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Women in the Workforce: Our Catch 22.

Today in Canada, women make up 56.5% of university students (Macleans, 2013), yet only 9% of businesses in North America have a female CEO (Grant Thorton International Business Report, 2012). What is happening to that 47.5%? Why are women, on average, more educated than men, yet achieving less professional success?

In the 21st century, women in the workforce have been trapped in a cage. A woman must constantly examine her actions, words and behaviour if she is to survive. If a female wants to climb the corporate ladder, well, we might as well call her Super Woman.

Other than adopting a respectful and professional demeanor, businessmen can generally can act as they see fit without constant doubt or fear. A woman, on the other hand, walks a fine line, balancing her fragile career atop the gender-binding tightrope of our corporate world.

Workingwomen of today are faced with a dilemma: we can either keep our heads down, accept the status quo, and be liked by our colleagues/employers, or we can question others, express ambition, and be resented by the office.

This is the modern female’s catch 22. If we want to get ahead we have to be liked be our employers, but if we express such ambitions our employers (often subconsciously) dislike us as a result.

When a man raises a point, shares his opinions or expresses a desire for professional advancement, he is praised. He is seen as ambitious, driven and a leader. When a woman does these things, more often than not she is the “corporate she-devil”. She is “that woman who never shuts up”, or the “abrasive and loud” female coworker.

In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg cites an experiment done at Harvard Business School to demonstrate gender perceptions. Two classes were given a biography of an entrepreneur with one single difference – gender. Class one read about “Heidi” and class two read about “Howard”. The two classes rated the individuals equally competent (rightfully so), but “Howard” came off as the better, more amiable, person.

This study illustrated a painfully obvious concept – we assess people based on pre-conceived notions.

Patriarchy has created the stereotype of a woman tending to domestic duties. When “Heidi” strays from this, working to excel in an area outside of the home, she betrays our notion of womanhood and we resent her for it. Yet, when “Howard” does the exact same thing, we respect him, for he perfectly fits the mold of a strong, accomplished man.

In this sad reality, businesswomen often have to choose between social capital and professional success. We choose between rebutting our colleague’s point and chatting at the water cooler. We choose between raising our hand and ‘picking our battles’.

This weighing game can consume women. Our valuable time and energy is invested in navigating the political minefield of corporate patriarchy rather than building portfolios, collaborating with colleagues, and bettering ourselves.

There are tangible, detrimental effects of the double standard placed upon men and women in the workforce – you can see it in the statistics:

  • Women make up a mere 14.3% of Fortune 500 CEOs (Knowledge Center, 2013).
  • Only 18.8% of congress is female (The Atlantic Wire, 2013).
  • Zero (out of 25) women were nominated at last year’s ASME National Magazine Awards. (NY Daily News, 2012).

The glass ceiling is well discussed and publicized; it is no secret that women fall financially short of men of equal competence.

But what about these stairs steeped with stereotypes?

Women may only make 80% to their male counterparts, but that is only once they have already clawed their way to that professional position.

The glass ceiling hurts women financially, but the corporate ladder, laden with pigeonholes, is the workingwoman’s biggest obstacle.

As a nation that prides itself on progress and equality, it is time we break down these preconceived notions of womanhood and manhood, and learn to wholly appreciate women in the workforce.

Bill Gates may have said it on the other side of the world, but it certainly still applies: “If you're not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you're not going to get too close to the top," (Washington Post, 2007).

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