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Not missing in action: the enduring penalty of ‘being female’

Whoa there, little lady: women in the workforce face a financial penalty for simply being female. Flickr/ Boston Public Library, CC BY-NC-ND

While many aspects of working life have changed in recent decades, the inequality of outcomes experienced by male and female employees has been remarkably resistant.

Within corporate Australia the proportion of female chief executives in ASX200 companies only increased from 1.3% in 2002 to 3.5% in 2012. Executive management positions held by women increased from 8% to 10% while, for board directors, the proportion increased from 8% to 12%. The stats get worse when looking at the full ASX500: only 2.4% of CEOs are women, and they fill just 9% of executive positions and company directorships.

The upper echelons of many organisations and companies continue to contain a preponderance of men, leading to a stagnation of workplace culture where traditional male breadwinner ideal - someone who can work long hours and will prioritise work over all other aspects of their life - are still expected and rewarded.

In Australia, the majority of caring and domestic responsibilities still fall upon the shoulders of women, making the reality of their lives somewhat incompatible with the expectations (and demands) of their employers. So, we have a catch-22 situation: changing workplace cultures to be more inclusive and accepting of the many women who are deemed to be “non-ideal” employees may only occur once there are more “non-ideal” employees in leadership positions, yet leadership roles are typically only conferred upon those individuals who conform to the work culture set by their employer.

This situation has prompted a number of feminists to push for mandatory quotas for women in leadership roles. This proposal, however, has very few supporters within corporate Australia, with the opposing argument typically that quotas would undermine the supposed meritocracy that currently exists.

Proponents of the “merit” argument would have us believe that the dearth of women in leadership roles is an accurate reflection of the proportion of “women of merit” in the workforce – that they aren’t just MIA (and easily locatable by a good search party), but rather they’ve willingly gone AWOL, choosing to work less hours, being less ambitious, failing to “lean in”, and so on.

I could expend many thousands of words refuting these “explanations” but I won’t – they are just part of the smokescreen that keeps us focused on the “faults” of the female workforce. To understand the continuing levels of disparity evident in Australian workplaces we need to scrutinise the institutional and societal structures that underpin the inequity. A good place to start is with an examination of the factors contributing to the gender wage gap.

Explaining the gender gap

Currently, the gender wage gap sits at 17.1%. This means that, on average, women earn 82.9 cents to every dollar earned by men for the same or equivalent work. At its narrowest, in 2005, the gap was 15.1%. Since then it has been widening, eroding progress to the point that the current gap is now larger than it was 20 years ago – in 1994 it was 16.2%.

The pay gap is at 17% and is widening. (AAP Image/NEWZULU/Peter Boyle

Common explanations for the gender wage gap include that, in comparison to men, women work in lower paid industries, work fewer hours, are less ambitious, less capable, less productive, less experienced, and take time out to have and raise children. These assertions are more fallacy than fact: the gender wage gap starts early, being evident right from the beginning of professional careers.

According to Graduate Careers Australia’s GradStats, in 2012 male university graduates were paid $5,000 a year more on average than females for their first job out of uni. When directly comparing within occupational categories (so differences cannot be considered a factor of the gender segmentation of industry), males earned more than their female peers in 57% of occupation categories (ranging from +$500 for agricultural sciences to +$14,400 for dentistry). There was parity for 13% of occupations (education, humanities and medicine) and females earned more in 30 per cent of occupations (ranging from +$500 for biological sciences to +$3,700 for earth sciences).

So, we have two graduates with no experience and the same qualifications, but the male gets paid $5,000 more on average than the female. This alone should dilute any support for the idea that the gap is simply circumstantial and not sexist. Further evidence is available from an extensive study completed in 2010 by the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling at the University of Canberra, The impact of a sustained gender wage gap on the Australian economy.

After accounting for differences in male and female work patterns and experience, qualifications and so on, the researchers found that 60% of the gender wage gap was due to “being female”. To be clear here, this means that most of the gap is not related to choice of occupation or sector of employment, having dependent children or a uni degree, or any other such variation. It’s just about being female. In their modelling, this “being female” penalty equated to a deficit of $3,394 a year on average.

The ‘being female’ penalty

Evidence of the “being female” penalty was also found by Juan Baron and Deborah Cobb-Clark, who investigated the gender wage gap using the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) data for 2001 to 2006. Overall, being female explained more than half of the gender wage gap for those working in the public service and a whopping 88–92 per cent of the gap for those working in private companies.

However, it is important to note that their analysis indicated that this “being female” penalty was only evident for higher-waged positions – the gap in lower paid jobs was wholly explained through factors such as the sector of employment and the labour history of the employee.

This is a different sort of “being female” penalty, where female dominated industries tend to be less valued than male dominated industries even though the work completed is of similar skill and difficulty, and where having children adversely impacts on the careers of female employees through fewer years in the workforce.

Focusing solely on those in higher-waged positions (namely, managers), Ian Watson, from Macquarie University, found similar results in his 2010 study, Decomposing the gender pay gap in the Australian managerial labour market.

This analysis of the 2001–2008 HILDA data, indicated that small proportions of the 27% wage gap found between female and male managers were related to factors such as women working fewer hours per week than men (3.3 hours less on average = $1,607 per year), having less experience (3.21 years less on average = $2,153 per year), and working in health and community sectors (= $550 less per year). However, 65–90% of the gender wage gap was explained by being female. The price tag attached to this bias was $12,899 per year.

Karen or Brian? The illusion of merit

Further evidence of the “being female” penalty is demonstrated in studies investigating decision-making around hiring and promotion. The most compelling of these studies use matched curriculum vitaes, which are identical in content, except for gender. A good example by Rhea Steinpreis and colleagues from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee involved the comparison of CVs for two job applicants who were going for their first job after completing graduate school.

The CVs, identical except for the applicant’s name (Karen Miller or Brian Miller), were distributed to 238 US psychology academics. Among other things, the academics were asked to assess the quality of the candidates’ work experience (teaching, research and service), and to state whether they felt the candidates should be hired. The study results showed that, irrespective of the gender of the participating academic, they were more likely to rate the male job candidate higher than the female candidate on each of the aspects of work experience assessed.

They were also more likely to recommend hiring the male candidate than the female candidate. So, to be explicit: two candidates with identical CVs achieved different outcomes. As the researchers concluded, “The present findings indicate that at the fledgling stages of the career of a young professional, gender is seen as an indicator of success”.

Rhea Steinpreis and her colleagues also compared candidates seeking tenure in a position they already held. Again, identical CVs were used, only the applicant’s name was different. The same academics were asked to assess the quality of the candidates in relation to their work experience and to state whether they felt the candidates should be given tenure. Unlike with the job applicants, the academics gave the male and female tenure candidates similar ratings and tenure recommendations – suggesting a reduced “being female” penalty.

The academics were, however, four times more likely to write what the researchers referred to as “cautionary comments” for the female candidates than for the male candidates. These comments included: “We would have to see her job talk”; “It is impossible to make such a judgment without teaching evaluations”; and, “I would need to see evidence that she had gotten these grants and publications on her own”.

The researchers concluded that: “Although it is unclear at what point the burgeoning record begins to speak for itself regardless of gender, it does seem clear that there comes a time when a scientist’s record becomes strong enough to outweigh the gender bias”. I would like to be able to agree with the conclusion, but I don’t think you can ignore the comments, which demonstrated clear bias.

Gender and perception

At their core, the comments indicate that more evidence of competence and achievement was required of the female than of the male candidate, suggesting that the woman was perceived as being less appropriate for the position than the man, even if they presented objectively equal. This gender double-standard for competency has been well documented in the research of Martha Foschi, who notes;

Experimental research provides clear evidence of stricter standards for women than for men when both perform at the same level and performance evaluations are objective – but can nevertheless be interpreted as either conclusive or inconclusive evidence of competence. Double standards provide the mechanism for those differences in interpretation.

As such, double standards applied to competency judgments act to prevent and/or hinder female entry and advancement in many occupations.

Foschi’s research on double standards frames the phenomenon around the status of being part of the “valued” or “devalued” group – in relation to gender, males and females, respectively. As such, the valued (male) group is not required to demonstrate as high a standard as the devalued (female) group on any attribute of interest because it is inferred that they are bestowed with the attribute to a greater extent, even though objective evidence does not support this inference. This aligns with Madeline Heilman’s Lack of Fit model which I believe explains the “being female” penalty in employment-related decisions.

Women in jobs perceived as ‘male’ are viewed as less likely to succeed. AAP/Image/Office of the Prime Minister

She doesn’t fit in

The Lack of Fit model posits that expectations of how well someone will perform in a position are driven by the perceived fit between the person’s attributes and the job’s requirements, where good perceived fit leads to expectations of success. On the surface, this sounds logical and sensible – the person who seems to best fit the job is expected to do well in it, and is therefore hired/promoted into it.

However, such judgments are affected by gender stereotyping, such as expectations about what women are like and how they should behave. Therefore, when a female applies for a job or a promotion into a position that has been traditionally seen as a “male” job, her perceived attributes don’t fit well with the male-type template of perceived job requirements.

She is therefore viewed as being less likely to succeed in such a position, leading to being less likely to be hired/promoted into it. Given that the vast majority of occupational roles, and leadership roles in particular, have been traditionally viewed as “male” jobs, this is where the “being female” penalty occurs. Thus, as per the double standards for competency, to get the job or promotion, she will have to demonstrate, indisputably, that she is more qualified and competent than a male would have to be to get the same job.

To test this model, Karen Lyness and Madeline Heilman examined two years’ worth of promotion decisions within archival data from a US organisation. They found that female managers in traditionally male parts of the organisation (business management, operations management and sales) were rated lower on performance indicators than female managers in traditionally female parts of the organisation (human resources, administration and external affairs) and males in both types of management areas.

Thus, females doing “female-type” work were not penalised because they were perceived to be a good fit when evaluated against a female template of job performance, while females performing “male-type” work were judged more harshly because they were perceived to be a poor fit with the male template of job performance. An additional finding of the study was that, overall, females had to receive higher job performance ratings to gain a promotion than did their male colleagues, indicating the competency double standard.

Ben versus Barbara and the price of violating gender sterotypes

According to Heilman, violations of the gender stereotypes influencing perceptions of job fit result in bias against successful women in the workplace. Specifically, because women who gain “male” jobs are not seen to be a good fit, they are expected to fail in such positions. When women succeed, they are in contravention of gendered expectations. This leads to a number of social sanctions, including the devaluation of their performance, the denying of credit for their successes, and being penalised for being competent. As I discuss each of these sanctions in more detail, take the time to reflect on the way successful women you know are treated in the workplace.

When women are achieving in a traditionally “male” position, their performance is first devalued. Heilman notes that this can take a number of forms. In one form, devaluing is evident when the same behaviour is judged differently if performed by a male or a female. For example, a man who spends time chatting to colleagues or clients is considered to be a good networker, while a woman who does the same is wasting time or “gossiping”.

Similarly, the man who speaks up and offers opposing views at meetings is seen as being an independent-thinker with leadership potential, while a woman who does the same is viewed as being difficult, disloyal, and as damaging collegiality. This type of devaluation extends to claims that an achievement by a female is actually not an achievement or was not actually that important or difficult to attain, when a similar achievement would be held in high regard if attained by a male. In all of these instances, the behaviour is valued when completed by a male, but not when completed by a female.

Devaluing of performance is also evident when a woman’s work is considered inferior to that of male colleagues when it is actually (objectively) of equal quality – as was evident in the study discussed above, where the same CV was used for male and female applicants but the “male” candidate was assessed more favourably. (An interesting example of this is reported by US neurobiologist Ben Barres, who was once told a colleague had commented, ‘Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s.’ The “sister” referred to was Barbara Barres; this was Ben’s name pre sex-reassignment surgery.)

A number of studies have shown that this type of devaluation occurs more often when there is some level of ambiguity around performance indicators, which is, unfortunately, the norm for many work roles. As such, devaluation of performance enables gender role stereotypes about competency to remain unchallenged.

Devaluation tends to be prevalent unless there is irrefutable evidence demonstrating the equivalence of the work performance or outputs. If, however, there is incontestable evidence that a woman is performing successfully in a traditionally “male” job, the next step is to deny her credit for her successes.

This type of sanctioning is evident in the comments about the female tenure candidate, particularly: “I would need to see evidence that she had gotten these grants and publications on her own.” Basically, the person making the judgment cannot deny that the female has been successful, but they can deny her credit for these successes by asserting that they are due to something other than the woman’s own abilities or efforts. This often takes the form of assuming (or asserting) that the woman had help from mentors or colleagues, she got a “lucky” break, “fluked” it, or had some sort of “special” treatment.

Any excuse really, as long as it means that the woman was not personally responsible for the success, because if she was actually successful in the “male” role this would challenge the stereotypical gender beliefs about competency held by the judge.

Denial of credit for successes often affects women hired or promoted through affirmative action or quota arrangements as well as those who have completed women-only training (such as women’s leadership courses). This is because it is easy to point to the “special help” the women have received and, thereby, maintain a belief that the women would not be succeeding without it. Women in this situation are plagued by the questioning of their legitimacy and competency in the positions they hold. This is in stark contrast to the treatment of men who are vouched for or assisted in other ways by mentors or “old-boy” networks.

She obviously didn’t do this on her own. Images sourced from Shutterstock

When a woman makes it to a point where her successes are conclusively based on her own abilities and efforts, she is accepted as being competent in performing a “male” position. But, because she has contravened the gender role stereotypes with her competency, she is held to be “different” from other women. This enables the maintenance of gender stereotypical beliefs in relation to other women.

Thus, while a particular woman may be judged successful and to have “broken through the glass ceiling”, this does not act to “shatter” the ceiling. Rather, each woman needs to break through on her own, and each that does so is similarly viewed as an exception to her gender. It is important to point out here that this belief – that successful women are different from other women in some meaningful way – can be held by both women and men.

However, the “otherness” of women who succeed in “male” jobs is part of the penalty they pay for their competence. It is evident in the derogatory treatment of these women, where they are called out on their lack of “femininity”, being described as cold, aggressive, ruthless, and unfeminine, and called a “bitch”, “ballbreaker”, “ice queen”, and worse. Tied in with this disparaging treatment, is another penalty for women who demonstrate competency: dislike. That is, women who succeed in “male” jobs are typically viewed unfavourably and are not liked by other women and men, which contrasts with the views held of women who succeed in “female” jobs and attitudes held toward successful men.

Internalised bias

Sexism such as this is difficult to prove, as is much of the sexism in the workplace. There is often a lack of transparency around hiring and promotion decisions and the assessment procedures underpinning such decisions usually allow for some level of subjectivity, which is where bias can creep in. Even when sexism is suspected, women who point it out in the workplace are often derided for playing the “gender card”. The worst aspect is that the bias is often internalised – the resulting discrimination is typically not, therefore, based on a conscious decision to discriminate against women.

So, how do we tackle such deeply entrenched biases against women in the workplace? Well, we should make assessment procedures more objective when we can. But, as this is not always possible, we really need to change the underlying causes of the “being female” penalty – the stereotypes on which decisions about perceived job fit are based.

This puts us back in the catch-22 position discussed earlier: women are hindered from reaching leadership positions because they don’t fit the gendered expectations associated with the positions, but these expectations won’t change until there are enough women in such positions to make it unexceptional. I suspect there will be a tipping point such that, maybe when more than a third of leadership positions are held by women, a critical mass will be attained and women in leadership positions will cease to be perceived as “exceptions to the rule” or deemed to be “token” representatives of their gender.

Thus, while many do not like the idea of quotas, and the women advanced under such programs will pay a hefty price (particularly in relation to questions of legitimacy), they would make a difference – when women become relatively common in the upper echelons of the power structures in our society we will stop viewing these as “male-type” positions. Quotas, however, will not fix everything. The availability of leadership positions is part of the issue but, as mentioned earlier, women’s participation in the workforce is also impacted by decisions made within the domestic sphere, such as how to share caring responsibilities and domestic labour.

The other penalty - motherhood

Decisions about who does what within each couple is determined by a number of factors. However, it is evident that these personal decisions are often influenced by societal norms, which are informed by stereotypes about what women and men are “best” at. As such, the principles of the Lack of Fit model seem to be somewhat transferable to this situation, though this time males must prove their competency regarding child care and domestic work; skills and abilities that are viewed as inherent to females in our culture. Hence, most child-related and other domestic work tends to fall to women, especially when children are young, while most of the income-earning work falls to men. This starts immediately after childbirth, where it is extremely rare for women to not take at least six weeks of maternity leave.

Then paths diverge. Typical patterns for women include taking up to a year’s worth of maternity leave before returning to paid employment, or not returning until after their youngest has commenced schooling. Approximately half work part-time, generally not returning to full-time employment until children reach high school.

Evidently, any time taken out of the workforce will have an adverse impact on an individual’s career progression, including lifetime earnings. However, even when women take a minimal amount of maternity leave, say 12 weeks, they are penalised for it in a way that does not happen for men or women who take a similar amount of leave for other purposes (e.g. long service leave).

This is an additional “motherhood penalty”, which often shows up when women return to the workforce after maternity leave, and acts to slow further career progression. Often this is due to a reduction in opportunities for advancement being offered to mothers, with this seemingly driven by assumptions that a woman will be less reliable, less committed, less competent and less interested in her career than she was prior to becoming a mother. Unsurprisingly, these assumptions are driven by the differing stereotypes about what it is to be a ‘mother’ and what it is to be a “father”, and by the responsibilities commonly assigned to these roles in our society.

From a financial perspective, this ‘motherhood penalty’ adds to the pre-existing “being female” penalty affecting the gender wage gap. Ian Watson’s study on managers also included an investigation of gender wage differences in relation to the parental status of the managers. Examining the data for managers with thirty years of work experience, he found that males with no children earned approximately $120,000 a year on average. For men with children, each child they had acted to increase their earnings by $2,000–$5,000 a year, resulting in a salary of about $130,000 for managers with three or more children.

In contrast, the base rate (no children) for females with equivalent work experience was around $95,000, which decreased by $2,000–$7,000 per year for each child, to an annual salary of approximately $77,000 for managers with three or more children. Thus, the combined “being female” and “motherhood” penalties mean that, in comparison to a male with equal years of experience and number of children, an Australian female manager with thirty years work experience earns approximately $35,000 less per year if she has a single child, $40,000 less if she has two children and a massive $53,000 less per year if she has three or more children.

Unsurprisingly, the financial penalties associated with being female and being a mother are one of the factors that encourage families to make the decision for women to cease or reduce hours of paid work and to take on the majority of the family’s unpaid work, while men continue to work full-time in paid employment. Such decisions, while personal in nature, then reinforce the stereotypes embedded in our culture.

Recent research by Sreedhari Desi and colleagues shows these decisions have broader impacts on other women in the workplace. Specifically, these researchers found that males in “traditional” marriages (where the husband was in paid employment and the wife was not) were more likely than males in “modern” marriages (where both partners worked full-time in paid employment) to hold negative attitudes about women in the workplace, believe that organisations with higher proportions of female employees run less smoothly, deny promotion opportunities to qualified female employees, and view organisations with female leaders less favourably.

These findings are concerning, to say the least. As the researchers note, men in “traditional” marriages are more likely than women to “populate the upper echelons of organisations and thus, occupy more powerful positions”. Even if only a small proportion of men in leadership positions throughout Australia are in “traditional” marriages, their attitudes may be having a negative impact on many workplaces and other aspects of our society, such as the bills that are considered and passed in parliament.

These sexist attitudes, associated gender stereotypes, and resultant biases in the workplace are the underlying causes of the “being female” and “motherhood” penalties represented in the gender wage gap. They obstruct the advancement of women in their careers, thus impeding progress towards equality of outcomes between female and male employees in Australia, including acting to maintain the low proportion of women in positions of leadership.

Changing sexist attitudes

Sexism is damaging for everyone; both female and male stereotypes are detrimental. Altering them is difficult – it will take large-scale change. An essential step in this process is changing the influences children are exposed to in the home and schools, such as through providing children with gender neutral messages and examples of behaviour, challenging the sexist beliefs and attitudes they come in contact with in their daily lives, and teaching them skills to distinguish fact from fiction.

To assist this process we need to treat sexism as we do any other condition that has an adverse impact on wellbeing. So, let’s look at the sorts of programs and advertisements that are screened during children’s peak viewing hours and remove those that promote sexist attitudes or a lack of equality between females and males. Further, let’s add a “sexist content” category to the advisory guidelines for television programs, video games and movies (Sweden does this for movies).

We can also choose how and where we spend our money and which media and entertainment sources we access, to start sending the message to the hospitality, retail and corporate sectors that their endorsement of sexism and all that goes with it will be punished financially.

We must also keep sexism on the workplace agenda, ensuring people responsible for hiring and promoting employees are aware of the insidious, unconscious nature of gender bias and the detrimental effects it can have on individuals and organisations as a whole. If we do nothing and continue to place the blame for the lack of women in leadership on women choosing to go AWOL in their careers, we will squander generations of female potential. If we set our minds to it, however, the elimination of harmful gender stereotypes and attainment of gender parity within the workforce could be achieved in a decade or two.

The first step to this end is for everyone to take their gendered blinkers off and look around their workplace: the “women of merit” aren’t really MIA either, they got tangled in the “being female” and “motherhood” penalties while fighting a rear guard action against outdated gender stereotypes. They’ll win through eventually, but it will be much faster if everyone joins the battle.

Liz Temple’s essay is published in Griffith REVIEW: The Way We Work, available from August.

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