Gender inequality is alive and well in the workplace
I was recently at a conference where the issue of gender inequality in the workplace was raised. This wasn’t a formal topic but rather sparked by one woman sharing her personal experience.
Full disclosure – I was that woman.
It all started with a presentation about the importance of supporting mental health in the workplace. The presenter shared ways to include mental health breaks, check-ins and learnings throughout the workday.
This led to a conversation how our mental health isn’t just about our personal state but can also be impacted by what’s going on in the lives of those around us. This is particularly true for mothers.
As moms, we carry a heavy emotional load – especially when our kids are sick or have a disability.
I shared how a previous employer told me not to talk about my child (who has a disability) as it makes other people uncomfortable. When I was returning from spending a few days in hospital with my child, I was told not to tell people where I was – simply say I was on sick leave.
It was made clear that my professional and personal lives were to be kept separate.
While chatting with other women at the conference, I wondered if men receive the same feedback. This opened up a conversation where a number of women shared their stories of blatant sexism, discrimination and inequality.
Every single woman I spoke to had a story to share. It didn’t matter if they were early or later in their career. We have all experienced, and continue to experience, gender inequality in the workplace.
Another commonality is our hesitancy to share our experiences. Why? It’s already challenging enough having a seat at the table or being heard without being labelled that woman. We also know the likelihood of those concerns being downplayed – you’re overreacting, they didn’t mean X, you’re too sensitive.
As a mother of a daughter, it pains me that we’ve made little progress on gender equality in the workplace. Sure, there’s lots of talk about more women in management roles and efforts on hiring more women for underrepresented positions. But the reality remains, women are still targets for unwelcome and harmful comments that erode our positions and confidence.
Some comments that were shared include:
- You should wear heels more often. You have great legs.
- You’re much prettier when you smile. Why are you so serious?
- Are we keeping you awake? Stop yawning (to the single mother of a toddler who was up all night)
- Why don’t you ever wear skirts? I bet you’d look great in a skirt.
- Wow, I’ve never noticed what great legs you have.
- How old are you? I should be careful – you’re young enough to be my daughter.
- When are you having your next baby? I bet you can’t wait to go on another maternity leave.
- Aren’t you a bit old to be having a baby?
- You’re pregnant? This isn’t great timing. Why would you get pregnant when X project is underway?
The list of comments goes on. While some seem harmless in isolation, they take their toll when heard on a regular basis.
These comments not only can erode a woman’s confidence but also how those in positions of authority see her. It can limit promotions (when are you having another baby) and impact how seriously she is taken (you have great legs).
It also has a financial cost to the organization – in terms of women actively or passively leaving roles.
I’ve resigned from positions due to blatant sexism in the workplace to not only protect my reputation but also my mental health. Like many of the women I spoke to, I also stayed quiet on my reasons for leaving. Afterall, no one likes a woman who complains.
The other challenge – few organizations want to address the comments listed above. They’re not only hard to prove but also uncomfortable conversations to have with male staff (and easily denied).
Time for change
While it saddens me that I’m not alone in the gender inequality I’ve experienced in the workplace, I welcome the conversation for change. I want my daughter to be seen for her strengths and gifts and not just her physical appearance.
So how do we make the change? By first acknowledging what gender inequality looks like in the workplace. It’s not just pay inequality (which still happens), but also the stream of comments that can erode a woman’s confidence, reputation and future.
It’s about having open and honest conversations at all levels of the organization. It’s about creating safe spaces for women to connect, share and grow.
While I was very uncomfortable sharing my story, and well aware of the judgement being thrown my way, it was also reassuring to know I wasn’t alone. To hear from other women that what’s been said to me was not okay. And to hear that my feelings and concerns are legitimate.
Discussions about gender inequality in the workplace is a conversation we need to keep having. We need to recognize, value and support all voices – regardless of age, gender identity, ethnicity, disability, religion and other individualities.
My hope is my daughter will never share the stories that I’ve heard. Rather, she will be seen as an intelligent, empathic and amazing person.