By Marcelina Horrillo Husillos, Journalist and Correspondent at The Business European Review
As we celebrate International Women’s Day in 2023, this article explores the incredible achievements of trailblazing women in the workplace and the ongoing challenges they face in the fight for true gender equality.
Trailblazing women of the 21st century are expected to have the strength to fall and rebuild themselves an unlimited number of times—to infinity. Challenging the male-dominant structure means putting enormous amounts of energy and self-awareness into identifying the constant threats, which often take a toll on their health and well-being. In the search for identity, women struggle to discern their own voices.
Women often pay high prices for their career and personal advancement, having to constantly prove themselves, compromise their goals, and endure enormous pressure to justify their choices.
Around the globe, women exercising or seeking their basic rights is interpreted as a destabilizing challenge to existing power structures. Even more disconcerting, is that often women can cause unfair competition against their female partners, instead of supporting their success. Such competition can lead to toxic work environments that put at risk the fundamentals of gender equality. Below are some of the biggest challenges that women face in the workplace:
Breaking the glass ceiling
Women are often deemed ‘incompetent’, and are frequently not given the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and skills, and overall to prove themselves. According to McKinsey & Company, for every 100 men promoted to managerial positions, only 85 women are promoted.
Despite that, in the UK women at work act and gender equality in the workplace became law in 1970, gender and racial discrimination are still prevalent in the workplace. In a survey by Essence magazine, 45% of Black women in the United States reported that the workplace is one of the most frequent places where they experience racism. McKinsey and LeanIn’s ‘Women in the Workplace’ report found that ethnic women experienced microaggressions at the same frequency as two years before–indicating that not much has changed despite increased awareness of these issues.
“Inclusion of women and girls in free movement, educational, personal and economic growth opportunities significantly improve the economic prospects of the whole society. It is a known fact in economics that female education directly impacts the future of any group or nation, notably its economic growth, democracy, and equity.” Lucia Waldner, CEO of Family Office at CC Trust Group.
“There is still much work to be done to promote gender equality and increase the representation of women in leadership roles across a range of industries and sectors. However, with continued advocacy and effort, we can make progress toward a more equitable and inclusive society for all.” Jessica Wong, Founder and CEO of Valux Digital.
Patronizing treatment undermines women’s actions and goals, and results in the perception that strong, intelligent women represent a problem—a disruption of the social order rather than an integral part of it.
While there is no denying that poverty, geography, and other factors contribute to gender disparities in education, the patriarchal system justifies this denial of opportunity. Male-dominated societies/systems perpetuate the message that men should wield power, and women should occupy subordinate positions in society. This outdated, yet persistent, point of view fuels educational inequality, and gender inequality on national and international levels.
“Women aiming for leadership roles have to understand this: The only one that can best serve you is yourself. Once you start thinking like this, you’ll start fighting for the role you deserve. Your intuition won’t fail you and you shouldn’t wait either for the offer to come. Go get it.” Olga Orekhvo, Chief Operating Officer at CompatibL
Biased office atmosphere
The Pygmalion Effect describes bias towards gender, race, nationality, and personal traits, affecting how individuals are treated by co-workers. Bias can also impact self-perception.
For instance, a boss may expect a Black female employee to continuously engage in “learning activities” that are not necessarily required for White, male employees. The drive behind the never-ending “self-improvement” courses reflects a latent prejudice that requires women of color to prove themselves over and over again, a move that destabilizes and questions their professionalism and competence. Of course, leaders have power over employees (including the power to fire an employee), and, thus, behaviour change in employees may be the result of that power differential.
“Challenges emanate from gender differences in the education system which have been systemic for many years. Self-perception is another holding back for females wanting to satisfy all of the competencies when developing a job.” Karen Smart, Head of Consultancy at AoEC
In the workplace, women often have to prove their competence twice as much to get half as far as men, and the continuous search for respect and professional recognition can take its toll on women’s health, causing them to suffer from anxiety, depression, chronic anger, and burnout.
The dismissive attitudes and aggressions women often suffer in the workplace erode their motivation and confidence. A study notes that women who experience microaggressions are more likely to have negative feelings about their careers and be impacted by burnout.
“Women tend to be multitaskers naturally, so they can handle a large workload. But just because we are more willing to take on more than one task at a time doesn’t mean it’s healthy for us to do so. You need to recognize where your threshold is and set boundaries.” Mary Elizabeth Elkordy, CEO of Elkordy Global Strategies
The grooming gap
There are expectations for men, but also from women, regarding women’s grooming and appearance. Women are expected to look a certain way to be considered ‘polished’, ‘professional’, and ‘competent’ in order to do their job. As a result, the respect and attention received from others in the workplace, and beyond, becomes tied to appearance.
Unsurprisingly, research has found that people who thought women could achieve equality with men were also more likely to believe that women should spend more time on appearance. For female workers, ignoring these beauty expectations could be damaging to their careers and will block them from achieving equality / defying these double standards.
“Women will tell you they walk taller when they feel good about their physical appearance, a good haircut, some good heels, etc. That being said, men don’t seem to need good heels to walk taller.” Sallyann Della Casa, Founder and CEO of Gleac
Women progressing in their careers and achieving their professional and lifetime objectives may face backlash from partners. This often manifests as sarcasm, passive-aggression, discouragement, bullying, and guilt-tripping.
Female-on-female harassment is often created by sex segregation and discrimination in the workplace and falls under the coverage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Claire Barnett, executive director of UN Women UK, said: “This is a human rights crisis. It’s just not enough for us to keep saying ‘this is too difficult a problem for us to solve’ — it needs addressing now.”
“Firstly, in the home, by treating their wives with the utmost respect and being supportive of their careers, equally sharing the burden of childcare, housework and caring for elderly parents. Secondly, by building the confidence of their daughters and by setting a good example to their sons. Finally, by not discriminating against or harassing women in the workplace and judging them based on their skills and experience.” Christina Massaad, Co-Founder and Non-Executive Director of Cedar Rose, on how men can be facilitators for women aiming to achieve positions as leaders.
Being talked over
You start making a point during a meeting only to be interrupted halfway through, talked over, and have your idea handed back to you and presented as the culprit’s suggestion.
As Jessica Preece, associate professor in political science at BYU, told BYU Magazine, being interrupted whilst speaking is a systematic behavior that stems from the person who is interrupted being viewed as a less authoritative and influential figure. Preece explains that this behavior is not necessarily intentional. Rather, this dynamic is often the result of cultural and gendered messages that affect people’s perceptions of social engagement.
On average, women get interrupted 50% of the time in meetings; and 38% have experienced others taking credit for their ideas, according to McKinsey and LeanIn’s ‘Women in the Workplace’ report. Another study also suggests that women are 33% more likely to be interrupted when speaking.
Stigma around motherhood choices
In today’s workplaces, there is a often stigma based on women’s personal motherhood and lifestyle choices which leads to sexist treatments based on ideal models and expectations about women’s roles.
Scotland’s Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon recently told The Guardian that there’s the assumption that a working woman like herself is seen as a ‘cold-hearted b***h’ for prioritizing her career over having kids.
“I felt ashamed as if I was selfish and cruel for putting my own future first – withholding the joy of a baby for the rest of my family to focus on living my life first. Yeah, we can play the whole ‘oh, it’s a generational thing’ card but it’s just plain rude if you ask me. Instead, I think it’s a blatant, sexist intrusion of privacy”, expressed Nicola Sturgeon.
Women’s Day 2023 is a call for responsibility and a reminder that 21st-century societies should work to expand human rights, social freedoms, and women’s personal choices, without having to go through barriers based on judgments, prejudices, and narrowmindedness.
Women’s and men’s professional and personal development is still constrained by bias and backward practices, which reflect in the social and work spaces, jeopardizing society’s growth.
As we live in an interconnected world, gender equality isn’t “just a women’s issue”; it affects everyone.. Discrimination isn’t “just a problem suffered by the person upon whom this it is inflicted, and being undermined isn’t ”just a personal problem”, but an issue that if not addressed properly, will lead to more toxicity.
The business world is tasked with the corporate responsibility of a human rights watchdog. It should be persistent in leading the path toward a discrimination-free environment, which will create and build a progressive, gender-equal society.
“Leave your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to push boundaries and seek advice from those around you. I’ve worked with a number of strong female executives, and all of them are constantly creating opportunities. And the successful ones are motivating their team and peers to do the same.” Haleigh Singer, Associate Director at Daversa Partners.