What Should Women Know to Get Ahead?


By Julie Norwell

Between the #MeToo movement and the Kavanaugh confirmation process, the national news is focusing on women’s issues. It seems fitting in this forum, then, to consider employment from the perspective of women. It’s no secret that they have a tougher road to travel than men. Their disadvantages begin right out of the gate and have no end in sight. So, what should women know to get ahead in the employment market?

It’s important to understand the barriers to achievement for working women. We also need to quantify the obstacles as initial first steps towards gender parity. It is hard to measure when and by how much sexism tips the balance against a woman in the workplace. Consider Serena Williams’ loss to Naomi Osaka at the 2018 U.S. Open. Was the umpire harder on Williams than he would have been on a male tennis player behaving in the same way? Many argue that he was. And that he altered the outcome of a high-stakes match in the process. In a similar way, females face harsher judgment by employers and superiors in the workplace. This results in fewer hires, promotions, and pay raises than men. This sometimes means more terminations. In the corporate world judgments usually aren’t on public display. But statistics tell the story.

What Do We Know?

Women earn more college degrees than men and have done so for decades. Women also represent 57% of the U.S. population. Nevertheless, women make up only 47% of all entry-level hires.

Visier data company reports that women are 21% more likely than men to be considered “top performers” by their companies. Yet, they continue to be hired and promoted at lower rates than men. Women continue to lose ground throughout their careers. Despite greater company commitment to gender diversity than ever before, females are paid 80% of a male who does the same job. Females are underrepresented in corporate America at every level. Studies suggest that women are treated more harshly than men for similar misconduct violations at the same firm, time, and location.

Global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company partnered with LeanIn.org. The two companies are undertaking a long-term, comprehensive study of the state of women in corporate America. In the 2017 report, McKinsey produced some remarkable new conclusions. One key finding is that women’s ambitions are curbed early. “At the first critical step up to manager, women are 18% less likely to be promoted than their male peers.”

Another key finding is that people don’t see the problem. In companies where only one in ten senior leaders is a woman, nearly 50% of men think women are well represented in leadership. In that same company, as many as 33% of women agree.

Sometimes Culture is the Enemy

Some conclusions appear consistently in the report each year. One example is that women, in general, are less likely to receive advice from senior leaders on career advancement. This is problematic. Employees who receive career advice are more likely to be promoted. It seems that men are naturally more likely to mentor men. And women are more likely to mentor women. But as men largely fill the ranks of senior leadership, women are left behind.

Second, females are doing double duty. According to the report, 54% of women are shouldering all or most of the household work. That number is compared to 22% of men. Women with a partner and children are 5.5 times more likely than their male counterparts to do all or most of the household work. This is true even of women who are the family breadwinners.

McKinsey finds that, contrary to conventional wisdom, women are as ambitious as men in achieving career success. McKinsey also finds that females are no more likely than men to plan to leave their jobs to focus on family. Still, when the pressures of family life rise, it is women who fill the gaps. Women are more likely than men to assume responsibility for child care. And women make up 60% of the caregivers for elderly family members.

Government Policies Are Failing Women 

Outdated government social policies bear much of the blame for stalling progress towards gender parity. According to a book published through the Brookings Institute, huge gaps in social programs, like affordable child-care and elder-care, exacerbate the problem. Also, consider that U. S. is the only industrialized country without a national paid leave policy for mothers.

Companies aren’t doing their part either. Women in more senior roles are more likely to have a working spouse than men. But companies aren’t reliably supportive of employees who need to balance work and family. Less than two-thirds offer maternity leave beyond what’s required by law. And, only about half offer fathers the same benefit. Meanwhile, longer-term support, such as emergency or on-site child care, is relatively scarce.

Perhaps less acknowledged is the tax penalty females often face when they get married. U.S. tax structure tends to raise the tax rate for the spouse who is the lower earner. For reasons already mentioned, that is usually the woman. This has the effect of discouraging women’s labor force participation.

When it comes to career and financial advancement, the cards seem stacked against working women.

Steps to Take to Get Ahead

The first step women might take when considering their career prospects is finding an optimal place to work. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research publishes an annual study of the employment and earnings status of females in the U.S.. The Institute ranks every state, plus Washington DC, on several factors. These include the gender wage gap, women’s labor force participation, and representation in professional and managerial. According to a 2017 study, only Washington DC merited an A grade. The next five highest-ranking states (Maryland, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey) received a B+.

The industry is also important to consider. No industry boasts equal representation of females and males beyond the director level. However, certain industries do better than others, such as health care, insurance, pharmaceuticals/medical products and retail. The industries that struggle the most include automotive and industrial manufacturing, technology, and telecom and IT services.

No matter where they work, women need to be thoughtful about how to advance their careers. Not only should women ask for a raise. She should specify an amount! She should argue her case by demonstrating that she is high-performing, has taken on a greater workload, or assumed the responsibilities of a more senior person. Above all, she should solicit advice from managers on how to move to the next level.

There was one happy bit of news for women in the spring of 2018. A federal appeals court ruling prohibited employers from paying a female less than a male who is doing the same work because of her salary history. It effectively institutionalizes discrimination. As of April 2018, 11 states banned employers from asking job applicants for salary history.

Breaking down barriers for women in the workplace is slow going.

But doing so ultimately benefits everyone. Until people at the government, corporate and individual level, alike, commit to resolving the problem, true progress will be elusive.

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