The theme of this year’s Diversity Woman conference, “100 Years Is Too Long For Gender Equality,” expresses the impatience that many of us feel regarding the slow path toward achieving gender equality in the workplace—particularly as it is felt more explicitly among women of color, who experience “double outsider” status.
So what’s holding up progress for women, and what can be done about it? We know that unconscious bias is a major challenge facing women both inside and outside the workplace. To address the effect of unconscious bias on women’s career potential, many companies are sponsoring unconscious bias training for leaders and managers. Yet, what is becoming more prevalent today is not unconscious bias, but the revival of overt, explicit bias. Explicit bias can be understood to include misogynistic treatment of women, such as sexual harassment, assault, and efforts to take away women’s reproductive rights. The women who bear the brunt of explicit bias tend to be lower-wage workers.
While the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment of women has made these issues discussable, it is concerning that, in the national discourse on sexual harassment, women working in lower-wage jobs are often overlooked. However, there is a ray of hope for lower-wage working women: the recently developed anti–sexual harassment campaign, Our Time, sponsored by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. Among lower-wage workers, Latina farmworkers, in particular, suffer high rates of sexual assault. The coalition also includes janitors and factory workers. The alliance will advocate for protections against sexual harassment and abuse in union contracts, state laws, municipal ordinances, and company policies.
Lower-wage-earning women also bear the brunt of changing national policy norms regarding reproductive rights. Recent policy shifts have resulted in the ability of employers to deny women insurance coverage for contraception. Employers can claim exemptions from nondiscrimination laws on the basis of religious objections. A stated rationale for limiting access to birth control for women is the belief that expanding birth control access encourages risky sexual behavior, a false argument that ignores studies that have proven otherwise. The use of subjective, irrational criteria to strip women of their reproductive rights is disturbing and signals growing misogyny within our society.
Women who work for large corporations will probably not be affected by these policy changes on reproductive rights, given the awareness that sophisticated CEOs of major companies have regarding company image. Lower-wage-earning women, however, are more vulnerable given that they are more likely to work for smaller operations.
Societal norms shape the context for what happens in the workplace, and it will take a concerted effort to overcome the creeping misogyny that seems to be part of the fabric of today’s society. Business leaders must speak out against the diminution of the rights of women—all women—while ensuring that their commitment to advancing women in their organizations remains strong. Only then does gender equality in the workplace stand a chance. DW
Katherine Giscombe, PhD, is Catalyst’s Vice President and Women of Color Practitioner, Global Member Services.
Catalyst is a global nonprofit working with some of the world’s most powerful CEOs and leading companies to help build workplaces that work for women. Founded in 1962, Catalyst drives change with pioneering research, practical tools, and proven solutions to accelerate and advance women into leadership—because progress for women is progress for everyone. catalyst.org