How to Promote Gender Equality in Your Workplace

A forthcoming international survey of 240,000 workers by Barbara Annis shows that women feel professional exclusion in their workplaces, while men remain unaware that there’s a problem. Men resort to expressing old fashioned chivalry like opening doors and offering to pay for lunch, thinking this makes women feel more comfortable and appreciated. In fact it is the way that men exclude women from promotional opportunities, meetings, and mentorship that is a problem for women.

In this post, I will discuss how social privileges operate for men and women at work. I’ll discuss the social science evidence on the types of gender exclusion that women experience in different types of workplaces. I’ll also show how individual perceptions about gender discrimination are limited and don’t get to the heart of organisational issues. I’ll conclude with a discussion of how social scientists can help managers identify and act on gender exclusion in order to maximise productivity of their staff.

Gender equality in the workplace requires active & ongoing management.
Gender equality in the workplace requires active & ongoing management.



Male Privilege at Work

Photo by Victor1558 via Flickr
Photo by Victor1558 via Flickr

Annis notes in her article that men are often unaware they’re excluding women. They say they want to work productively with women but they’re confused as to how their behaviour affects women. In general, men report that there isn’t a problem with gender discrimination because they haven’t personally experienced sexism or because they’ve never “seen it” happen. Noticing gender discrimination is different than knowing the signs to look out for, or to put it another way – knowing how to see sexism. The fact that some men don’t fully understand what sexism is relates to social privilege, a term we use in social science to show how members of a dominant group receive benefits by virtue of their social characteristics such as gender, age, race and so on. In this case, it is male privilege at work.

Everyone who belongs to a socially dominant group has some level of privilege, although there are hierarchies within any sub-group. For example, white men in general have more social power so they don’t experience racism (defined as the systemic institutional discrimination based on physical appearance of race). Sociologist Peggy McIntosh has talks about male white privilege as the invisible knapsack, a series of special benefits, tools and “blank checks” that help white men to go about their daily lives without having to experience or even think about the types of life problems that people of colour face daily. This includes things like:

  • Being able to work, live near and spend time with people of one’s own race and gender wherever one pleases without fearing abuse, being made to feel odd or “exotic” and without experiencing other forms persecution
  • Being able to go shopping and be in public places without being followed or harassed
  • Not having personal choices and abilities being stereotyped as part of one’s race and gender, including dress, the we speak, and our general behaviour
  • Being able to see people of the same race and gender being represented in the media, on everyday household products and within social institutions, such as the upper management at work.

White women have less power than white men, but women of colour have even less power. Social experiments show that despite formal laws that prevent discrimination, many employers will continue to exclude qualified minority candidates. For example, Muslim migrant women professionals experience both sexism and racism at work, plus their qualifications are not recognised or rewarded.

People who are in society’s inner circle of power often do not feel as if they are in a position of authority. They are more likely to think that things are relatively equal between difference races and genders. People with privilege do not see that there are problems with the way things are. This is because they assume that because they’re comfortable social inequality is not an issue at their workplace. They see their experience as being normal, natural and the same as everybody else. Most people think that gender equality is now common place in Western societies, but research shows that gender equality, which gained momentum in the 1970s, has since stalled, particularly when we look at class issues. This is especially noticeable in the type of work that men and women do in blue and white-collar jobs.

Looking Beyond the Individual

Photo by Highways Agency
Photo by Highways Agency

The “average” white, able-bodied man who works in an office might see their position as unremarkable. They may feel frustrated by their workplace at times or they will feel as if some things are unfair. Whether they feel satisfied with work, unhappy, indifferent or hard done by their organisation – these individual feelings and troubles are not the same as institutional barriers. The gender of white, able-bodied men does not stop them from progressing in their careers.

Research shows that due to their position of social privilege, men are less likely than women to see the everyday and institutional processes that stop women from fully contributing to their workplace. This does not mean that all men actively discriminate; but not seeing how sexism happens is one of the privileges of being a man. Barbara Reskin argues:

Dominant groups remain privileged because they write the rules, and the rules they write “enable them to continue to write the rules”… the basic cause of the income gap is not sex segregation but men’s desire to preserve their advantaged position and their ability to do so by establishing rules to distribute valued resources in their favour.

The average man might read this passage and say: “but I didn’t write the rules!” At the same time, it is pivotal that men recognise how they benefit from the rules in society, such as the ways in which work is structured around inequality.

How can men stop gender inequality at work? By better understanding the everyday ways they may inadvertently contribute to gender exclusion. In particular, men can help by having an awareness of how sexism operates in their workplace. Research shows that there are many reasons why gender and diversity awareness should be central to workplace culture.

Gender Exclusion at Work

Photo by by Ben Ostrowsky via Flickr
Photo by by Ben Ostrowsky via Flickr

For many decades, social science research has shown that gender discrimination is an institutional problem. Without exploring their own biases, managers tend to see men as being more competent at some types of work relative to women, especially when it comes to leadership and management roles. This means that without realising it, work is segregated by gender.

One study that included almost 1,800 American women found that gender discrimination at work had a highly negative impact on women’s health over time. Not being given a promotion, not being assigned certain job responsibilities, and not being interviewed for a position for which a woman is qualified are all examples of workplace discrimination which then lead to health problems. Younger women who are highly educated and unmarried are more likely to report discrimination, however women in professional and technical occupations also report higher rates of discrimination relative to women in low skilled jobs such as cleaners and service workers.

Education and training raises the level of awareness about how people understand discrimination. Education also gives people different skills in dealing with gender exclusion. Women who feel entitled to workplace equality are more willing to speak about discrimination. Highly educated women and younger women without dependants are more likely to speak up because their education will help them seek help. Conversely, women who are less educated have less understanding about their options and rights at work, and so they are less likely to report discrimination. Once women have children, not having a system of support at work will compound the effect of workplace discrimination. This includes not having the option of working flexible hours at work and not having access to affordable childcare (other studies also support this finding).

Nevertheless, regardless of status and education, women who experience gender discrimination will also experience a negative toll on their emotional and mental wellbeing. Black women are also more likely than White women to develop physical problems alongside mental health issues. This is possibly because they experience both sexism and racism which takes twice the toll on their health.

Recognising Organisational Sexism

Photo by Victor1558 via Flickr. Remixed by SSI
Photo by Victor1558 via Flickr. Remixed by SSI

As Annis notes, women feel as if their ideas are not heard at work. Men don’t see this because their ideas are always heard, even if their ideas are not always adopted. The women in Annis’ survey feel like men “walk on eggshells” around gender discrimination issues, by opening doors and offering to pay for things, which they do not do for their male colleagues. Men presume that by being “nice” to women, they’ve done their bit to make women feel included. Part of the problem though is that men try to make women feel “nice” at work by acting in gendered ways. This behaviour, however, reinforces the idea that women need looking after via chivalrous displays. Women do not want nor need this.

Women need to be offered a legitimate chance to access professional support and equal opportunities for career advancement. They need their colleagues to understand how their behaviour contributes to women’s gender discrimination, whether this comes from an “unconscious” or unintended place. Women need men to learn to “see” and address sexism when it happens to others, and not ignore it because they haven’t experienced sexism themselves.

Popular opinion pieces will often argue that women don’t climb up the corporate ladder because they don’t ask for for promotions or because they’re not “aggressive” enough at work. The empirical evidence completely dispels this myth. I’ve written a summary of the research using a case study of how Google continues to ignore organisational gender issues by focusing on individual personalities rather than on organisational solutions. The scientific evidence shows that highly qualified women with higher education degrees will ask for promotions and they are routinely knocked back in favour of male applicants. This occurs even when women have the same experience, training, and they are working the same hours with the same responsibility as men. The real issue is that workplaces are structured around men’s needs, rewarding men’s efforts and ignoring women’s professional contributions even when they have the same qualifications as men.

Cultural Change for Managers

Photo by Parker Knight via Flickr
Photo by Parker Knight via Flickr

If you think there isn’t a problem in your workplace, you may very well be wrong. Chances are, this type of gender bias is happening unless you have made a concerted effort to systematically examine gender discrimination for your organisation. Women may not feel safe in coming forward with complaints especially if their professional input is already ignored.

Gender relations in the workplace require active and ongoing management. It means offering mandatory equity and diversity training as a condition of employment. It means providing a safe avenue to routinely check in with women and men to ensure that gender exclusion is being addressed, using routine surveys, interview research, mediation and other organisational evaluations. It means providing formal avenues for women to access mentorship and other professional support. It means drawing on social science tools to regularly measure the progress of your workers at both an individual and organisational level.

Larger workplaces often have some existing mechanism for carrying out professional appraisals. This is usually done one-on-one between an employee and their direct line supervisor. This is fine for evaluating individual progress on an annual basis, but this is not the best way to stay proactive about gender issues in the workplace.  Sure, some larger organisations will carry out employee surveys. These rarely target gender and diversity matters, or if they do, they are not necessarily the focus.

Women and men report similar levels of job happiness in low-skilled positions, but women tend to have low expectations of  what they want out of work. By the same token, however, professional women with high qualifications are more likely to be unhappy because they have a high expectation of professional fulfilment. Simply asking employees if they’re happy at work does not get to the heart of gender exclusion.

Being Proactive

Photo by Parker Knight via Flickr
Photo by Parker Knight via Flickr

Formal training and organisational practices require ongoing review. Don’t be reactive and wait for your staff to quit before you notice there’s a problem. Don’t assume everything is okay because you haven’t personally witnessed any problems. Don’t assume that team productivity, such as meeting milestones and achieving profit objectives, are a true measure of your team’s progress.

If you want to get the very best from your employees, stay reflexive about gender and diversity matters. Reflexivity means reflecting on workplace patterns, interactions, and policies, then changing practices as a result of this reflection, and committing to this cycle as an ongoing process. Reflecting doesn’t mean relying on your personal opinions and experiences, including what you think you see or don’t see. As I’ve shown, gender dynamics work beyond individual perception. Gender exclusion requires in-depth, social scientific support.

Gender exclusion is not a problem you fix once and then forget about. It may not be a problem you can address personally. It will often require professional intervention and analysis.

Will your employees feel 100 percent comfortable speaking with you if they have a gender discrimination problem, particularly if they already believe you don’t see, understand or address the issues they face? In this case, you will benefit from having a social science professional evaluate your workplace.

How Social Science Can Help

Original photo by Victor1558 via Flickr. Remixed by SSI
Original photo by Victor1558 via Flickr. Remixed by SSI

Social scientists can help management establish equity and diversity training programs, and they also act as facilitators for progressive gender change. Using research and established methods, social scientists can educate managers and employees to recognise gender patterns at work, as well as how to identify, report and negotiate gender discrimination. Social scientists will also critically review workplace policies versus actual behaviour within an organisation, to better address specific problems.

Gender equity is only achieved through organisational vigilance and cultural change. It is your job to get the best from your colleagues and employees.

Don’t let your social privilege stand in the way of maximising your staff’s full potential.