By Fawzia Reza, Ed.D.
According to the World Bank, in 2019, the world population comprised approximately 50.5% males and 49.5% females (The World Bank, n.d.). In other words, the ratio of males to females is 1 for all practical purposes (a difference of 1% is not significant). This implies that as infants grow and begin working, males should be represented in the same manner as females in all positions within all organizations. However, this is seldom the case, especially in C-Suite positions. According to a study by Korn Ferry, only 25% of C-suite positions among 1,000 US companies studied were held by women (Milwaukee Women Inc, 2019). This disparity is even more striking for Women of Color (WoC) and those who identify as LGBTQ.
A prove it again bias, imposes more restrictive standards on women in many organizations. While men are assumed to be competent, females have to prove their worth again and again to be accepted, appreciated, and valued. Even when they do prove their worth, women (especially WoC and LGBTQ) are not given enough credit. Let me share an example. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Fatima al-Fihri, a Muslim woman, founded the first known university in Fez, Morocco. This is the oldest existing and operating educational institution in the world but very few people are aware of this (Guinness World Records, n.d.). When asked about our image of the first university, many of us might think of a cobblestone building with men from European descent attending scholarly lectures. Women from the eastern or middle eastern part of the world are often considered uneducated or oppressed. This type of stereotype often promotes a bias that does not give credit to women, especially WoC, who must repeatedly prove their worth.
Empowerment and economic development are closely related but women are rarely recognized sufficiently for their accomplishments. I recently attended a webinar hosted by Loyola Marymount University on Women in Economics where one of the presenters shared that when a husband-and-wife team were awarded the Nobel prize in economics for their research on alleviating poverty, the headline in a newspaper read, Banerjee and his wife instead of addressing the wife (Duflo) by her name. Duflo was the youngest woman to win the Nobel Prize for Economics and only the second woman to do so (Goecker, 2019). However, by merely identifying her as “his wife”, the media downplayed her accomplishments solely because of her gender.
In the United States, more women are entering the workforce after earning bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees. They have demonstrated their potential and capability to manage high profile and stressful jobs. However, females are typically not given credit for innovative ideas and concepts but when a male colleague shares the same idea, they are acknowledged and valued. "Hepeating," has become a common practice, which creates toxicity in some work environments. When many think of professional titles, they often assume males occupy prestigious jobs such as doctors, engineers, and lawyers. I had gone for an international flight a few years ago, and the flight attendant came and referred to my husband as “Dr.” asking what he would like to eat/drink. He then asked me the same thing only using the title, “Ms.” instead of Dr. I did not correct him but was a bit taken back by the way he erroneously assumed that my husband was a Dr., and I was not. This happened twice and the third time it happened, my husband corrected him that he was the Mr., and I was the Dr.
Our vice-President elect, Kamala Harris, has demonstrated courage and challenged the long-held stereotypes regarding women in executive positions. However, not every female who is qualified and determined makes it to leadership positions. A few barriers that women often face are described below.
Glass Ceiling. A glass ceiling refers to the point within an organization beyond which women do not get promoted. While some organizations have recently begun to embrace diversity, many still do not treat women as equal to men. This is not a feminist or an urban myth but a very real and research-based finding. For example, in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the number of female participants increased when they were asked to audition behind a screen (Claudia, & Rouse, 2000). The number of women increased further when candidates were asked to remove their shoes (since women typically wear high heels) and the sound of their shoes might give away their gender.
Glass Cliff. An article in the Times (UK) analyzed the performance of 100 top companies in the Financial Times Stock Exchange and concluded that appointing women in leadership roles might be disadvantageous to the company’s growth and lead to poor performance. However, the study was flawed because it did not consider the circumstances under which the women were appointed to these positions. In response, Ryan and Haslam (2007) introduced the concept of a glass cliff, wherein women are called upon to lead during challenging times or to take charge of underperforming companies and organizations.
Many times, women have been called upon to take leadership roles when the organization is not doing well. Examples include, Marissa Mayer was hired as the CEO of Yahoo, with the hope of reversing the company’s poor market position and loss of direction, a position that she left after a five-year tenure. Sometimes women succeed despite the difficult odds. Ginni Rometty was appointed as the CEO of IBM when the company decided to reduce their employees significantly. Under her strong leadership, the company underwent huge transformation which earned them an award for Advancing Women and Diversity in Business.
Glass Escalator. Although women and men can work in different occupations, women are more represented in some fields, for example, nursing, education, librarian, and dental hygiene. Even in these fields, where male representation is low, men are assumed to be better leaders and are given higher pay and job promotions, thereby escalating their job trajectory. This phenomenon has been summarized with the phrase glass elevator.
Alegria (2019) interviewed 32 women in tech to explore if the glass escalator metaphor was also applicable to them in traditionally male dominated technological disciplines. Findings demonstrated that while white women are sometimes provided a mid-level managerial position, a “glass step stool”, this advantage was rarely extended to women of color.
While the women’s movement has encouraged reevaluating and revisiting the ideology of the gender-neutral fields, it has not been implemented consistently and women are still underrepresented in leadership positions. There is an urgent need to reflect on why women need to prove their worth repeatedly while men are not held to the same requirements. Disparities and inequal access of women and minorities is an issue of equity. One way to address these is by creating an inclusive environment that allows every employee and equal opportunity to progress, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. We should begin by understanding how we can change insular thinking within our work environment and address our biases so that women, men, and members of the LGBTQ+ community are provided equal opportunities and power and privilege dynamics do not remain in the hands of a few men.
The opinions expressed in this article is solely those of the author and not necessarily those of DiversityGlobal Magazine.