available to every American. However, it seems that this definition of the Dream is inaccessible for women in America today; women get paid less, rarely get as high up on the executive chain, and are expected to take care of the children and the house. For every dollar an American man makes, an American woman makes about 77 cents, according to a study conducted in 2010 (Brinton 1). The pay gap has decreased noticeably since women entered the workforce but has hardly budged since the 1990s. These 23 cents exist in separating women from men in the workplace, even while women have caught up with and surpassed men in achieving a higher education (Brinton 5). The pay gap experienced by most working women obviously affects their American Dream in that it’s much more difficult to reach a state of financial stability, compared to men who work the same jobs for higher pay. Not only has the general increase in the education of the American woman not erased the pay gap, it also hasn’t opened the doors to higher executive positions for women. What’s known as the “glass ceiling” exists in corporate America for working women; no matter how high their education or experience, the average woman is much less likely to hold an executive office than the average American man (“About Workplace Gender Equality” 3). The final, and perhaps the most prominent, fault of work life for women is that they are essentially expected to work two jobs. Although man’s involvement in household duties has increased significantly in the last twenty-five years, it’s still much less than that of the average American woman (Brinton 8). This is one of the long-living stereotypes that has been around since before women could even enter the workforce: women are expected to tend the children and the house most of the time. This simply doesn’t add up. No woman, and no person, is capable of devoting all of their time to their kids, while simultaneously spending all of their time and efforts at work. This stereotype is not only set in the minds of many Americans, it’s also visible in the world of corporate America. Generally, women get more flexible schedule and insurance benefits because they’re expected to take care of kids. Men don’t have access to many of these benefits, which just ratifies the stereotype (Brinton 13). However, some American women of today are making do with the dual duty working woman/ mom expectations by envisioning what’s being called the “New American Dream” (Casserly 3). Also known as “opting out,” this plan involves women getting good educations and working ambitious jobs for a few years, with the end goal of being able to stay home with the kids around age 30 and maintaining their standard of living through a spouse’s income (Casserly 7). This means opting out of the corporate climb to the traditional American Dream after a few years in order to spend more time at home with the kids. This Dream isn’t foolproof, though. 44% of stay-at-home moms say that they feel they aren’t pulling their financial weight, and 20% say they feel they’d be happier working outside of the home (Casserly 13). Also, the “opting out” option probably contributes to the lack of women in higher executive offices and the pay gap; less women want to break the glass ceiling and close the pay gap. The real solution to all of these roadblocks in the way of working women to the American Dream is gender equality. Gender inequality is a problem that needs to be solved both on a legal and a societal level. Laws that equalize pay between genders need to be enforced more heavily. The real solution lies with society, though. If efforts are made to equalize men and women and their roles in the eyes of the people of America, these gender inequality issues would slowly go away. It’s up to the media and everyday people to convince the country that men and women have the same capacity for childcare and executive offices. If the pay gap was diminished and women made the same income as men, if the glass ceiling were smashed through and women were hired into more executive positions, and if society would accept man’s equal ability to provide childcare, then women would begin to see an equalized path to success and the American Dream to that of men. Works Cited "About Workplace Gender Equality." Workplace Gender Equality Agency. Commonwealth Government of Australia, 2013. Web. 12 May 2015. Brinton, Mary. "Gender Inequality and Women in the Workplace." Gender Inequality and Women in the Workplace. Harvard University, 2010. Web. 12 May 2015. Casserly, Meghan. "Is 'Opting Out' The New American Dream For Working Women?" Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 12 Sept. 2012. Web. 12 May 2015.

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