Working Women Still Suffering “Death by 1,000 Cuts”

While overt sexual harassment persists, less discussed—but no less significant—is the problem that women trying to ascend the corporate, partnership, and/or management level often suffer “death by a thousand cuts,” which delays their advancement and contributes to their decisions to leave the workplace.

That’s the theme of this past Sunday’s New York Times article “How Everyday Sexism Harms Women.” In the article, the authors distinguish the “outright discrimination” to hiring and advancement, from the “small indignities women experience day after day.”

Indeed, “[B]ias doesn’t happen once or twice; it happens day after day, week after week,” wrote the NYT reporters. And, citing to a study by the American Bar Association, the bias engendered may increase or widen depending on the person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, race, disability, or other intersectional aspect.

(Note: “intersectional” means the overlap of individual characteristics.)

Amy, Haven’t You Written About This Topic? Isn’t Such Conduct A Form Of Sex Discrimination?

I have, and it could be.

Reading the article inspired me to examine some past blog posts and articles on this same topic as well as solutions I’ve offered to employers. Here are a few:

  • There was the employee whose co-workers told her that she should be “home baking cookies” instead of driving a truck and whose co-workers and management called her “mother” daily. I told you about that case here.
  • Readers might remember the Google employee who, standing up for a pregnant coworker, penned a memo recounting the many inappropriate comments made by her manager demeaning the ability of pregnant employees to manage a team. When the pregnant employee transferred to another team, her new manager had told the employee that she couldn’t absorb her new team until she returned from maternity leave because of concerns that her pregnancy would “stress the team” and “rock the boat.” I told you about that situation here.

  • Then, avid readers might recall the employee who rose to the position of assistant operations manager at her employer’s warehouse facility within a short time (1.5 years) and then learned that the rumor floating around was that she had to have slept her way to that position. The company fired her, which I told you about here.

  • In one case, a fire department rejected a woman for a leadership position, explaining that the department was “not mature enough” to accept female leadership and that she had to “win over the guys to get ahead,” which I wrote about here.

There is so much more.

The NYT article summarizes less overt sex discrimination in the workplace with similar examples, explaining that their research showed:

  • Women’s successes are valued less than men’s overall, and in joint projects;
  • Women are penalized more than men when they fail;
  • One study of over 500,000 physician referrals showed women surgeons received fewer referrals than men after successful outcomes;
  • Women are penalized for “straying from ‘feminine’ personality traits”; and
  • If a woman speaks up when her contributions are overlooked, she’s labeled a self-promoter, and penalized for it.

As we wrote about here and here, such microaggressions may include failing to hear a woman’s ideas in a strategy meeting until the same ideas are later expressed by a man. It’s failing to promote a woman for being “strident,” yet promoting a man for being “aggressive.”

Image by Malachi Witt from Pixabay

Women can’t win, it seems.

What Are the Organizational Results Of Gender-Based Microaggressions?

Such microaggressions lead to organizational disparities over time, with women cut out of management and other leadership positions.

Indeed, McKinsey and LeanIn released their latest annual Women in the Workplace study with findings from 65,000 employees at 423 companies. It includes considerable insight as to how men and women experience the workplace differently, including an intersectional analysis of the experience of women of color, women with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ women.

The 2020 McKinsey report seems to confirm the observations of the NYT article authors as it notes,“There is still a ‘broken rung’ at the first step up to manager. Since 2016, we have seen the same trend: women are promoted to manager at far lower rates than men.”

And there’s more.

The NYT article claims that research shows that in many fields, a greater proportion of men correlates with increased bias against women. Remember, we’ve examined this organizational cultural phenomenon in posts about how prevent sexual harassment.

Actual new words have been invented to address these microaggressions (see above, e.g., manterruption), but let’s call it what it really is—sexism.

What Can Employers Do To Alleviate These Strains On Women?

Amplification spotlights women’s voices and ideas and enables them to be credited appropriately. Here are others:

  • Mentoring. I told you here back in 2018 that mentoring women works to avoid such an unwanted result. At the time, we saw that surveys about the significance of mentoring reveal that:
Image by StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay

In fact, the NYT authors said the same, “What works? Having managers directly mentor and sponsor women improves their chance to rise.”

Similarly, having manager mentors intervene when they notice microaggressions would go a long way. Bystander intervention interrupts the casual or accepted sexist treatment of women and those who identify as women.

  • Transparency. The NYT authors noted, “Insisting on fair, transparent[,] and objective criteria for promotions and assignments is essential so that decisions are not ambiguous and subjective, and goal posts aren’t shifting and unwritten.” ‘Nuff said. Being transparent about pay and gender metrics helps too.
  • Tone at the top – As I’ve touted on this blog, the tone is set at the top. Tools and solutions only work when leaders commit to stopping microaggressions; people follow the leader. Likewise, the article’s authors emphasized, “the mind-set of leaders plays an enormous role. Interventions make a difference, but only if leaders commit to them…Leaders who believe that the elimination of bias is essential to the functioning of the organization are more likely to take the kind of active, aggressive and long-term steps needed to root out bias… .”

Yes! Not only does leadership commitment work to ameliorate bias, but it also helps prevent discrimination and harassment. You see, when anti-discrimination and a refusal to tolerate unlawful harassment comes from the very top of an organization, it demonstrates commitment to employees from the C-Suite to the mailroom to maintain a culture of respect for all.

Employers, it’s up to you to stop the microaggressions: stop leaving women out of important meetings and off emails, and stop requiring women do more work than men to get ahead. Start now.

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Amy Epstein Gluck

Amy Epstein Gluck has represented individuals and corporate clients in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and various federal district courts for more than twenty years. Ms. Epstein Gluck’s current practice areas include employment law—advising on and drafting employment agreements; handling employment negotiations, severance agreements, noncompete and nondisclosure agreements, “wrongful terminations” and other EEO matters; representation at the EEOC level; advising employers about discrimination laws and how to remain in compliance, and employment negotiations.