Can Women Escape Discrimination by Advancing Their Careers?

Sex Discrimination
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Any employee, in any position, may face discrimination in the workplace. Generally, however, the more people there are “above” you who make decisions affecting you, the greater the chance that someone will perceive you as an outsider or treat you differently simply because of who you are. Sometimes discrimination can also be the luck of the draw: you may be the number two person in an organization, but if the number one person sexually harasses you, your title will not do you much good.

Discrimination Against Women Today Is Subtle but Damaging

Think discrimination against women is a thing of the past? Think again. Many women, including those who have attained professional success, still deal with gender discrimination. Jim Westphal, a professor of business administration at the University of Michigan, studies issues facing female executives. His work has shown that gender remains a basis for discrimination and bias, including the tendency to overgeneralize about members outside their gender group. This bias is unconscious, is pervasive, and negatively affects women executives. For example, women must be better qualified than men to be hired into the same position. Women remain handicapped due to unchallenged assumptions that females cannot be effective leaders. Even after hiring, Westphal’s research has shown that female managers do not get the same credit as men for their achievements. Male CEOs are less likely to help female CEOs and are more likely to blame a female CEO for poor company performance rather than considering other factors. Therefore, he concludes, “while status in a high office helps insulate men from harm to their reputation it increases the risk for women.”

Female executives face “second generation” discrimination, according to one Forbes article. While in the 1950s and 1960s, sex discrimination by companies and management was blatant (and legal), it is now much more subtle but equally stifling. A 2012 Grant Thornton report found that the portion of senior management roles that women filled globally had remained stuck at about 20% for the prior eight years. As late as 2013, only 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs were women.

female leadersWhat contributes to these low numbers? Women may be facing a cluster of unrecognized biases, saddling them with difficult or even impossible burdens when they seek top positions. Potential female leaders end up under the microscope, their every behavior dissected. Women in business are modern Goldilocks: they are too hot or too cold, too soft or too hard, and never appropriate or just right. How a leader is perceived affects what that leader can accomplish, but it is very hard to reconcile genuine performance with unconscious perception.

One common criticism is that women are very good managers, excelling in day-to-day operations, yet are not viewed as visionary leaders. This may be due to a female tendency to approach the company’s vision more collaboratively, with the result that the woman leading the effort gets little credit. Additionally, because women are more likely to be challenged in their leadership, they may be choosing to stick to operational positions, where they are on safer ground.

Another major obstacle to female advancement is the way that companies fill senior management positions. These jobs are often not posted. Rather, employees are chosen from subconscious lists of high-potential or succession-planning prospects. These lists—often largely, if not exclusively, made by men—rely on judgment calls for deciding when a person is ready to move up in the ranks. Male employees generally have better networks to help them advance and tend to put themselves forward for top jobs even when they lack all the necessary qualifications.

Blatant Gender Discrimination Also Persists

Not all gender discrimination is subtle. In one notable 2016 case, a major international private equity firm, CVC Capital Partners, was sued by a former managing director who was allegedly pushed out of the company for complaining about sexism, as reported by Bloomberg. Lisa Lee, who worked in the firm’s New York office, alleged in her complaint in federal district court in New York that she was subjected to a pervasive pattern of gender discrimination, extending all the way to unwanted physical contact.

Specifically, Lee explained that CVC hired her in 2009 as a director of investor relations, which was a “partnership-track position.” In 2012, the firm promoted her to managing director. When she went on maternity leave later that year, the firm tried to take away her accounts, giving them to male employees. Her supervisor made comments doubting her productivity and speculating that she might not return to the firm after the birth of her twins, despite Lee’s insistence that she was committed to her job. Lee had been the only woman among 24 managing directors and 13 senior managing directors in the firm’s private equity divisions. Among CVC’s highest management (including 17 managing partners, 24 partners, and 13 senior managing directors running the private equity divisions globally), no woman currently holds any of CVC’s 50-plus business-side leadership positions.

Lee alleged that male supervisors and co-workers demeaned, undermined, and sexually harassed women, including herself, “with impunity.” Lee stated that at holiday parties and off-site events, senior-level male supervisors created a sexually hostile work environment by making comments objectifying women and subjecting women to unwanted sexual touching. Lee further claimed that she was denied promotions and professional opportunities that were provided to male colleagues despite her sufficient qualifications and that she was retaliated against after making several verbal complaints about discrimination. CVC eventually fired Lee, supposedly as part of a corporate restructuring, one month after she filed an internal written complaint about the ongoing harassment and discrimination.

Among Lee’s legal claims are discrimination based on her sex, pregnancy, a request for and receipt of federal family medical leave, and retaliation for complaining of discrimination. CVC issued a statement that it would “defend [its] position vigorously.” This case underscores the reality that while most gender discrimination is subtle and unspoken, blatant harassment remains, even at high levels of professional status.

Summing It Up

Women can face both subtle and overt discrimination and bias that may be open or lurking in the subconscious of male co-workers and management. While biased beliefs are not illegal, they can be the basis of legal action if those beliefs result in decisions that negatively affect a woman’s career and income. The subtle biases holding many women back from professional success may take a long time to change, but a lawsuit can be filed relatively quickly if there is a basis for a discrimination claim.

Workplace changes to improve the likelihood of success for female employees come in the form of both the carrot and the stick. The carrot is the proven fact that companies can benefit from the valuable, effective, largely unused talents of their female employees. By one estimate, investing in S&P 500 companies that have female CEOs is more profitable than investing in the S&P 500 as a whole. On the other hand, the stick is the threat of legal action. Lawsuits can force management to change its ways, due to the bad publicity they bring, in addition to the financial costs of legal defense, settlements, and verdicts.

If you believe that you have been denied career advancement because of your sex, contact our office. We can discuss your specific situation, explain how the law may apply to you, and help you decide on your best options to protect your legal rights and interests.