Obstacles Faced by Women in the Workplace

The past two centuries saw a boom of liberalism; through the success of the first and second waves of feminism, humanity saw a rapid erosion of the established tradition of patriarchy and misogyny. We laud the success of the movement that availed women the basic right to vote under the 19th amendment; we celebrate personalities that break new grounds like the women behind the first women owned label Olivia Records. Domestic violence and sexual harassment issues fell and safeguards like custody and divorce laws rose into prominence. As we step into the 21st century, the third wave of feminists sought to take full advantage of these institutional gains of their predecessors- to instil respect for women and to end discrimination and stereotypes, especially when it comes to the workplace. This movement may still be in its infancy, however, as statistics point towards a lingering male dominance in the working world. While seemingly difficult to quantify, this author will seek to elucidate obstacles a modern day female might still face in the workplace.

To begin, I shall expound upon the concept of a glass ceiling that is slated to contain the careers of every woman. In the recent US presidential election, democratic candidate Hillary Clinton rented a space beneath a literal glass dome to symbolise this exact point; she had hoped to revolutionise the eligibility criteria of America’s top office. We all knew how that ended: the metaphorical ceiling endured, a stark reminder of a great setback for women. Her failure was a striking reminder of this mindset that permeates society, that women are unfit to helm large organisations. Take the fortune 500 for example: women hold a paltry 4.2% of CEO positions in America's 500 biggest companies. As we go down the hierarchy, the balance of the genders equalises, reaffirming this hypothesis. The reason for this, in this author’s opinion, is twofold. Primarily, women are seen as less shrewd, vulnerable and emotional, with a temperament unfit to lead. While our media has gotten much more nuanced than that of our fathers’, our culture remains heavily patriarchal. Homemakers are still predominantly female, delegated with the responsibility of bringing up the young, and to engage in more “feminine” activities like tailoring and cooking. Secondly, women are biologically short-changed. The female is the only party that is physically impaired by a pregnancy; this fundamental difference impedes her ability to pursue both a career and a family concurrently. She risks irrelevance in the nine months she takes off her work, and subsequent maternal duties continue to affect her performance. While protection is being given in the form of maternity leaves, employees are still known to favour males due to the existence of fewer distractions to their work.

Some may argue, using notable exceptions, that there exist women that climb above and beyond this perceived limitation, pointing to German chancellor Angela Merkel and federal reserve’s chair Janet Yellen. While their existence bucks the trend, this author believes that they may reflect a symptom that sheds light on why women rarely attain prominence. When men succeed, they are referred to as “great men”, “great leaders”, “heroes”, “magnates”, and “founders”, conferring upon them titles accented with divinity. Juxtaposed with the male titles, we can see that the few names bestowed upon historically important female figures- Maria Theresa of Austria, Catherine of Russia, and even Angela Merkel are regularly likened to mothers who merely applied their “motherly instincts” to nurture a nation, a far cry from the almost godlike perception of male leaders. In the workplace this is especially evident. People dismiss good performance as luck, or even consign well performing females a certain scorn, as if they had betrayed what they were meant to do. Even more malicious co-workers may even put forth the idea that said female had resorted to immoral means to attain her worth, and hence disregard her achievements.

Most importantly, I believe women themselves are the greatest obstacle to any great breakthrough in female workplace rights. However much affirmative action have been taken to mitigate this gender disparity, the onus still lie with the women themselves to alter this perception that being female equated to being less capable and valuable. In a recent talk show on TED, notable entrepreneur Casey Brown summarized this case as such: women are unaware of their worth, and shudder at the thought of explaining their worth to another party (particularly a male); because of that, she almost never receives her due for the work conducted. This reflects a deep seated issue within the female psyche: that they are fundamentally weak, and to ask for more is unacceptable and even deplorable. With this belief deeply ingrained, society’s girls find it difficult to take credit for their due, or to pursue promotions that they deserved. In contrast, males never appeared to have the same dearth of confidence in the workplace, and it comes as no surprise that males outperform their counterparts in nearly every field.

To conclude, while we have come a long way for women empowerment, the final hurdle has yet to be cleared. Females still face a seemingly insurmountable limit to their potential ascension in the corporate ladder, and worthy women are often smeared and belittled, to the extent that the belief of female inferiority almost becomes ingrained. I applaud the recent feminist drives to eradicate such misconstrued bigotry, but I feel more needs to be done. We may elect to languish in our current quandary, or take positive steps to attain gender equality. In companies, we may choose to conduct interviews of candidates anonymous of gender; through education, we empower females with ability and confidence, and also potential employers of the pitfalls of gender discrimination; through empathatic programmes, challenge people to simulate pregnancies while going about their daily work; there is something everyone of us can do. I shall end with a quote from Roseanne Barr: “The thing women have yet to learn is nobody gives you power. You just take it.”