Greater Sexism for Senior-Level Women?

Once you attain an executive-level position, you may feel you’ve made it, and any concerns that you weren’t given a fair shake have been vanquished. It turns out that may only be true some of the time, especially if you’re a woman.

A recent study, reported on by Emma Lord in online publication Bustle, shows that as women advance to higher-level positions, they may face even greater gender-based bias than they experienced as lower-level workers. “A survey conducted by Boston Consulting Group that involved 345,000 participants at 36 different major companies indicated that, compared to their male peers, women in senior positions in companies with less engagement overall experienced subtle workplace sexism as a result. It was measurable across four categories that were largely agreed upon as the four most important factors in a workplace: appreciation, work-life balance, relations with colleagues, and mentorship.”

These findings don’t surprise me because I’ve either experienced myself, or observed, the difficulty women experience in all four of these areas. For example, in appreciation, I’ve noticed that I’ve had to work a lot harder—explicitly requesting and then continuing to press—for recognition and promotions. I’ve heard it said that women don’t get recognized as much as men because we aren’t as vocal about our accomplishments. Women, some believe, are less naturally inclined to boast about themselves. Do you think that’s true? The funny part is I’ve attempted to boast, but have been squashed. Would my attempts at being boastful work better if I were a 6-foot-tall, gruff-voiced 41-year-old man instead of a petite, generally soft-spoken, woman of the same age? I understand there’s no way of knowing for sure, but I’m getting suspicious that my boasting would get a better reception if it were coming from a different body and voice.

Part of the problem is something many of you probably also have noticed: Not everyone has to ask to be recognized. Like me, you’ve probably witnessed the recognition and celebration of people who you’re pretty sure didn’t press too hard for it, and didn’t necessarily have greater credentials or accomplishments than you. For example, in one of my former companies, there was a woman several years younger than me, who in fast succession made her way from editor to managing editor, and from cubicle to private office. She then left that job voluntarily, and the job actually waited for her! They thought enough of her that about a year later, when she came knocking again at their door, they re-hired her (she then left yet again a year after that). I can assure you, I’ve never had that experience of voluntarily (or otherwise) leaving a job, and then having it wait for me to return (and then, to so take that luck for granted, leave it again). Is there something, beyond accomplishment and boasting, that makes management at companies more likely to recognize some employees versus others?

For women in executive roles, who find they are lacking appreciation, could there be a culprit other than their gender? In other words, do they just have the misfortune of working with people (who happen mostly to be men) who have that mysterious quality my former colleague possessed of making people want to honor them?

Work-life balance also is hardly a surprise. Anyone with eyes and ears knows that, despite the more active role men have been taking in the management of households, at the end of the day, it’s usually the woman, as wife and mother, who makes sure everything gets done. The buck stops with her at home, even if it doesn’t at the office. To make work-life balance opportunities between male and female executives more even, a flexible schedule helps. A corporate philosophy for everyone that emphasizes the end result of work, rather than how and where (and at what times) it gets done, is best. It’s easier to stay balanced when you know you can leave early to pick your children up from their extra-curricular activity and help them with their homework, and then after they’re asleep, spend a quiet two or three hours wrapping up your to-do list from work.

The third factor that the study found executive women struggling with more than male counterparts—relations with colleagues—isn’t hard to figure out. Has a man ever been called “shrill”? And how often do you hear of a man being gossiped about as pushy or “bossy”? These are still jabs leveled most often at women. Despite the progress we’ve made professionally, a proactive, forceful woman is still viewed differently than a man doing the same things. Whereas it’s seen as go-getting in men; in women it can be seen as overstepping boundaries, or “getting in people’s faces.” I’m reminded of an incident from back when I was a sophomore in college. I was in a journalism class, and was responding to all of the professor’s questions about current events. I didn’t think anything of it—why wouldn’t I respond? I knew all the answers to her questions, after all. One of my male classmates actually exclaimed, “Back off!” after I answered what he felt was one question too many. I just ignored it and laughed, but it did make me self-conscious enough that I still think about the experience.

Mentorship is another area that accomplished professional women are challenged by. With a much shorter legacy of executive women in the workforce, of course, we have fewer mentors than male colleagues. But I also wonder whether many male executives are hesitant to mentor a woman. There may be fear of impropriety, or the appearance, of impropriety. Many men may feel uncomfortable having weekly one-on-one lunches with a female colleague (especially if she’s the same age, or younger, and attractive). I’ve had male colleagues who are so paranoid about impropriety that they won’t even correspond with me by e-mail without having others on the e-mail. When I was first hired, as a 25-year-old, to a job as a marketing coordinator at a small software company (I hated it and left after a few weeks), my male boss apparently felt too uncomfortable to take me out alone for my welcome lunch. He roped in a male colleague seemingly just so it wouldn’t be the two of us alone.

What increased challenges do you think women in executive roles face? How do those increased challenges compare to the challenges faced by their male colleagues? And what can organizations do to help women overcome those challenges?

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