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What else is going on with women at work?

There's more to it than just less pay for equal work and unequal representation at the leadership level

Photo by Pexels
Photo by Pexels

There’s no doubt that we’ve made great progress in the status of women at work, and it’s common knowledge that women still face unique challenges in the workplace.

Most of us are aware that we’re paid less than our male peers for equal work, we make up less of the leadership and c-suite levels, we face greater incivility from colleagues (male and female), and those of us who take maternity leave are penalized for doing so, to name a few.

But recent studies by academic researchers have found that there’s more to it than just that. So, what else is going on with women at work?

1. Women and men differ in the type of work they are assigned

A study at the University of California found that women (and minorities, especially minority women) are more likely to be assigned “office housework” – arranging a meeting, ordering lunch, taking meeting minutes – regardless of their level within the organization, regardless of whether there’s a male colleague of the same level who’s also available, and regardless of the gender of the assigning manager.

Conversely, white male employees are more likely to be assigned “glamour work” – examples include working on an important client file, representing the organization at a conference or other high visibility tasks which display competence and ability.

The reasons for this? Women (and minorities) are more likely to volunteer for office housework (because it’s what’s expected of them), and they are also more likely to acceptthe tasks when assigned (when compared with their white male peers).

The problem with this? The type of work assigned (glamour work vs office housework) has great impact on career in terms of promotion and opportunityGlamour work provides greater visibility and therefore opportunities for promotion. Office housework – although also important to the organization – does not result in the same type of visibility, undermines contribution and ability, and can even hold women back.

You can read more on HBR here.

What can organizations do? Assign office housework and glamour work more fairly and equally across both genders (and ethnicities), and keep an eye on women (and minority) talent to ensure that they receive both opportunity and recognition for their work.

2. Some women prefer to stay behind the scenes

Although visibility is incredibly important for career progression, promotion and recognition, a Stanford study found that in some cases, women choose to stay behind the scenes through “intentional invisibility” rather than shine in the limelight of their work. Adopting intentional invisibility is in direct contrast to what we all know – you need to be visible to be noticed.

In interviews, discussion groups and program-wide meetings with senior women in a professional development program over a two year period, Stanford researchers found the following reasons for intentional invisibility: avoiding backlash, feeling authentic and work-family balance.

Additionally, many of the women expressed that common advice – namely to “lean in” – competes with expectations of how women should behave, and also feels inauthentic.

That is, instead of standing out, some women feel the need to stand back for fear of punishment for “violating feminine norms” (being viewed as nice, collaborative and communal). This finding is in line with research described in my previous article, What’s going on with women at work? that women who employ leadership traits appreciated in men are often ignored, and in some cases punished (for being assertive or being seen as “self-promoting”, for example).

You can read more by Stanford here.

What can organizations do? Support women in moving out from behind the scenes (including removing barriers and highlighting their contributions), while at the same time ensuring that they do not face backlash for being authentic (rather than conforming to societal norms and expectations) and for requesting flexibility required (to balance work and family).

3. Last, women face a “gender punishment gap” (at least in the financial services sector)

At this point, some of you may be thinking “Why don’t women just volunteer for glamour work, turn down office housework and move out from behind the scenes?”.

This is easier said than done. A recent study by three researchers focusing on the financial services sector found that men and women are punished differently in the workplace for misconduct. Men are twice as likely to participate in workplace misconduct, but women are 20% more likely to be fired as a result, and 30% less likely to find a new job afterwards.

This is in spite of the fact that misconduct by men is 20% more costly for the organization, and men are two times as likely to engage in misconduct again.

The researchers found similar results for minority men, by the way.

There is so much more to this, and you can read the full 72-page report published by Harvard Business School here or a shorter article by Stanford here.

What can organizations do? Stop punishing women more harshly than men for workplace misconduct. And accept that all employees (regardless of gender) make mistakes.

 If you liked this, you’ll also like my other articles:

And, connect with me on LinkedIn!

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