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Martin Davidson

Dr. Martin Davidson is associate professor of leadership and organizational behavior at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, where he also serves as associate dean and chief diversity officer. He blogs at Leveraging Difference
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Are women really better off?

Question: The female workers' suit against Wal-Mart is in oral arguments at the Supreme Court, and could become the largest job discrimination case in history. What do you see as the biggest barrier for women in the workplace, and what will it will take in order to really tip the scales?

The greatest challenge that women face at work today is, paradoxically, the success they’ve had in overcoming discrimination and bias.

 Women are thriving in companies today.  More women are advancing to higher levels in their companies and wielding increasing amounts of influence and power.  High profile examples like Irene Rosenfeld, CEO of Kraft, and Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, illustrate the tremendous strides women have made in corporations.  These visible successes in achieving equity for women are held up as symbols of how we are overcoming the stigma of centuries of gender discrimination.  From a cultural perspective, the successes sharpen the contrast in the conditions for women in the U.S. and women in underdeveloped countries or predominantly Islamic societies.  We are drawn to these stories because they are inspiring and make us feel great about our businesses and our society.

 But these celebrations also nurture the illusion that conditions for working women are better than they really are.  This is partially caused by the presence of human psychological biases we all share. Highly visible examples (like stories of successful women) are easy to notice and easy to remember.  As a result, we assume that this must be the trend for working women in general.  Moreover, we begin to think that these successes are probably just the tip of the iceberg and all kinds of great opportunities are emerging for women everywhere.

 In fact, women at work face many of the same challenges they have always faced.  Pay differentials that favor men still abound.  Women continue to advance less swiftly than male counterparts.  Experiences of discrimination and bias plague women at work on a daily basis.  After 20 years of work with professional women, I still hear the classic corporate gender bias tale.  In a meeting, a woman contributes an idea and is ignored.  Minutes later, a male colleague shares the same idea and the room erupts in wild enthusiasm over his insight.  I hear this story from junior associates and senior executives alike.

 I frequently caution corporate leaders that while many pressing concerns about cultural and racial differences exist in their companies, they should never assume that all is well for women.  Continue to learn from female colleagues about their experience in the company.  Measure and assess the conditions for women inside the company and in the larger society.  And be vigilant about avoiding the comfortable fiction that we can stop worrying about gender inequity in companies.  Examples of successful women, no matter how high profile, do not negate the fact that discrimination and injustice for women persists.  If you need a reminder, check out Wal-Mart.

Martin Davidson  | Mar 29, 2011 11:44 AM

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