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Women and power in the workplace

The Wal-Mart case reminds us that equality for women in the workplace remains a distant goal.  Catalyst data show that women remain strikingly underrepresented in senior management ranks and on board of director positions in the U.S., while other data show similar patterns in India, the United Kingdom and in Australia.  Nor is this just a pipeline problem--one Catalyst study found that women who had graduated from leading MBA programs in the past 15 years earned less than comparable men and were promoted less frequently.  Although gender-based employment disadvantages are smaller today than in the past, the problem has not disappeared.

When I taught my Paths to Power class this year, I included a session on women and power in the workplace and wrote a teaching note (which I will be happy to send anyone who is interested) summarizing the research on women's disadvantage.  To briefly summarize, women in the workplace face numerous, empirically documented barriers:

· While women are more likely to have mentors, men are more likely to have organizational sponsors, people who not only provide advice but actually advocate on behalf of their careers;

· Research by social psychologist Brenda Major and others shows that women, even when they have data on market wages, often believe that they deserve less money and are reluctant to push their salary demands;

· Lists of adjectives describing men, women and leaders customarily show greater overlap between the characteristics typically ascribed to men and those ascribed to leaders;

· Because leadership traits such as decisiveness (and behavior that results in the conferral of more status and power, such as anger) are typically seen as male, women face what Catalyst and others refer to as a double bind:  If they act as leaders, they are seen as violating gender-role expectations;  if they act in ways consistent with the female traits, they are not seen as leaders;

· Although both women and men are uncomfortable with some aspects of power and the actions required to achieve it, women in general are more uncomfortable with power-seeking behaviors such as self-promotion and networking than are men, and are more likely to believe that the world is a just and fair place and therefore they can succeed simply on the basis of their work;

· Research shows that women are typically less forceful negotiators, beginning with lower goals and being more willing to compromise to reach agreement;

· Women (and men) suffer if they interrupt their career and temporarily drop out of the labor force, but women are more likely than men to drop out of the workforce for family responsibility reasons;

· Men with children tend to earn more;  women with children tend to earn less, and there is a greater "marriage penalty" in salaries for women;

· Women work fewer hours than men, on average, and ‘hours worked’ has been shown to affect income and career progress;

· Compared to other industrialized countries, the U.S. has less family-friendly labor policies, resulting in the fact that the proportion of college-educated women of working age in the labor force is lower in the U.S. than in any other advanced industrialized economy.

As the forgoing list indicates, women face myriad barriers to achieving career parity with men and recent data show that women's progress has plateaued.  Litigation addresses only some, and possibly not even the most important, of the obstacles.  Which is not to say that we shouldn't enforce laws that punish discrimination, but that such efforts by themselves won't remedy the absence of parity in the labor market.

Jeffrey Pfeffer  | Mar 29, 2011 1:21 PM

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