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Summarising what we know

This week we have explored:

  • Gendered Roles
  • Workplace stereotypes
  • Our own gendered assumptions
  • The gender difference in promotions and opportunities
  • Internal barriers to equality – such as the confidence gap
  • External barriers to equality
  • The glass ceiling and the glass cliff as barriers or precarities facing women
  • The gender pay gap as an outcome of inequality
  • Sexual harassment and its effects in the workplace.

Key learning points:

The intersection of work and home

In this week we have explored gender inequality in the workplace. It will already have become apparent that it is difficult to disentangle gender dynamics in the workplace from those outside of work, such as at home. Decisions made about roles typically played by men and women at home impact work, and vice versa. For example, if a mother prioritises care for children and the father focuses on earning an income, this will inevitably have consequences for both the work and home lives of both parents.

However, separating the home and work lives also helps us explore matters in more detail.

Gender roles and stereotypes

We firstly focused on gender roles, which (as indicated above) inevitably involves the intersection of work and home, but also creates divisions within the workplace. These can parallel the traditional home/work divide - for example, women are more likely to be carers at home and in paid positions - but extend beyond that based on assumptions made about a woman’s qualities when compared to those of men. Roles are not permanently gendered, as has been evidenced by changes over time, such as the secretarial role that was once dominated by men and is now more frequently seen as a woman’s role. However, the gendering of roles is still relatively enduring and reinforcing. Once a role becomes gendered it encourages certain people to enter the profession and others to avoid it. Gendered roles lead to stereotypes. This occurs because generalised assumptions founded on little or inaccurate information regarding actual behaviours and characteristics are made about men and women. In other words it is assumed that men tend to exhibit certain qualities that differ from women, and that these in turn are used to make decisions about the suitability of men and women for positions. But these are not based on the actual behaviours or the actual suitability of individuals. It can lead to a vicious circle whereby assumptions made about gender-suitabilty or role ‘match’ lead to either men or women being appointed to roles, which in turn can encourage others of the same gender to take on certain roles as this appears normal and is encouraged in society.

Change and Continuation

Change can occur, but can be slow, and with it relations of power and status can change. As roles become feminised, or primarily undertaken by women, they can become less valued, both in terms of their financial compensation and their status. ‘Man’s work’ is generally more highly valued than ‘Woman’s work’. These gendered valuations have led to equal pay claims, where women have been able to demonstrate their work has been systematically undervalued when compared to their male counterparts working in different but comparable roles.

We must also recognise that the perpetuation of assumptions about gendered roles and stereotypes is something that we all do. This is both natural and biased. It is natural because if you have grown up in a society in which women and men take on certain roles it is logical to anticipate seeing a man or woman in that role. But it is biased because it makes false assumptions about the nature of the role requirements, and the nature of men and women, and – where these views are widely held – these views perpetuate these barriers and inequalities.

Horizontal and Vertical segregation

We have also seen evidence that not only supports gendered roles, but also the gendering of promotion and opportunities. We have addressed both horizontal segregation (who does what role) as well as vertical segregation (who reaches higher levels in an organisation). Both have the potential to be exclusionary in terms of opportunities and can also be linked to differentials in pay (as certain occupations are more highly valued than others), but vertical segregation also has significant implications for power. If women are under-represented at higher decision-making levels (in whatever profession) they are significantly disadvantaged and are less able to effect change to improve equality.

Internal and External barriers

We have also learned that the barriers, which are multiple and complex, come from within the individual as well as without, and in turn the barriers ‘within’ also warrant further scrutiny. The external barriers – barriers found in the environment – require organisational responses to address them, such as ensuring stereotypes do not influence recruitment and selection decisions. Internal barriers – the ways in which women may, for example, lack the confidence to negotiate as forcefully as men for a pay rise – are more challenging to address. But we have also learned that we need to take care when evaluating the underlying cause of these internal barriers. What may be presented as ‘choice’ may be influenced by society’s generalised assumptions and expectations regarding people’s behaviour regarding what is normal that in turn socialises and forces people into behaving in certain ways and not others. In other words, it is not possible to understand ‘choice’ outside of the context in which the person choosing has formed their understandings.

The gendered body

We have also explored the sexualisation of gender. Both men and women are sexualised, but women are more likely to experience this in inappropriate ways, and more frequently than men. It can lead to sexual harassment which can be of significant detriment to a person’s health and wellbeing, as well as their career prospects. The sexualisation of the body plays a role in reinforcing gendered roles and stereotypes.

A return to power

When trying to make sense of the various strands that play a role in, or demonstrate the effects of inequality in the workplace, we can see the influence of power. You may want to revisit section 1.11 last week where we explored the various aspects of power. This week, for example, we can see how power is operating at a structural level (for example, where policy making is based on assumptions about gender roles that in turn set in place structures that help retain men and women in their respective roles), in terms of who has access to decision-making and agenda setting activities (e.g. who is promoted) and the more subtle discursive forms of power that shape and reinforce our expectations of roles, who should undertake them, and their value in society. Understanding power in its multiple and intertwined forms helps to appreciate the complexity of gender inequality and the forces that perpetuate it.

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This article is from the free online course:

Understanding Gender Inequality

University of Exeter