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Decades of research point to why women are stalling out in their careers — here’s how it plays out in real-life scenarios. One woman had a job offer rescinded after trying to negotiate a higher salary: ‘It was the most painful experience,’ she says

1. Women are penalized for having children

An influential study of parents in Denmark found that women with children will earn about 20 per cent less than men over the course of their careers. Men’s earnings, meanwhile, are “essentially unaffected” by fatherhood. Another study, which followed the careers of MBA students from the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, found that 15 years after graduation, the women were earning dramatically less, largely owing to job interruptions and shorter work hours associated with children. And a joint study by researchers at Princeton University and Lawrence University found that people are less interested in hiring and promoting working mothers, and are more likely to view them as “capable, but also as overly ambitious and antisocial” – a perception that harms their advancement opportunities.

Personal experience: ANONYMOUS

During the early days of the pandemic, when schools were closed and everyone was ordered to work from home, a senior manager with one of Canada’s Big Five banks was left juggling a crushing workload while caring for her two young children. Though she worked well into the night, she inevitably missed the occasional video meeting. One day, her boss told her she should consider taking an unpaid leave, lest her divided attention be reflected on a forthcoming performance review. The threat was implied: One bad review would follow her around for years, and dim her prospects for future raises and promotions. Her boss asked why her husband couldn’t take over during the day.

That simply wasn’t an option. Her husband, she says, earns $1.70 for every dollar she earns. (It should be noted that early on in their careers, they were making within $5,000 of one another.) “There is no decision to make when it comes to who is going to drop off kids or attend appointments, or who is going to be taking the unpaid leave during COVID, because without his salary, we couldn’t pay our mortgage,” the executive says. Ultimately, she ended up stepping back from her job – and can think of half a dozen female colleagues who have made the same decision.

2. Even success can hurt women at work

Researchers at New York University and Columbia University conducted a series of experiments to measure how a woman’s success in a typically male role is perceived. The results showed that successful women were less liked. And if they appeared openly proud of their accomplishments, other research has shown they can face a backlash – even though confidence is valued in leaders.

3. Societal expectations around leadership and femininity don’t mix

Decades of studies have shown that the same traits valued in men and seen as synonymous with leadership – self-assurance, assertiveness, ambition – are read as negative when exhibited by women. “It’s a double bind,” says Wendy Cukier, director of Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute. “If a woman is empathetic, warm and gracious, she may be judged as not being enough like a leader. And if she’s assertive, confident and demanding, she’ll be judged as not being nice enough.” Men, meanwhile, are seen as default leaders: When asked to draw a picture of a leader, both men and women are more likely to sketch a man.

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Dr. Noni MacDonald was paid half of what her male colleague was making, despite having stronger qualifications. “When I took the job, I didn’t know enough to ask. I thought I’d be treated like everyone else.”Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Personal experience: DR. NONI MACDONALD

A lauded pediatrician and infectious disease doctor, Noni MacDonald got her first big job in Ottawa in the early 1980s, at the start of the HIV epidemic. Around the same time, the university hired a male pediatrician in the same department. With her additional speciality in infectious diseases, she had more qualifications, more responsibility and a more demanding schedule – yet she was being paid half of what her male colleague was making, a fact that was only pointed out to her a few years later by a new boss.

Four decades on, it still infuriates her. “When I took the job, I didn’t know enough to ask,” Dr. MacDonald says. “I thought I’d be treated like everyone else.”

In 1999, Dalhousie University named her dean of medicine – the first woman in Canada to ever hold the position. “Despite having medical schools with more than 50 per cent women for more than 20 years, and having significant numbers of female faculty in every medical school across the country, we’ve still only had half a dozen women who are deans of medicine,” she says. “It’s astounding.”

4. Women are judged more harshly

The workplace is more forgiving to men. Female chief executives are 45 per cent more likely than male CEOs to be fired. In finance, female financial advisers who have made mistakes are 20 per cent more likely to be let go. (The same study found racial minorities also face harsher penalties for misconduct.) This “gender punishment gap” was less severe at companies with more female managers. A study out of Harvard found that female surgeons who have lost a patient will see their referrals drop by 34 per cent, but male surgeons in the same situation see no long-term decline. Black women in particular have been found to be judged more harshly when they fail, compared with white women and Black men.

5. Women are damned if they do, damned if they don’t

It’s an oft-cited explanation for the gender wage gap: Women are less inclined to negotiate, they accept lower starting salaries and fail to ask for raises at the same rate as men. But a study from researchers in Britain and United States (titled “Do Women Ask?”) found that women are actually just as likely as men to ask for raises – they just don’t get them as often. Moreover, women can pay a price for advocating for themselves. Numerous studies – notably from Hannah Riley Bowles at the Harvard Kennedy School – have found that women are judged more negatively when they try to negotiate salary.

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Janelle Benjamin accepted a new job in the not-for-profit sector, only to have the offer rescinded when she tried to negotiate a higher salary.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Personal experience: JANELLE BENJAMIN

Janelle Benjamin was on the cusp of landing her dream job, as a director with a not-for-profit whose mission was close to her heart. It’d be a step up from her previous job, and as a bonus, the office was just a 10-minute drive from home, meaning she’d be working close to her children’s school. She accepted, but pushed for a 4-per-cent bump in salary – still below the range listed in the job posting. Initially, the employer’s response was positive. But just before she was set to attend a stakeholder meeting, Ms. Benjamin received an e-mail rescinding the offer. “We have come to the conclusion that it would be better for you to pursue other employment opportunities, in particular ones which may be able to match your expectations surrounding compensation,” the e-mail read.

“It was the most painful experience,” says Ms. Benjamin, who is Black and has been battling discrimination on two fronts throughout her career. She has since started her own consulting firm, All Things Equitable, dedicated to workplace diversity, inclusion and equity.

6. Everything becomes harder when other measures of diversity are layered on

Women of colour, those with disabilities and LGBTQ women face additional biases that make it even harder to achieve parity. A 2020 report from and McKinsey & Co. in the U.S. concluded that for every 100 men who were promoted to manager, only 85 women moved up, too. For Black and Latina women, the numbers were far grimmer: just 58 Black and 71 Latina women reached the management level for every 100 men. Employees with disabilities are less likely than their peers to have given a speech or presentation at work, chaired a meeting or be involved in decision-making. Research has shown that women who are perceived to belong to the LGBTQ community have a harder time getting hired in the first place.

7. The current system hurts men, too

Men who stray from traditional masculine stereotypes can be penalized for it. Those who appear supportive, warm and caring have been found to make less money than their other male peers. Male leaders who ask for help are viewed as less competent within their organizations, but women face no such penalty. Research has shown “nice” men are thought to be less suitable for management jobs. And employers also appear to take a harsher view of men who opt to stay home to care for children compared with women who have done the same.

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