Obstacles Women Face at Work

Women face many challenges in the workplace. Learn what these challenges are and how to fight them.

portrait of Ellery Weil
by Ellery Weil

Updated June 30, 2022

Reviewed by Laila Abdalla, Ph.D.

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Obstacles Women Face at Work
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From a glance, women have made tremendous progress in the fight for workplace equality over the past few decades. As recently as the 1970s, women could not apply for credit cards without having a male guarantor. And women could legally be fired for being pregnant.

Times have changed. In fact, we now know that companies with more gender diversity in managerial roles are 63% more productive than companies with male-dominated management.

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Sexism and patriarchal attitudes have lives of their own. They may stem from a patriarchal history, but in today's culture, at times, some men may show less sexist attitudes than some women.

However, there are still many gender-specific challenges women face in the workplace. From pay discrimination and lack of available and protected rights to family leave to subtler issues around unpaid labor in the office, there are many challenges women today face when they enter the workforce.

The Glass Ceiling

Women make up half the human population, but only 15% of Fortune 500 CEOs. That's an awfully lopsided number — and many attribute it to the phenomenon known as the glass ceiling.

There may not be any official policy in place preventing women in the workforce from rising above a certain rank (and, in fact, policies like that are illegal in the United States). However, many companies have an invisible barrier to their highest levels that women seldom break through — hence, a ceiling made of glass.

This barrier can be attributed to many circumstances. They include: biases of upper levels of administration, bad support and/or mentorship for women employees, an insufficient number of role models, bad policies, and so much more.

While there has been a wide variety of material written about the glass ceiling and how to break it, there is no perfect answer yet. However, it is important to remember that only a few decades ago, that 15% statistic stood at 0%, so women are making qualified progress.

Parental Leave and Stereotyping

Did you know that the United States is the only wealthy country that doesn't guarantee paid leave to new parents?

Some states do mandate paid maternity leave or parental leave that can be distributed between new parents regardless of gender. However, no federal law requires paid leave to new parents. Recent attempts to pass paid family leave laws have failed.

This obstacle may affect women whether or not they have or want children. In addition to the obvious challenges of not being able to care for an infant, the lack of parental leave prevents women from reentering the workforce. Or, it forces them to resign or make unnecessary choices between motherhood and a career.

Many employers, even those who guarantee paid family leave, can be prejudiced against younger women job seekers and employees, acting on the sexist assumption that they will soon become pregnant and take leave.

Pink-Collar Prejudice

You may have heard of white-collar (office/professional) and blue-collar (trades/physical labor) jobs, but what about pink-collar jobs? A relatively new term, pink-collar work refers to occupations that are disproportionately likely to be held by women — usually outside the white-collar, degree-requiring professions.

As supported by data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some examples of pink-collar jobs include preschool and kindergarten teachers, secretaries and administrative assistants, and dental and medical assistants.

While many pink-collar jobs are societally valuable and personally fulfilling, they are historically lower-paid and often come with less prestige than predominantly male-held occupations.

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

When #MeToo started trending, many people were shocked to hear how prevalent sexual harassment in the workplace was. Some estimates claim that roughly 8 in 10 women will have been harassed at work during their working lives.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a problem for anyone it happens to — regardless of gender. And women are not the only people who can be harassed. However, the number of women who have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace is staggering.

Given that sexual harassment has only been considered unlawful discrimination in the United States since the 1970s, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that gender discrimination in the workplace was illegal, it's no surprise that it remains a persistent and difficult problem to tackle.

Dress Code Double Standards

Have you heard of the pink tax? The pink tax is the phenomenon where certain basic toiletries and personal hygiene items — like razors, deodorant, and body wash — have a version targeted at men, which is cheaper than the version targeted at women.

This is a society-wide example of a phenomenon affecting women at the office. It can often cost more and be less comfortable following workplace dress standards for women. With women earning less and then paying more for such basics, there is an invisible tax on gender?

This can include official dress code policies in some fields, such as restaurants with different and more costly uniforms for women servers. But it is just as likely to be part of an invisible corporate culture.

Many women wear makeup, which can often be expensive, and high-heeled shoes, which may be uncomfortable and costly, to "fit in" at work. And while they may enjoy dressing up on their own time — it shouldn't be a requirement to be taken seriously at their job.

Historical Prejudice in the Trades

Many people find fulfilling and well-paying work in the skilled trades — like carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work. However, entering this field can be extremely challenging for women, who make up only 3% of the skilled trades workforce in the United States.

While some of this imbalance may be due to the physical aspects of some of these jobs, much of it is due to prejudice and stereotypes — and a work environment and apprenticeship system that are often unwelcoming to women.

Many women working in the trades report seeing their female colleagues driven out by a work culture that devalues women and may even enable workplace harassment.

"Old Boys'" Networks

While America prides itself on being a "land of opportunity," where old traditions don't bind people, it's hard to ignore that there are some old ties and networks that still hold sway.

For instance, did you know three U.S. presidents and two Supreme Court justices were members of the secret society "Skull and Bones" at Yale University?

You don't have to look to the Ivy League to see how historically based social networks help some people, genders, or races and leave others behind.

And since many of the oldest institutions and organizations in the country are male-dominated or were so at their origins and until very recently, these networks often favor men, particularly men from privileged backgrounds. They even have a name — "old boys' clubs."

This is one of the reasons women are often encouraged to go all-in on networking. And some women's organizations, including groups like college sororities, have attempted to create women's versions of these structures.

Underestimation

You've probably heard of "mansplaining." It's the phenomenon many women have experienced when a man who is less informed than them on a topic behaves as though he's the expert, out of sexism.

Even award-winning feminist author Margaret Atwood experienced this when a man online tried to claim he knew more than she did about the novel "The Handmaid's Tale" — which she wrote.

This assumption can be a problem for women in the workplace, especially younger women, who often struggle to be taken seriously, even on topics they're experts on.

This also contributes to how often women in the workplace find themselves talked over or interrupted — something men are 43% more likely to engage in toward women than the other way around.

Pay Discrimination and the "Cone of Silence"

The gender pay gap is a well-known phenomenon, where women on average earn less than their male counterparts for doing exactly the same work.

But while large amounts of research have been done on the gender pay gap and what causes it, one means of addressing pay discrimination is often overlooked: breaking the "cone of silence" around salary comparison.

Many employers strongly discourage their employees from discussing their salaries with one another. And many people feel an instinctive taboo toward asking their co-workers about their salaries.

While this may not have sinister motivations, it may serve to keep employees in the dark about pay discrimination. In fact, 1,200 Microsoft employees deliberately leaked their salaries in 2021 to highlight gendered pay discrimination at the company.

Expectations of Unpaid Labor

You've probably never seen an employment contract that demands you plan the company holiday party in addition to your professional responsibilities. And in all likelihood, the person in your office who does plan parties, team-building events, and similar things is not paid a bonus.

Also likely is that the person who does the extra, unofficial work is a woman. Women do 60% of the unpaid labor in the workplace, according to a 2021 study by the British government.

While many people enjoy planning events and parties for their own sake, being expected to do so for your workplace is different.

It's also unpaid labor, where your company is making extra expectations on your time and talents without extra pay. Women are disproportionately expected to do unpaid labor in the name of being a "team player."

Bottom Line

There is still work to be done to make the workplace more equitable for everyone, regardless of gender. If you want to help in the fight, be sure to check yourself against engaging in workplace sexism — something that anyone, regardless of gender, is capable of perpetuating.

Moreover, consider advocating for a more equitable workplace, either at your company, or even on a broader scale. This can include joining the fight for paid family leave on the national level, or collaborating with your colleagues against unfair policies at your workplace.

Whoever you are, there's likely something you can do to make the workplace a more fair place for everyone.

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