Gender discrimination against women in the corporate arena

The issue of gender discrimination and sexism within society is one which has been extensively researched and discussed. Sexism can be seen as the belief that an individual’s social roles and rights should be determined by one’s sex, whether male or female. Sexism and gender discrimination have generally been directed against women and is based on the stereotype of women being helpless and inferior to men.

Sexism and gender discrimination can be identified in almost all facets of Caribbean society. In the religious sphere, there are very few female religious leaders, whether in mainstream religions such as Christianity, Hindu or Islam or even in less mainstream religious groups, such as Rastafarianism. Certain cultural beliefs also serve to perpetuate gender discrimination, such as the belief that women are worse drivers than men. Derogatory images and portrayals of women can be found in Caribbean music, cinema and television, with women oftentimes being portrayed as scheming and conniving and only attracted to a man because of his material wealth.

However, for the purpose of this essay, gender discrimination and sexism will be explored in the context of the corporate arena. Gender discrimination in the workplace has come to be encapsulated in the commonly known term, the “glass ceiling”. This term was introduced in a 1986 Wall Street Journal article on corporate women by Hymowitz and Schellhardt (1986). The concept refers primarily to barriers faced by women who “attempt, or aspire, to attain senior positions (as well as higher salary levels) in corporations, government, education and nonprofit organizations.” (Lockwood, 2004).

The glass ceiling is generally indicated by either an under-representation of women in the higher positions of the entity and gender-biased compensation, where men are paid more for the same or similar work and qualifications. In the early 1990s, the Center for Creative Leadership conducted studies on the glass ceiling. Their 1995 study surveyed human resource managers from 304 large industrial and service firms from Fortune 1000,500 and 50 companies. Two key findings that create and perpetuate the glass ceiling were revealed: the discomfort of white male managers with those unlike themselves such as women and women of color and the lack of accountability or incentives in organizations to develop diversity (Lockwood, 2004).

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Based on the glass ceiling concept, it can be surmised that while women may be a part of the corporate arena, they are denied access to higher positions because of the other social roles played by women, such as wife, mother and primary caregiver, in conjunction with the view that women, because of their psychological make-up, are incapable of playing the role of Chief Executive Officer, Board Chairwoman or any other role of such nature.

Similarly, the progress of women in the corporate Caribbean, as is the case almost worldwide, has been limited by perceptions of “masculine” versus “feminine” jobs and positions within industry. Industries perceived to be primarily masculine domain include the military, police and firefighting agencies, construction and architecture, politics, finance and science; while those perceived to be feminine include teaching, nursing, and beauty services.

Another concept used to describe the presence of corporate sexism is that of “tokenism”. First used by Kanter (1977a, 1977b), “token” describes “…the difference of a work group member from a numerically dominant group…” (Yoder, Aniakudo and Berendsen, 1996) such as women or racial minorities who are chosen to be a part of the corporate landscape in order to in either comply with Affirmative Action laws, such as those in the United States or to create an image of being an equal opportunity employer. Men, who presumably are privileged by their token status as men in a group dominated by women, appear less negatively impacted by numeric under-representation than do similarly situated women. In fact, some researchers have noted instances in which token men appear advantaged by their scarcity. (Yoder et al, 1996). Studies suggest that what defines token-difference makes a difference. When the token is different by virtue of an ascribed status that affords privileges, such as being male, rather than subordinates such as being female, negative outcomes seem to be avoided or reduced.

This now brings to the point that even the experiences of different women working in the same gender discriminatory environment can differ. One principal reason for this is the race of the woman. Yoder et al (1996) examines the differences in the experiences of Caucasian American women and their African-American counterparts and surmise that as being white is an “ascribed status that affords privileges”, the effects of gender discrimination and tokenism are reduced for Caucasian women in comparison to African-American women and in actuality,

“…white women tokens in groups dominated by African-American women are race-defined tokens whose difference lies in a direction that privileges them in American culture… [however]… there is no parallel setting for African-American women whose race and gender difference subordinates them as tokens in any gender-and/or race-skewed work group.” (Berger, Fisek, Norman, & Zelditch, 1977, as cited in Yoder et al, 1996).

Gender discrimination, sexism and the subsequent concepts of the glass ceiling and tokenism have far-reaching implications for both women as the disadvantaged group and men as the privileged. According to Schmitt and Branscombe (2002), attributions to prejudice are considerably more harmful for the psychological well-being of members of disadvantaged groups than they are for members of privileged groups and while identification with one’s disadvantaged group can counter some of the painful consequences of recognizing prejudice, many persons may attribute negative outcomes to prejudice against one’s group membership.

One of the most important ways in which attribution to prejudice differs for the disadvantaged and privileged groups is the severity of the type of the events typically attributed to prejudice. Branscombe (1998), found that

“…when men and women were asked to describe the disadvantages that they had experienced based upon their gender group membership; women described relatively severe events such as a lack of freedom, fear of sexual assault, and job discrimination. In contrast, men described less severe and more circumscribed events such as having to pay for dates, or being more likely to get a speeding ticket.”

The above quote shows the disparities between the experiences and beliefs of men and women in regard to discrimination. In the workplace, men are the perpetrators of sexual harassment, job discrimination, salary inequality and pregnancy discrimination, while there is no sense of cohesion among women in said workplace, as each woman has to be struggling to secure her own job.

There are, however, men who are aware of the experiences of women in the corporate arena and who choose to either attempt to reduce sexism and tokenism in their environment or conform to the status quo. Men in the corporate arena conform to the existing system of discrimination against women in several ways, such as remaining silent or sharing in derogatory comments made by co-workers and bragging about sexual conquests. In contrast, though, there are men who vehemently oppose sexism and even consider themselves to be anti-sexist or feminist, as is apparent from the existence of groups such as the National Organization of Men against Sexism (NOMAS).

In conjunction with the aforementioned concepts of corporate gender discrimination, there is one other concept which should be mentioned. According to Thompson and Sekaquaptewa (2002, there are women who cannot be considered tokens, because they were not preferentially chosen for their position, but have achieved it. However, they are seen as occupying “solo status” as they are the only representative of their social group in an otherwise homogenous environment. As is the case with tokens, persons from disadvantaged social groups, such as women, have more negative experiences as solos than those from a privileged group. Many persons in this category report feelings of dissatisfaction and high monitoring by superiors in their work environment. This may also lead to poor job performance, despite no differences in ability or qualifications.

The most apparent aspect of gender discrimination is the disparities in the salaries of men and women doing the same work with the same or similar qualifications. Roth (2003) researched the differences in compensation between men and women in the Wall Street environment, using a sample of securities professionals with similar credentials and was able to identify several key, gender-related factors that contributed to this disparity. Wall Street was chosen because of its unusual institutionalized system of compensation in the forms of bonuses and other perks, which allows the firm to pay different salaries to people in the same job.

One factor that affected the women’s earnings, in particular, was that the position was a very client-intensive one, where social contact with the client is required. In most instances the clients were men and preferred male-oriented social activities, such as “going to strip clubs, cigar-smoking and elk-hunting” (Thompson and Sekaquaptewa, 2002). Inability to participate in these client-entertaining activities harmed women’s chances of creating solid relationships with their clients. The results indicated that for 1997, while the men in the sample earned an average of $566,111, their female counterparts earned only $342,743. It was also found that gender had a strong negative effect on earnings, with a coefficient of -.5 statistically significant at p=.001.

It should be noted, however, that a disparity in salary is not present in every profession, as indicated by the findings of Morgan (1998), who studies the differences in salary based on gender among multiple cohorts of engineers. It was found that while there was no gap in compensation for recent cohorts, women still experienced gender bias in other forms.

Gender discrimination in the workplace can be seen as reflective of the same in the general society. It has far-reaching repercussions for not only women who are experiencing it, but also for young girls, who may find themselves unable to pursue their chosen career because of what is deemed as masculine and feminine occupations and also the disparities in salary may be a detraction. It must also be mentioned that sexism in the workplace can be traced to sexism in schools, where the subjects that are necessary for the higher paying industries are those dominated by males. A prime example is the University of the West Indies, as while females comprise the greater percentage of the student population, they tend to saturate the majors which are people-helping oriented, and which usually are the less monetary rewarding occupations.

Facing discrimination and the threat of sexual harassment in the workplace places considerable stress on women. It is a widely known fact that many women forego having a family or getting married for fear of detriment to their careers. Currently, in the United States, there is an ongoing debate about pregnancy discrimination, where women are afraid to take time off from work to have a family because they can either find themselves without a job or denied promotions by their employers. There is also the issue of exploitation, where women doing the same job as men are under-paid and unrecognized for their achievements. Many women in high ranking corporate positions also have to practice a high level of self-monitoring, as they report that they have to do work that is good enough, but not good enough to “show up” their male counterparts for fear of alienation, especially in a group environment..

Though there has been the implementation of legislation to combat the more overt effects of gender discrimination in the workplace and attempts to encourage women to become involved in the more male dominated (and ultimately better paying) industries, it must be recognized that gender discrimination and sexism is a part of the corporate culture and efforts must be put into educating persons about sexism and its social implications.