The Lesser-Known Career Barriers That Women Face

Sexual harassment is not the only barrier women face in the workplace.
The Lesser-Known Career Barriers That Women Face
Image credit: Johannes Mann | Getty Images
Guest Writer
7 min read
This story originally appeared on Career Contessa

There’s nothing quite like a massive workplace harassment scandal to get me feeling fired up about how women are treated in the workplace.

Related: Everything Women Need to Know About Asking for a Raise

The sexual harassment scandals that have rocked our government and the entertainment industry as of late -- quick shout out to the amazing work TIME'S UP is doing to help stop sexual harassment in Hollywood -- are, unfortunately, a problem in every industry and job type. I, for one, have been sexually harassed at work -- on multiple occasions. As, I’m sure, many of you who are reading this article right now.

But here’s the thing -- sexual harassment is not the only barrier women face in the workplace. And not by a long shot. Let’s discuss some of the ways women have to work harder than men in our careers.

Negotiation struggles

Here’s a really fun (or horrible) fact for you: Men are three times more successful than women at negotiating higher pay, according to a Glassdoor survey. Among U.S. employees, 15 percent of men reported their salary negotiations resulted in more money, compared to just 4 percent of women. So, why do women’s negotiation efforts have a lower success rate? It all comes down to perception.

Hannah Riley Bowles, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the director of the Women and Power program, studied gender effects on negotiation through laboratory studies, case studies and extensive interviews with executives and employees in diverse fields. In four studies, Bowles and collaborators from Carnegie Mellon found that women who initiated negotiations for higher compensation were penalized more than men.

Attempting to negotiate can make anyone seem less nice, Bowles repeatedly found. And men can also be perceived in a negative light for negotiating, but it’s only women who subsequently suffer a penalty. People reported that they would be less inclined to work with someone who pushed for a higher salary. Hiring managers, can we all please agree to stop thinking this way?

The marriage penalty

While marrying someone with a higher income than you might seem like an added bonus to finding true love, it could actually affect how much you are paid. But, of course, only if you are a woman. Economists Marianne Bertrand, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz tracked the earnings of male and female University of Chicago MBAs from 1990 to 2000 and found that women who married lower-earning men experienced less of an income drop after having children than those married to men who earned the same as them or more.

Related: The Financial Vocabulary Every Money-Savvy Woman Needs

Family care

Surely it comes as no surprise that women’s careers can be negatively impacted by having children. And, actually, even just at the thought that they may have children one day. Fair? Not at all. But, we know it happens. It turns out that having children is not the only way families affect working women. Your aging parents can also have a major effect on your career. 

There are currently 44 million unpaid eldercare providers in the United States according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And yes, the majority of those people are women. Working daughters often find they need to switch to a less demanding job, take time off or quit work in order to make time to care for their parents. As a result, women can suffer a loss of wages and risk losing job-related benefits such as health insurance, retirement savings and Social Security benefits. A study from MetLife and the National Alliance for Caregiving calculated women lose an average $324,044 in compensation due to caregiving. 

Even worse, caregiving tends to hit women in their mid-40s, which is dangerously close to the age when the job market starts to be more difficult for them to re-enter.

The boys club

An anonymous survey of female Capitol Hill staffers conducted by National Journal found that “several female aides reported that they have been barred from staffing their male bosses at evening events, driving alone with their congressman or senator, or even sitting down one-on-one in his office for fear that others would get the wrong impression.” This male fear of being alone with women equates to a lot of missed opportunities.

Research shows that this doesn’t only happen in politics. It’s a common practice in the business world as well.  A 2010 Harvard Business Review research report led by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the president of the Center for Work-Life Policy think tank, found that many men avoid being sponsors for women out of fear that their support will be misperceived as sexual interest. This report also found that 64 percent of executive men are reluctant to have one-on-one meetings with junior women. Considering there are more male executives in the workplace than women, we are left with significantly less support from our superiors than our male colleagues are.

Related: Why Working Women Need to Mentor Other Women

The effects of "attractiveness"

Cosmopolitan surveyed 2,235 female employees and found that one in three women have experienced sexual harassment at work. Not a huge shock, right? But, what we're not talking about is being penalized at work because you're "attractive."

One woman was fired from her job of 10 years because her boss found her too attractive. Even more shockingly, when they went to court, the judge found the employer innocent. The court ruled 7-0 that bosses can fire employees they see as an “irresistible attraction,” even if they have not engaged in flirtatious behavior or otherwise done anything wrong. Let that sink in for a minute. You can be fired simply because a supervisor is attracted to you.

If that’s not enough to get you fired up, do a quick Google search for “woman fired for being too attractive” and see what pops up. I thought I would find the story I was looking for right away, but it turns out this has happened plenty of other times.

Now, reverse the search and look for “man fired for being too attractive.” What do you get? Oh, that’s right -- more articles about women being fired, and none about men.

The good news

Yes, there is a little good news. In recent months, we have seen a shift in how we discuss and handle the career barriers women face. Talk of the wage gap, sexual harassment and maternity leave have taken over the news cycle and our social circles. Even the red carpet has become a platform for social change. And who needs a girls day at the spa when you can attend the Women's March together? We think fighting for what we believe in is much more cathartic.

This is, by no means, a comprehensive list of the unique barriers we face as women. Do you have another one? Feel free to rant in our comment section. We’re great listeners.

(By Jacqueline DeMarco)

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