Women and the Workplace: Understanding discrimination as a systemic problem

December 5, 2019

Current visibility around women and the workplace and workplace discrimination against women is at an all-time high with the #MeToo campaign and the campaign to uncover the Gender Pay Gap.

Perhaps what is less prominent in these campaigns is a discussion about the root causes of these types of discrimination.

These are the systemic, normative and cultural assumptions that are making it difficult for even these highly visible campaigns to have immediate impact.

Gender discrimination starts at a young age

What is required in order to address workplace discrimination is a change in the system that assumes women are not equal to men.

This starts from a young age and is perpetuated as young children become teenagers, then young adults and working adults.

While we may think this is anecdotal, evidence shows this to be the case.

One study asked children to guess whether a “really, really smart” protagonist in a story was a man or a woman.

By the age of six, girls were less likely to guess that the protagonist was a woman than boys were to guess that the protagonist was a man” (Alba 2018).

Both young men and young women then enter the workplace with these kinds of normative assumptions, further perpetuating the cycle of discrimination.

Men enter the workplace assuming women are unequal to them and, therefore, even subconsciously consider harassment as normal. Alba argues that:

“scientific evidence demonstrates that people do in fact discriminate based on gender, despite denials that gender inequality persists in modern societies. This research demonstrates that even when all else is equal, women are at a disadvantage to men in many domains. This might be because men are perceived as being more capable in general, even in the absence of evidence to suggest superior skills”.

The reality of the gender pay gap

The assumption about equality between men and women is further perpetuated by real inequality in pay between men and women, where 8 in 10 UK firms pay men more than women.

This inequality goes beyond simply numbers, but results in 4 in 10 young women reporting that “it was a “real struggle” to make their cash last to the end of the month, compared with 29% of young men”.

This not only means women are at greater risk of negative mental health impacts as a result of work (52% of young women said their work had a negative impact on their mental health, as compared with 42% of men), but also means that because women are in a more precarious financial position, they often cannot risk jeopardising their position at work by reporting discrimination, harassment or violence.

If young women are subconsciously regarded as less competent than men and are in financially less stable positions, their ability to leave a position as a result of workplace discrimination and find a new one is significantly more compromised than men.

How work place harassment affects different types of women

This then results in the kinds of figures that are reported on workplace harassment, where a BBC survey found that 40% of women experienced unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace.

These kinds of figures are shocking in their own right, but become even more so when examined in more detail across different types of women.

For example, women of colour experience not only sexual harassment but also racial harassment; young women with disabilities are five times more likely to have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace than those without; and 68% of LGBT people said they had experienced workplace harassment.

Changing the narrative

When thinking about prevention, we often think about policies, regulation and laws that can be put in place to ensure this kind of discrimination is prevented. What we need to do is change the way we think about discrimination.

In thinking about workplace discrimination as something that starts with systemic problems, starts with children and starts with collective thinking, we may go some way in better understanding prevention that really works. What we all need to do, is to stop thinking of discrimination as something that happens to an individual by another individual.

Workplace discrimination and harassment is currently regarded as an individual problem and not a systemic or institutional issue.

As such, workplace discrimination and harassment is currently regarded as having individual consequences and not social consequences.

Discrimination is not an individual problem

In her submission to the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee, Dr Sandra Fielder argued that the framing of sexual harassment as an individual problem with individual consequences “is mostly due to the lack of understanding into individuals experiences, not only of the actual act of sexual harassment but of the legislative, organisational and social responses and approaches to sexual harassment”.

This means not only understanding how different types of women experience discrimination differently, but also understanding that discrimination is not an individual issue but a social, systemic problem that needs to be addressed not just by policies but also by changing the narrative around gender.

According to a growing coalition of civil servants, researchers and private sector actors tackling those inequalities require early intervention to correct gender biases that take root long before people reach the workforce – and even before they reach school.”

What is required in order to start changing the prevalence of workplace discrimination and harassment is a change in culture.

This means changing the way children think about gender and gender roles; changing the way teenagers and young adults relate to each other; and changing organisational and institutional culture so that workplace discrimination is understood to be an organisational issue and not an individual one.

Written by Dr. Vanessa Malila

Research & Development Officer