A few days back, I received a message on LinkedIn from a popular tech magazine editor:
“I invite you to join my network and have a mentor. I like to help young professionals. If you want to try publishing on tech topics, I’ll consider your work for our website.”
“Thank you very much. Will definitely consider”, I gleefully replied.
She continued, “You strike me as a rising star. We need to shine light on the stars.”
I thanked her again.
She further added (this time with a serious undertone) – “The more we write, the better we communicate. I wish I had been encouraged to write more when I was younger. It really helped my career and women must get all the help possible. My generation could not fix the pay gap, so your generation will have to be the one to make that difference…”
That one statement hit me hard. It got me to renew my attention towards the topic of gender workplace bias. While many (mostly men) would argue that sexism doesn’t exist in this day and age, modern gender workplace bias has actually become way too subtle, so much so that it can seem like no problem at all!
Not so long ago, overt gender bias was a perfectly acceptable phenomenon. That sort of in-your-face sexism is much rarer in today’s environment, though it’s only driven away by fear of a lawsuit. But disappearance of explicit sexism can give a false illusion that it no longer exists. However, in reality, contemporary workplace sexism can spring in many subtle manifestations.
I have seen a few companies priding themselves on having a high women representation. But one close look, and you’ll find a highly unbalanced organization chart. Women would be usually concentrated in traditionally female centric fields like human resources or public relations, and would generally be sparse in, say IT or Finance! While most of these corporates seem to have initiatives in place to provide an even playing ground for both, full inclusion still seems to be a faraway goal.
It is not uncommon to see men routinely moving into positions of higher responsibility, while equally capable women are often channeled into support roles. Even where men and women hold same designations, men are often invariably chosen for high-visibility projects. Though usually both men and women start with equal pay cheques, women gradually lose out on the race over the years. Only a miniscule percentage of women actually make it to the top.
Why does this still continue to happen, year after year?
From how I see it, it is a cumulative result of the outdated norms, irrational biases, stereotypes and generally lowered expectations from women. Even with existence of policies to address gender gap issues, many mid level managers often find it easy to circumvent them – they can successfully camouflage the bias by dismissing women on grounds of incompetence (unable to work in shifts, unable to travel to certain countries, etc.). On the face of it, these reasons seem perfectly justified from an organization’s perspective. The cost of ensuring safety for women in such situations far outweighs the benefits of selecting them for the plum job, just to prove a point.
Agreed, sometimes it is rational to choose men over women. But such cases and policies should be made clear to the women right at the outset (at the time of hiring itself). Oftentimes, women discover such clauses after putting in many months of hard work into the project, only to find men getting ahead due to factors beyond their control.
Therein comes my most important point – Equal DOES NOT mean Identical! There are many meaningful differences between males and females, which are indeed the source of all existing gender gaps. Equality is the wrong term to use, because males and females can’t be equal if they are different.
Gender equality does not mean that males and females must always be treated the same. Given the existence of biological differences, it is only reasonable to have different legal rights for each gender. For example, only females can ever require maternity leave. In such cases, what is actually required is not equal, but equitable treatment. Equity means recognizing that differences in ability mean that fairness often requires treating people differently so that they can achieve the same outcome.