The Women Behind America’s Jobs Talk Bias

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When the morning alarm rings, what motivates people to go to their jobs every day? Do their jobs impact how they see themselves, their future and their family’s future?

The Atlantic’s “Inside Jobs” project, supported by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, asked American workers these questions and more in a comprehensive report on the human beings behind America’s jobs. They organized the responses into topics such as the value of work, diversity, work/life balance, and adapting to change, as well as by race, gender, region, education, industry and age. It’s a wonderful report that gives a real perspective on the lives of working Americans.

Since I believe diversity is so important for companies to truly thrive, and part of that includes the experience of women at work, I wanted to read the words of women workers with an eye on various forms of gender bias. I’d like to share some perspectives on the real-world bias I uncovered while reading the personal accounts of a variety of workers. I feel they clearly reflect the reality of the United States Workforce, and give insight into the real challenges and real improvements that can be made.

Performance and Maternal Bias Makes Things Harder for Women, Yet They Push Ahead

A Closer Look at Performance Bias: Relative to Females, Male Performance is Often Overestimated

1. Eileen Valez-Vega works as a civil engineer, a field in which only 12% are female. Her experience as a female engineer absolutely includes performance bias, which is when male performance is often overestimated compared to females. She said, “This week I went to pick up a permit for a project. I’m the lead engineer, and the lady in the permitting office looked at me and said, “Do you have authorization from the engineer to come and pick this up?” I told her, “Yes, Engineer Velez-Vega, that is me.” By virtue of being female, she was assumed not to be the lead engineer.

In her own words:

Women Behind America’s Jobs

“Because of what I look like, it’s even harder to break stereotypes when I go into a new project, or when I’m meeting a new client. It’s motivating, but it is also very exhausting because you’ve got to prove yourself over and over again until people get it and say, “okay, she can do this.” And like many women, her reality shows that “We have to work harder at getting respected by our colleagues and our clients.”

2. Sareh Parangi is a thyroid cancer surgeon at one of the Harvard Hospitals, as well as an associate professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School. Women are severely underrepresented in surgery, especially in the higher ranks. In fact, there are only 16 women who are the heads of surgical departments in all of the U.S. and Canada. She admits it takes even more for women to get ahead, including the help of men. She explains:

Women Behind America’s Jobs

“Not only do all your ducks have to be lined up in a row as the woman who wants to get somewhere, but I think also the men in your life who are your mentors, your chairman, the people you work with, your colleagues, they have to be ready to promote you as well.”

3. Julie Cruse, a petroleum engineer who specializes in surveying and designing oil wells, works in an industry that is only 19% female. She has seen bias first hand, sometimes using unconventional methods to handle situations.

Women Behind America’s Jobs

You have to work harder to get to the same level in some senses. There have been times when I first started that I would pull in one of the other guys, from the shop or elsewhere, and I would let them talk on the phone [with male workers]. I just told him what to say, because the guy didn’t want to listen to a female.”

Like surgeon Parangi who says in addition to doing everything perfectly, you need a male advocate, Cruse has found a work-around to dealing with the bias she faces on a regular basis—having a male voice speak for her.

Maternal Bias* Comes in Many Forms

4. Patricia Robert is an Army Sergeant, 1st Class. Only 15% of the Army is female, and that percentage lessens as you go up in rank. She explains:

Women Behind America’s Jobs

At the 10-year mark women are retained at a 30 percent lower rate than men because, just like in the civilian world, women have to make that decision about children versus career. It’s doable, but extremely difficult.” Patricia points out that that there is no pay gap in the military. All pay is based on rank and is planned out in advance. She says, “It’s about who knows the most, and you’re judged mostly on ability, and that’s fantastic.” These may be lessons that organizations can learn from the military.

5. It’s not only in large organizations and institutions that women face bias; homemakers do too. The Atlantic reports that, “A hypothetical 26-year-old female worker with a salary of $44,000 a year could lose about $707,000 in lifetime income($220,000 in income, $265,000 in lifetime wage growth, and $222,000 in retirement benefits) from taking just five years off to care for a child. “That was about the age that Teresa Ciszek decided to be a stay-at-home parent. She struggled, like many women who chose to stay home, with feeling looked down on. She says, “It was deflating to be publicly frowned upon as thought I was settling, or that [staying at home] was all I could do.”

On average, women perform three times more of unpaid labor than men. Often that work goes overlooked as real work, which points to a long held bias that only men do real work. Ciszek faced this type of double standard as well. She explains:

Women Behind America’s Jobs

My next-door neighbor is currently a stay-at-home dad. I got on my husband’s case one time: He was feeling sorry for my neighbor because he was so busy with the kids. I said, “Excuse me, that was my life. I don’t recall you ever feeling sorry for me about how hard I was working at home all day with the kids.”

6. Julie Engstrom is one of many female architects that believe there is not gender equality in their industry. The Atlantic reports that in a New York Times survey of female architects, one women said, “As a new mom, I feel like I must choose between advancing to a principal, or being there for my child.” Engstrom works anywhere from 40 to 60 hours per week, as is custom in her industry. She says, “In a lot of ways, [architecture] really favors the young and childless.”

Women Behind America’s Jobs

However, Engstrom’s company, founded by a woman who had young kids at the time, is trying to combat this challenge by offering flexibility.

It’s well documented that in order to work, women have to navigate pay gaps, inadequate parental-leave policies, and inflexible hours that make it difficult to meet the caretaker demands that statistically more women bear. The good news is that organizations around the country are starting to adjust their policies to counteract these issues. Women, who are starting businesses at a rate 1.5 times that of the national average, run some of those companies. 1,288 net new women-owned firms launch every day! Watch out bias—we’re coming after you.

For three fundamental steps to counteracting performance bias, read: This Type of Bias is Happening at Your Organization Right Now

There is so much more to uncover in the Inside Jobs study. I urge you to read it here.

I’d love to hear your stories about the reality of your job. It’s easy to see a list of job titles and make assumptions, but what are these positions really like? Leave a comment below, send me an email, or let’s chat on Twitter.

*Maternal Bias: There is a strong belief that mothers cannot be good employees. It is also assumed mothers choose family over more demanding opportunities

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  1. Jezra Kaye
    February 4, 2017

    Thanks for this excellent article, Anne.

    The progress of women in the professions has been stalled for 30 years now (for example, though women are half of each graduating class of lawyers, they hold less than 20% of law firm partnerships; and often, those are “partnerships” in name only, with no equity ownership in the firm and thus no power).

    A year ago it seemed like we were finally poised to break through to the next level of acceptance. In today’s political climate, however, it’s anyone’s guess as to what will happen next.

    • Anne Loehr
      March 8, 2017

      Hi Jezra, thank you for your comment. I absolutely agree. Let’s hope for a powerful observance of International Women’s Day!


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