As it stands, it’ll take us 257 years before women across the globe have equal access to opportunities and economic participation as men do, according to the Global Gender Gap Report for 2020. Now that you’re sufficiently horrified, let’s dial it back a little! Gender disparity is very much a problem that can only be changed through cultural shifts and drastic policy advancements—but that doesn’t mean that beating stigma around day-to-day gender discrimination is any less important. It’s the small things that add up, after all.
Ahead of International Women’s Day, we’re going to examine some common issues of gender inequality in the workplace—micro-aggressions that often feel too micro to even acknowledge as they happen in real-time. They’re the type of comments and behavior that make you stop dead in your tracks, and maybe don’t even process as gender bias until later on. If you’ve ever been told to smile more, asked inappropriate questions about your personal life, or ignored altogether in a room full of men—you know exactly what we’re talking about.
Taking a microscope to some of these common examples of gender bias at work, we’ll share some real-world anecdotes from Girlboss readers, startling stats, and expert advice from this week’s Girlboss Radio guest, entrepreneur, and advocate, Dee Poku-Spalding—all in the efforts of saying we believe you. And that you aren’t alone.
Issue: Men at work act like you aren’t even in the room.
Story Time: “I am a PhD researcher in a Philosophy department. I remember last year when I was sharing an office with two researchers, a colleague from the department came in. He wanted to chat for a while, and he ignored my presence, grabbed a chair, turned his back on me, and directly addressed the only the two male PhD researchers in the room. It was a small bodily gesture but being the youngest researcher, a first-generation academic, and a woman, it instantly made me feel out of place and undeserving of being there.” —A, 24
Supporting Evidence: In a survey conducted by McKinsey & Co. and Sheryl Sandberg’s LeanIn.org, they heard from 34,000 workers and determined that women are more likely to be ignored in meetings—with 74 percent of men being able to “participate meaningfully”, compared to 67 percent of women. They’re also less likely to be consulted when it comes to important decision-making, with 63 percent of men being asked to share their thoughts, and just 56 percent of women.
Advice: “I think it’s one of the worst elements of corporate culture: The close circles and who gets CC’d and on which email and who gets invited to which meeting,” says Poku-Spalding. “I remember going through that with a boss who just kept leaving me out of meetings. I would encourage you to speak to whoever you know was in the meeting, whoever you are closest to, and find an opportunity to ask them in a very non-confrontational manner about what happened. I’d say something like, ‘I would really love the opportunity to sit in on the next meeting and was wondering what you think about x, y, z.’ Be prepared that not everyone is going to listen to your grievances in the spirit in which they were intended.”
Issue: Being told you need to smile more.
Story Time: “I work at a university in California and my immediate supervisor and the dean are both women as well. However, I’ve been told I didn’t get a promotion because I ‘need to smile more’ and on two other occasions was directed to be sure to wear a smile as I go about my workday. The directive was given to a group of several staff people by the dean, and we happened to all be female. I don’t believe she would have given this directive if a man had been present.” —Jessica, 37
Supporting Evidence:Ah, a classic inappropriate remark: Being told you should smile more often. The real question here is, would you tell Mark from accounting that he needs to smile more? Don’t think so. In fact, in a survey of over 500 women, Byte discovered that 98 percent of women had been asked to smile at some point in their lives, and 58 percent of those women were asked at work. What’s even more cringe-worthy is that 53 percent of the time, it was a male co-worker commenting on their smile—or lack thereof.
Advice: “I think that the further up the ladder you go, the more it becomes about who you know and who you can impress, and less about what you know. And I think it’s so important for women to understand that and to take that concept with them from the beginning of their careers, all the way up the chain,” Poku-Spalding says. “Women rarely got to do or act how they want without consequence, so it’s important to build relationships around you that can help you ascend. Having people on your side helps in situations where you feel outnumbered.”
Issue: Getting asked inappropriate questions.
Story Time: “I’d gone for an interview for a client servicing role at a marketing agency. During the interview, the CEO asked me a personal question about my age. After I told him I’m 29, his next question was ‘Aren’t you going to marry soon?’ He then asked me another personal question about how I’ll be able to manage my personal and professional life after marriage.” —Urvashi, 29
Supporting Evidence: Let’s put it this way: In the U.S., it is literally illegal to ask someone about their marital status, children, or family plans in a job interview. And if conversations like this come up after you’ve already started working there, they’re no less inappropriate.
Advice: “I think as employers, and as leaders, it’s very important to find the informal opportunities to connect with your employees when they’re more likely to share things in a more casual manner. When you actually get to know people and understand what’s happening in their lives and their perspective on work from who they are as a person, it becomes a different conversation,” says Poku-Spalding. “I think it’s up to us as leaders give permission to our employees to be vulnerable by being vulnerable ourselves, then we’re more likely to create an environment where that’s more open. As an employee, be direct with your truth and your needs—even in the difficult moments.”