Amid a wave of sexual harassment allegations against high-profile men, a reckoning would seem to be coming to the workplace, as women speak out about unwanted advances or inappropriate behavior, employers respond with more training and policies, and prominent men are shown the door following misconduct complaints.
Yet a new analysis released Thursday by the Pew Research Center serves as a reminder that the inequities women face at work are driven not only by such obvious forms of harassment but by so many other forms of discrimination, including lower pay, being treated as less competent and repeated, small slights in office conversations.
In a survey of 4,702 adults employed at least part-time, 42 percent of working women said they have faced one of eight types of discrimination on the job because of their gender. The biggest gap had to do with money: Twenty-five percent of women said they've earned less than a man doing the same job, while just 5 percent of men said they've experienced that. Twenty-three percent of women said they were treated as if they were not competent, compared with just 6 percent of men.
The survey was conducted this summer, before the Harvey Weinstein news broke and the #MeToo movement catapulted into the public conversation.
"What’s important about these findings is that while there’s been a lot of talk about sexual harassment at work, that is tied to a broader conversation Americans are having about equity in the workplace," said Cary Funk, one of the report's co-authors and the director of science and society research at the Pew Research Center. "And they remind us that discrimination at work can encompass a wide array of behaviors."
The writer Rebecca Traister addressed the issue in a recent article. Regarding the deluge of headlines and stories about sexual harassment, she wrote that it's important to remember that although sexual harassment is a crime, it is also a form of discrimination, and the broader inequality issue is what still needs to be reckoned with.
"It's possible that we're missing the bigger picture altogether: that this is not, at its heart, about sex at all — or at least not wholly," she wrote. "What it's really about is work, and women's equality in the workplace, and more broadly, about the rot at the core of our power structures that makes it harder for women to do work because the whole thing is tipped toward men."
One of the most notable findings in Pew's report was that the biggest demographic differences among women in the discrimination they faced had to do with their level of education. Fifty-seven percent of those with postgraduate degrees, for instance, said they had experienced some form of gender discrimination at work, compared with just 40 percent of those with a bachelor's degree and 39 percent who did not complete college.
Women with postgraduate degrees were also far more likely than their peers with less education to say they earned less, that they were treated as incompetent or that they got less support from senior leaders than a man. Twenty-nine percent of women with postgraduate degrees said they experienced repeated, small slights at work, compared with just 12 percent of women with some college or less.
One reason women with higher levels of education may face more discrimination could be that they often work in industries or at levels in an organization that have traditionally been male-dominated, such as law, medicine or in the executive ranks of companies, said Brande Stellings, who leads advisory services for Catalyst, a research and consulting organization focused on women in leadership.
Stellings, who had not seen Pew's research, said that in general, "a woman leader is still often seen as an exception. When you have that kind of power imbalance and if you're also challenging the norms and traditions, that can be more threatening and more of a lightning rod."
There is also more competition for such jobs, which could lead women to be seen as more of a threat to their male peers, leading to more discrimination. An article in the New York Times this summer examined, for instance, why more women weren't chief executives, suggesting that it is not a "pipeline problem" of grooming more women into the management ranks but due to competition and "deeply rooted barriers." As one high-profile recruiter put it in the article: "Ultimately at the top of an organization there are fewer and fewer spots, and if you can eliminate an entire class of people, it makes it easier.”
In a separate question, Pew's survey asked women how often they had been the target of sexual harassment at work. Three times as many women as men (22 percent vs. 7 percent) said they had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. That number is less than the ones reported in some other recent surveys, which may be the result of timing — the Pew survey was fielded in the summer, before the recent deluge of allegations — or the wording of the question.
An ABC News/Washington Post survey conducted in mid-October, for instance, found that 54 percent of women said they were the recipient of unwanted sexual advances, but just 30 percent said this had happened to them at work, closer to Pew's figure. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll conducted in mid-November, meanwhile, found that 35 percent of women said they had experienced sexual harassment or abuse at work.