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When Amy Diehl and Leanne Dzubinski met at a conference on gender equality they discovered their research in, respectively, higher education and faith-based non-profits, dovetailed. They decided to collaborate, extending their research into other work sectors, trying to understand what they call “the complex and insidious phenomenon of gender bias.” They found the myriad issues women face in the workplace could be narrowed down to six core barriers.

“These barriers are more than a glass ceiling – they are glass walls surrounding women. No matter which way a woman turns, the ever-present but invisible barriers impeded her,” Ms. Diehl, a consultant, and Prof. Dzubinski, of Biola University, write in Glass Walls.

They argue that gender bias is a systemic issue embedded in workplace cultures that were created by men for men to suit their lifestyles and needs – but not women’s. As a result, women can’t fully contribute and are limited in their ability to reach positions of influence by these barriers:

  • Male privilege: Men have traditionally been the leaders of our organizations. They control the resources and set the cultural standards, assigning women to a second-class status. Many women who have risen to leadership positions learn this when someone unfamiliar with their role asks them to get coffee at a meeting or assume a male subordinate is heading their team – a situation the authors call “role incredulity.” Men are the gatekeepers, choosing who advances, elevating a few exceptional women who can find themselves admitted to what at times will seem like a boy’s club.
  • Disproportionate constraints: Women can find their career choices constrained, steered from childhood to stereotypically female jobs rather than male domains, and their voices muted, as their ideas are ignored or appropriated by male colleagues. The authors point to three new words that have recently entered the lexicon: Hepeating, bropropiating and mansplaining. Women are held to unequal standards, needing to be cautious when self-promoting, never seeming too authoritative and scrutinized for their fashion choices.
  • Insufficient support: Women find themselves lacking access to social structures and networks that would help them advance, from daycare and family leave to mentors and sponsors. They often are excluded from informal networks and social events in the organization and even formal leadership events. On the home front, they are handling a disproportionate amount of household activities and child care.
  • Devaluation: Women’s contributions in the workplace are often devalued or even ignored. They are expected to handle administrative tasks that don’t lead to promotions. They are compensated less than men for similar work and are often diminished through pet names, belittling and condescending remarks.
  • Hostility: This comes in four forms, the research showed: Discrimination when women are denied opportunities or equal pay; workplace harassment through verbal abuse, bullying, sabotage and sexual harassment; female hostility, when to protect themselves in a male work culture some women dislike, mistrust and act against other women; and retaliation, when employers punish them for reporting discrimination or harassment.
  • Acquiescence: When barriers are highly prevalent, women can accept them as valid, and adapt to the limitations. They take on the work-life responsibilities they face as their own individual responsibility, self-blame for the sexism they encounter, stay quiet about the harassment they face, and conclude they are not fit for advancement.

“The combination of barriers leads to emotional and career damage and stops women from reaching their full potential,” Ms. Diehl and Prof. Dzubinski conclude.

Andrea S. Kramer and Alton Harris, who have worked for the past three decades to remove gender inequality from the workplace, note that it stems from our shared cultural experience. “Gendered workplaces, therefore, reflect culture’s gendered nature,” they write in Beyond Bias. Countering it in the workplace will only come from changes in systems, processes and practices. They outline a four-step path:

  • Prioritize the elimination of exclusionary behaviours: The organizational culture must explicitly condemn exclusionary behaviours and empower individuals to interrupt such behaviours when they see them. That includes incivility, microaggressions, disregard and dismissal, subtle and not-so-subtle assertions of superiority, demeaning conduct, bullying, harassment and intimidation.
  • Adopt discrimination-resistant methods of personnel decision-making: “The subjective preconceptions, expectations and preferences of individual decision-makers need to be eliminated from formal personnel decisions so that the decisions can be made in fair, objective and transparent ways,” they write.
  • Treat inequality in the home as a workplace problem: While organizations cannot directly ameliorate home life inequality, they can try to limit its impact in their workplaces. That means acting to ensure women’s unequal responsibilities as homemakers and caregivers don’t reduce their career advancement opportunities.
  • Halt unequal performance reviews, career advice and leadership opportunities: Women and men must receive equally candid, constructive and action-oriented performance reviews; equally ambitious, supportive and future-oriented career advice; and equally frequent and valuable opportunities to exercise their leadership abilities and receive coaching, support and recognition when they do.

I’ve been immersed recently in the story of Rosalind Franklin, who in the 1950s played a pivotal role in discovering DNA’s double helix but was essentially erased from history, three men receiving the Nobel Prize. She was dismissed and belittled, encountering each of the six barriers described above, a story Marie Benedict captures in Her Hidden Genius. It’s part of a new genre of books – Hidden Female Figures – and a reminder that we have accepted this complex and insidious phenomenon of gender bias for too long. Time to act.


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Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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