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Human Workplace Index: What’s Holding Women Back in Today’s Workplace

Women’s History Month provides an opportunity to step back and examine the progress and achievements of women throughout history. It’s also a crucial reminder that there is so much more to be done. As it relates to work, studies have overwhelmingly shown that women are still being left behind. We’ve seen women switch jobs and leave their companies at an alarming rate, exacerbated by the pandemic, and they remain largely underrepresented in leadership roles. Women also shoulder an uneven burden of caregiving responsibilities, which can preclude them from opportunities at work and even force them to abandon their careers.

Considering all of the contributions women make to the workplace and the world, why do these discrepancies persist? The truth is, despite centuries of progress, the modern workplace is still host to deeply entrenched biases against women. This month’s Human Workplace Index (HWI) finds that nearly half (46.05%) of all women report experiencing gender bias in the workplace - almost 15% more than their male counterparts in a survey of 500 men and 500 women. The following insights help dig deeper into women’s sentiment in the workplace and what progress today’s workers feel we’ve made as it relates to gender bias at work.

Women still face significant barriers in the workplace

The Cambridge Dictionary defines bias as “the action of supporting or opposing a particular person or thing in an unfair way” when personal opinions color our judgment. While we all have biases, when those biases go unchecked and unrecognized, they have a detrimental impact on society, our personal lives and our professional development.

Masculine defaults are “a form of gender bias in which characteristics and behaviors typically associated with men are rewarded and considered standard practice.” These traits, which range from confidence to competitiveness to being the ‘loudest’ in the room, may be celebrated in some workplaces, but for women, ascribing to them can be a lose-lose. Disconcertingly, nearly half (47.6%) of all respondents stated they felt that women were rewarded unequally or even penalized for exhibiting these “masculine defaults” in the workplace.

When asked which “masculine default” qualities their workplaces most commonly rewarded, respondents ranked the top eight as follows:

  1. Being confident
  2. Being assertive
  3. Being self-promotional
  4. Being competitive
  5. Working long hours
  6. Taking risks
  7. Being the ‘loudest in the room’
  8. Lacking empathy

The double standard of masculine defaults forces women workers into a trap. Where their male coworkers may be called ‘go-getters’ and ‘leaders’ for showing confidence, women may be seen as vain or stuck-up. At the same time, men get called ‘bold’, while assertive women get called ‘pushy’. When neither conforming to nor defying stereotypes results in success, women feel disempowered, and the impacts of that disempowerment can echo long into their careers.

Whether or not women exhibit these traits, they still face an uphill battle in the workplace based on their gender alone. Nearly one fifth (19.8%) of women felt dismissed at work because of their gender “somewhat often” and 18.8% felt this way “very often to almost always.” The latter increased significantly among women of color, as over a quarter (26.1%) felt dismissed because of their gender “very often to almost always.”

Bias is causing workers to put major life moments on hold

During the Great Resignation, millions of employees quit their jobs in pursuit of true work-life balance. In response, many companies altered their policies to better accommodate employees’ personal lives. But for workers impacted by bias, regardless of gender, the concept of ‘work-life balance’ is an illusion. Bias forces workers to feel as though they must constantly prove themselves, which prevents them from availing themselves of flexibility benefits, even if they theoretically have access to them.

This lack of balance is keeping employees from making major life decisions. When more than one-fifth of workers (20.7%) are holding off on starting a family due to fear of missing out on opportunities at work, there is a clear lack of support for working parents and parents-to-be. More than one-fifth of respondents also stated they’d hold off on the following as a result of this fear:

  • Having another child (20.3%)
  • Taking full maternity/paternity leave (20.4%)
  • Taking promotions as a result of starting a family (20.4%)

Bias at work is holding people back from pushing their careers forward, as nearly half (45.2%) of all workers have held off on asking for a raise or fair pay due to bias in the workplace. Among other plans put on hold, 28.1% said they’d held off on pursuing a side hustle or passion project, while over one-fifth (21.3%) held off on undergoing a medical treatment or surgery.

These biases have had serious impacts on people’s wellbeing at work. Of those who have experienced bias at work, 47% reported bias has impacted their confidence, 41% stated it’s influenced their workplace relationships, another 41% stated it’s been detrimental to their mental health, and 33% have questioned their careers as a result.

For leaders, this is serious cause for alarm. For your business to thrive, you need your employees to Thrive. When bias is stripping them of their confidence and hindering their growth, they won’t just be less productive – they’ll be actively upset, resulting in higher turnover, and potentially harming their organization’s reputation. In fact, our research found that 23.8% of workers have become resentful towards their companies due to the biases they’ve experienced.

To solve for bias, employers must build a culture based on trust and accountability

Discussing the impact of bias is a sensitive matter, and 41% of respondents stated they feel most comfortable speaking about the biases they face at work with a close coworker rather than a manager or other party of authority in the company. Just 26% of respondents said they’d be comfortable speaking with their manager about bias, and only 15.4% responded they would discuss bias in the workplace with someone from HR.

Worse, some employees lack this kind of supportive connection entirely, as 17.6% don’t feel comfortable talking to anyone at their company at all. Without a confidant or any form of solidarity among peers, the pain of facing bias only intensifies, making its impacts all the more detrimental.

There were also notable differences among who women and men sought out for these discussions. Women felt more comfortable confiding in a coworker (44.6%) about bias than men (38.2%), while more men (27.6%) felt most comfortable confiding in a manager than women (23.6%).

These trends suggest a lack of trust in leadership, or worse, a fear of the reaction their concerns may cause. While it’s important to ensure there’s trust built between managers and direct reports, for employers and HR leaders, fostering an organization-wide culture grounded in community, empathy, and transparency is just as crucial.

This level of cultural change requires employers to actively build trust with their employees. A good place to start is with more mindful communications. When asked how frequently they felt talked down to in spite of their experience or performance, nearly 25% of respondents stated they experienced it very often to almost always, with almost half experiencing it somewhat often to almost always.

To prevent employees from feeling condescended to and dismissed, leaders must do their due diligence in ensuring communication lines are open and eliminating gender bias in the workplace is a priority. That way, they can foster environments where inequities are addressed, and women are supported and empowered to bring their whole selves to work.

Fortunately, people are speaking up about gender bias in the workplace. When asked how they reacted to a lack of gender diversity in their workplace, over a quarter (26.7%) stated they’d advocate for more diversity. As another proactive step, 23.3% of respondents stated they would discuss their concerns about a lack of diversity with their managers. There’s work to be done, but as employees continue to be more vocal about their needs, employers will need to match their cadence in order to create a workplace free of bias and full of opportunity for all.