Gender Bias—Past Is Present

Gender bias in the workplace, defined as forms of discrimination against women that reflect the values and mind-sets of the men who created the settings and practices, is a deeply ingrained part of our culture. While many of these gender-biased mind-sets and practices are changing, Marisa Porges, writing for the New York Times, points out many interesting ways that the legacies of gender bias from the past are still impacting the present:

  • NASA didn’t have enough space suits that fit female astronauts. Only a few days before the much-publicized first all-female spacewalk was to take place in April 2019, it had to be canceled because of the lack of space suits that fit women.
  • Two years after Porges began flying jets for the navy, somebody noticed that the ejection seat on her jet was not designed for her five-foot-two-inch female frame. It had been designed and tested by and for only men, which increased the risk of major injury for a woman if she needed the safety equipment.

The legacies of gender discrimination are also present in small ways that affect the daily lives and careers of women. Porges notes that while women face many systemic barriers, such as wage gaps, family leave policies, and blocked career pipelines for women in underrepresented fields, the small legacies are also significant:

  • Lack of adequate lactation rooms in most office buildings
  • Antiquated office dress codes that require female employees to wear high heels
  • The size of safety gear available for female astronauts
  • Temperature settings in most workplaces, which are calibrated to men’s metabolic rates and are too cold for women

While Porges focuses on legacies of past gender discrimination reverberating in the present, new sources of gender discrimination are also concerning. Megan Specia writes about the broad gender disparities in the technology and artificial intelligence (AI) sectors, noted as problematic in a new Unesco study released in conjunction with the government of Germany and the Equal Skills Coalition. Specia reports that women are grossly underrepresented in AI, making up 12 percent of AI researchers and 6 percent of software developers in the field. The Unesco study states that “a lack of diversity within the industry . . . is reinforcing problematic gender stereotypes.” The report states several alarming examples:

  • Most virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa have female names, female voices, and often a submissive or flirtatious style. They also often have a “deflecting, lackluster or apologetic response” to insults, which provides a powerful illustration of gender biases coded into technology products.
  • Gender and racial biases have also been built into sexist hiring tools developed by Amazon and facial recognition technology that misidentifies black faces.

The report points out that “the more that [technology-enforced] culture teaches people to equate women with assistants, the more real women will be seen as assistants—and penalized for not being assistant-like.”

The absence of diversity in engineering teams that are overwhelmingly staffed by men means that gender bias continues to be perpetuated. Our whole culture needs to change and confront the multilayered problem.

 

Photo by Diego Gavilanez on Unsplash

Why Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Is So Difficult to Stop

Susan Fowler, writing for the New York Times, notes that it is now abundantly clear that sexual harassment is pervasive in every industry. While getting rid of it will not be easy, we now know some facts that will help:

  • We have to stop the practice of forced arbitration as a condition of employment. Forced arbitration takes away our rights to sue in court and can legally bind us to keep silent about what has happened to us. A recent Supreme Court decision confirming that employers can continue this practice means that we need new federal legislation to make this change.
  • We need legislation at the state and federal levels to protect employees.
    • Some progress has been made at the state level in Washington state and California.
    • We need much more progress at the federal level, including new legislation to eliminate forced arbitration as a condition of employment.
Jodi Kantor of the New York Times notes that there exists “giant holes in the federal laws meant to protect women from harassment.” These can come in several different forms:
  • Existing law only covers workplaces with fifteen or more employees.
  • Federal statutes of limitations for filing a claim can be as short as 180 days.
  • Damages can be capped at $300,000.
Kantor goes on to explain that harassment has flourished partly because structures intended to address it or protect against it are missing or broken:
  • Weak laws fail to protect women.
  • Corporate policies and procedures protect the company but not the employees.
  • Secret settlements protect offenders and keep patterns of abuse out of the public eye.
  • Human resources departments focus on protecting organizations from legal liability rather than protecting employees.
  • No consensus exists on how to report a repeat offender who goes from job to job or to address more minor infractions with measures short of suspension or firing.
  • Low wage workers are now more willing to speak up about sexual harassment, but it’s not clear who they should tell.
Even some of the most powerful women in the United States have so far been unable to get protections for congressional staff. All twenty-two female members of the Senate—Republican and Democrat—have pushed for an overhaul of the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, which provides more protection for members of Congress who are accused of sexual harassment than it does for the victims. #MeToo and #TimesUp are important movements to keep the pressure on for change. We must support and vote for candidates in the upcoming elections, at the state and federal levels, who are committed to passing legislation to protect women. Support candidates who support women.   Photo courtesy of Phil Roeder (CC BY 2.0)]]>

The Women of Nike Force Change

The women of Nike, the sportswear company, got tired of their complaints to human resources about sexual harassment and discrimination falling on deaf ears. The women experienced retribution for filing complaints, and several high-level women left the company, sharing that they left because of frustration with the toxic company culture that they could not influence. So the women of Nike took matters into their own hands—and the public saw another example of employees bringing about change that would not have happened otherwise. Julie Creswell, Kevin Draper, and Rachel Abrams, writing for the New York Times, report that after years of complaining to human resources and seeing no evidence of change or accountability for bad behavior within the company, a group of women decided to covertly survey their female peers, “inquiring whether they had been the victim of sexual harassment and gender discrimination.” Those who had a complaint or a story to tell completed a questionnaire, sharing shocking and frustrating anecdotes:

  • Explanations from several high-level women about why they had exited the company, including a pattern of watching men get promoted while equally or better qualified women were passed over.
  • A range of stories about demeaning behavior toward women, such as male superiors referring to women using a vulgar term for women’s genitals or being called a “stupid bitch” by a boss.
  • Stories of women being excluded from the inner circle of mostly male decision makers.
  • Examples of a culture belittling to women where male supervisors openly discussed their favorite strip clubs during work outings.
  • The story of a senior manager who mentioned a female employee’s breasts in an email to her.
  • The story of a manager who kept magazines on his desk with scantily clad women on the cover and bragged about his supply of condoms.
In most of the examples above, the women recounted going to human resources to file a complaint or ask for action to punish the offender. More often than not, human resource managers told these women that they were wrong or that corrective action would be taken—but it never was. In some cases after a complaint was filed, the offender was promoted and the woman complaining was laid off. Finally, when the package of completed questionnaires was put on the desk of the CEO by the women, things started to change. Several top male executives exited over the next few weeks, including the head of diversity and inclusion, and the exits are continuing. A major overhaul is taking place of the human resources processes and internal systems for reporting sexual harassment and discrimination. Nike is a huge company but huge companies can change quickly if the right kind of pressure is applied from within and made public. And clearly, without pressure change does not happen. Thanks to the women of Nike for taking the risk to tell their stories.   Photo courtesy of perzon seo (CC BY 2.0)]]>

Women in China: Still Waiting for Equality

I have the good fortune to travel to mainland China two or three times a year. As a practicing organization development consultant and trainer for more than thirty years, it is a thrill for me to share my knowledge and experience in China by teaching leadership and consulting skills workshops to Chinese professionals. I have been fascinated with China ever since I taught English there in the 1980s when the country was newly opened to Western tourism and commerce after being closed to the West for decades. I continue to marvel at the changes that the Chinese have accomplished since my first visit over thirty years ago. I have seen the country evolve from a backward Third World country to a First World global power. But, to my surprise, one thing that has not changed is discrimination against women in society and the workplace. In the 1980s my female Chinese students peppered me with questions about the Western Women’s Liberation Movement. They explained and complained that even though Mao taught that “women hold up half the sky,” women were not really equal in China. In fact, they explained, while women were expected to pursue careers and compete with men in the marketplace, women were also expected to assume sole responsibility for performing housework, raising children, and caring for elderly parents. The women were frustrated in the 1980s and wanted me to tell them how to start a women’s liberation movement in China. Now, fast-forward to today, and I regret to report that the women in my workshops in Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou still complain that women are expected to do it all while working—with little or no involvement from their male spouses. In addition, they face stereotypes and social norms that create other barriers for them. Helen Gao, writing for the New York Times, sheds light on present-day discrimination faced by Chinese women as follows:

  1. Social norms prescribe that the husband should provide the majority of the money for buying a home upon marriage and should also be the sole holder of the title. Gao reports that “a 2012 study found that 70 percent of brides or their families contributed to the purchase of a home, yet a woman’s name appeared on only 30 percent of the deeds.” The divorce rate in China has doubled in recent years, and Chinese women have no right to property if their name is not on the title.
  2. Widespread pregnancy discrimination exists in the workplace in China for women with no children or one child. The lifting of the one-child policy by the government, now allowing couples to have two children, means that women with none or one child have a hard time finding a job. Employers do not want to hire someone who might get pregnant.
  3. The aging of the Chinese population also creates added responsibility for women. With few services provided by the government and no siblings to help with aging parents because of the one-child policy, Goa explains that “wives are often expected to care for their own parents as well as their husbands’,” while working full time.
  4. Unmarried women are stigmatized and often have difficulty finding a job. Because they are unmarried, even if they are divorced, especially if they are thirty or older, they are considered to have “severe personality flaws” or “psychological issues” that make them undesirable hires. The social pressure to be normal by being married and having at least one child is enormous for women.
While some limited public discussion of these issues has begun on social media, and some women are meeting privately in “lean-in” circles, Gao reports that a recent public protest over sexual harassment on public transportation by women’s rights activists was met with “a ruthless state crackdown.” It is still quite dangerous for women to hold public protests to speak out about women’s issues. The women I meet in my workshops are strong and frustrated about the load they must carry and the barriers they face. Perhaps one day they will be able to get their voices heard. Let’s hope it will be soon.   Photo Credit: By Steve Evans from Citizen of the World – China, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25845033    ]]>