The challenges women face in the workplace: A lose-lose situation?
Recent studies have shown no matter what they do, women are consistently penalized for their gender.

It has long been known that male-dominated industries can be a prohibitive environment for women. From the wage gap and workplace harassment, to constantly having their capabilities doubted, recent studies have shown the extent to which certain behaviours can prevent women from even getting a foot in the door. 

“When we meet someone for the first time, we tend to judge them based on something called the ‘stereotype content model,’” says Dr. Sonia Kang, an associate professor in the Department of Management at the University of Toronto Mississauga. This model places people within two different categories: warmth and competence. 

“Warmth is a measure of how much a person is going to be communal, agreeable, and care about the group,” she explains. “Competence is about the ability to get the job done.” According to Dr. Kang, women tend to be judged high on warmth, but critically lower on competence in relation to men. 

Dr. Joyce He is an associate professor at the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles. She received her PhD at the Rotman School of Management. She explains the “double bind” that this stereotype can pose for women: “What’s been shown is that there are two dimensions to gender stereotypes: agency and communality.” Women are seen as being more communal and less agentic, and therefore less assertive, ambitious, or possessing of leadership qualities. These stereotypes can also be prescriptive. “Not only is it that women tend to be more cooperative and friendly,” adds Dr. He, “it’s that they should be.” 

This presents something of a lose-lose situation for women. If they are more communal and don’t do anything to be more assertive, they are seen as not fit for a job because they do not possess any of these agentic traits. But, if they try to be more assertive, louder, or more demanding, they are less likeable, and therefore less likely to get a job. 

In 2021, Dr. Kang and Dr. He published a paper in the Academy of Management journal that explored the concept of “covering,” and the attempt at circumventing this double-bind when women are applying for jobs. They found that women are aware of the negative effects of being seen as “too feminine.” As a result, they feel the need to compensate for it. “Women anticipate this negative reaction and attempt to downplay it when writing cover letters by using less feminine language as a way to get their foot in the door,” explains Dr. Kang.  

Unfortunately, they found that this tactic tends to have negative effects for women. According to their paper, this strategy may lead to more bias against women who apply for male-dominated jobs. Dr. He states that the outcome of this strategy is what causes backlash. Women who write cover letters using less feminine language are less likeable across all fields, not solely male-dominated ones. This is the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position that many women face. 

Interestingly, this is not the case for men. They do not “cover” when applying to female-dominated roles, nor do they anticipate discrimination. In fact, Dr. He states that some men think that female-dominated roles may benefit from their gender as they add more diversity.

When asked why men do not seem to be affected by these stereotypes, Dr. Kang notes that it is not that simple. “We have other data showing that these ideas of leaders or ideal workers are damaging for men as well. Men are not as interested as perhaps they were before, or maybe they never were, of filling those large, masculine stereotypes,” she explains. While they may not necessarily have to worry about the negative effects of their gender, men still experience pressure and a need to live up to these expectations. So, what can women to do seem competent and likeable, and therefore hirable? Should women have to change to be more hirable? 

If pressed for an answer, Dr. He says that studies have shown the most effective strategy is just being yourself. “Being authentic is probably the best strategy, just because we’ve shown that these strategies usually lead to a double bind,” she explains.

She also notes that some employers value authenticity, and this way women can avoid working for an employer who may discriminate against them. To add to an already complicated situation, Dr. He states that some employers have been shown to be more willing to help women who highlight their gender. However, Dr. He and Dr. Kang say that the onus should not fall on women to navigate the difficult situation of employment. One such solution is a restructuring of the promoting process. 

Dr. Kang proposes the “opt-in versus opt-out” choice as a solution for gender gaps when promoting internally. “A lot of what we hear is that women just aren’t applying, which implies a need for self-promoting, or ‘opting in,’” she explains. “Women are less likely to self-promote, so instead of telling [them] they just need to apply more, you can change how you structure the process.” 

Most promotions tend to be “opt-in,” which means an application is needed. Instead, promotions can be changed to “opt-out,” where all employees above a certain threshold are automatically considered for promotion. When the promotion process is changed this way, the results are surprising. 

Based on Dr. Kang and Dr. He’s study, in an opt-in situation with an absence of any performance differences, women were about 15 per cent less likely to apply. With an opt-out model, the gap was significantly smaller at just five per cent. If promotions were structured this way, this could lead to less of a gender disparity in leadership positions. 

Dr. Kang notes that this could also have additional benefits. In a 2022 research paper published in PNAS, researchers found that having women in more senior positions could lessen the stereotypes conveyed in certain vocabulary. By using a natural language processing technique, they found that when women were in higher management positions, they were more often associated with “characteristics that are critical for leadership success.” Importantly, this could also help women out of the double bind. 

The workplace environment for women is most certainly a complicated situation. As women, the idea of navigating a professional career is daunting due to various inherent barriers. But it is a fervent hope that we will begin to see more of these restructuring efforts in the name of equity—not just for women, but all minorities—in the years to come. 

Staff Writer (Volume 48 & 49) — Hema is currently in her final year, finishing a double major in Linguistics and French Language Teaching and Learning. She previously served as a Staff Writer for Volume 48 of The Medium. Her favourite part of writing is the opportunity to research new topics, speak to new people, and make her voice heard, and she hopes that her articles can spark this interest in other students. In her spare time, you can find her in bed reading with a cup of coffee (and she's always looking for more book recommendations!).


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