‘Women don’t ask’ is a myth: Two gender equality experts say women aren’t getting ahead, and it’s because of how workplaces are set up

  • Andrea S. Kramer and Alton B. Harris have spent over 30 years working on promoting gender equality in the workplace.
  • They’ve noticed that press and literature often focus on women having difficulties forging positive work relationships with other women, but often overlook the biases that lead to these difficulties.
  • The following is an excerpt from their new book, “It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace: Women’s Conflict at Work and the Bias That Built It.” In it, they describe how affinity bias can lead to stalled careers for women.
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For most of the last century, there was a sharp division of labor between women and men. Among urban married couples in middle and upper socioeconomic groups, men worked outside of the home, while women worked in the home tending to family and hearth. As recently as 1950, only 26% of married women worked outside of the home. In the 1960s, however, women began entering the workforce in record numbers. By 2005, more than 60% of married women were in the workforce. In 2016 almost 57% of all women 16 years of age and older were working — up from 33% in 1950. With their increased workforce participation, women now make up almost 46% of the total US workforce and 46% of the total workforce in the European Union.

When women started moving into traditionally male career fields, it was expected, at least by prominent advocates for women’s rights, that women would rise in their careers until they held senior leadership positions in numbers equal to men. Despite the enormous progress women made during this period, that did not happen.

While women have made truly impressive educational gains, they still lag far behind men in virtually all major leadership roles. For example, women are only 17% of equity partners in major law firms, only 13% of law firm managing partners, only 16% of medical school deans, and only 18% of governors. Women now hold 36% of first-level or mid-level manager positions in S&P 500 companies, but they are only 25% of executive and senior officials and managers, 9.5% of top earners, 18% of corporate board members, and 6% of S&P 500 CEOs. Indeed, since 1972 only 62 women have led Fortune 500 companies. This snapshot of women’s leadership achievements is even bleaker than it might otherwise appear when we realize that almost all of their progress was made between 1960 and 1990. “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” was perhaps the best-known advertising slogan in the 1970s and 1980s, and it aptly characterized women’s career progress during that period. But shortly after the slogan stopped running in 1990, women’s advancement came to a screeching halt. The question is why.

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