Five Myths About Gender That Inhibit Workplace Equality

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any.” – Alice Walker

Once again the issue of equality and respect for women in the workplace is making its way into the headlines. I’m inspired by the new vitality in the hopeful younger generation regarding the issue because I have been quite tired from the lack of progress for women over my 30 year career.

Despite practicing law for the past 20 years, I have never viewed law as a means by which we can change human behavior or the way people think. Plato said, “Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.” I believe the most lasting and meaningful change that will really eliminate lack of equality and respect for women in the workplace is ridding ourselves of the sexist beliefs that we still hold.

Notice that I am not pointing the finger to any one group of people to blame for sexist attitudes. Sexism is deeply ingrained in our culture, our families, our religions, our politics and our history. Not one of us is completely free of gender bias. However, we are not powerless to overcome it. Once we become conscious of our own assumptions, beliefs, thoughts or knee-jerk reactions, we are then able to change them. As my Wise Aunt Bea told me whenever I felt overwhelmed by any problem, “Awareness of a problem means we are already halfway to the solution.”

What myths can we eliminate to make our workplace more respectful of all, resulting in equal treatment of all workers, regardless of gender?

1. Men Are the Breadwinners In a recent discussion regarding a proposed candidate for an open position at my firm, a colleague asked me if the candidate really needed to work. In response to my puzzled look, my colleague explained, “I think her husband makes pretty good money”. I have never heard someone ask if a man “really needs to work” despite the fact that the Pew Research Center reports that women are the breadwinners for 40% of all households with children in the U.S. The strangest thing about my colleague’s comment is that she was an attorney and the breadwinner in her family. It is long overdue that we rid ourselves of the assumption that women’s incomes are optional or insignificant to a household while a man’s income is assumed to be the financial foundation of one.

2. You Don’t Look the Part When people ask me what I do for a living and I tell them that I am a lawyer, a common response is, “You don’t look like a lawyer.” I assume the image people have in their mind is a crotchety gray-haired man when my response of “Aren’t you glad?” gets a laugh. This is an outdated view, of course, since the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession reports that about half of law firm associates are women in their 2017 A Current Glance At Women in the Law. When I had surgery a few years ago, my entire team in the operating room was female, including my surgeon and the anesthesiologist. Recently, the flight I took was piloted by a woman. I am all too familiar with the hesitation others have about whether or not women really know what we’re doing when the stakes are really high.

Unfortunately, these outdated images of what someone “looks like” in any career means women have to go the extra mile to prove themselves and to be taken seriously. It is no surprise that this subtle and often unconscious view results in lack of equality and respect for women in comparison to their male peers. All of us have been raised in a society that tells us we are safest in the hands of the gray-haired male lawyer, surgeon and pilot. Fortunately for all of us, these assumptions are not true.

3. Working Mothers Want to Stay Close to Home – Part One Many years ago, I was watching Oprah interview Christiane Amanpour, the world-renowned journalist. Christiane had been reporting from terrorist locations around the world, usually in the midst of heavy fighting. I remember Oprah asking Christiane who took care of her infant son when she was reporting from these far off places. It was as if Oprah could not fathom who, other than a baby’s mother, could be the caretaker for a child. Christiane answered by reminding Oprah that her baby had a father.

Yes, even Oprah, known for advocating for women to grow into their full potential, was asking a woman a question that I have never seen asked of a man in the same situation. It struck me as especially ironic, since Oprah herself was raised by her single father.

There seems to be an unspoken rule that in order to be a good mother, your career should take a back seat and that you must always be within arms-length of your children to service their every need. Fathers, however, do not seem to be subject to this same rule. In fact, men who pour their energy into one area of life, their career, are given credit for being successful in two areas of life: career and family. Women, meanwhile, are assumed to be falling down on one of these jobs if they are excelling at the other.

This perpetuates the belief that a working mother will always have higher priorities than her work, while a working father is assumed to have his work as his highest priority. It is no surprise that the one assumed to be more committed to their job would command higher respect in the workplace.

4. Working Mothers Want to Stay Close to Home – Part Two A good friend of mine is a pharmaceutical executive. An exciting and unique opportunity had arisen to send a couple of his team members to Congo to train local workers in administering therapies. My friend admitted that he assumed that working mothers on the team would not want to go, since they would not want to be away from their children. He did not make the same assumption about the working fathers.

I’m glad my friend was able to be so open and honest about his assumption. He is a good guy. Some might even argue that he was being supportive of women by trying to accommodate those on his team with young children at home. However, he now realizes that his well-intentioned behavior should have been directed to all of his team members, without regard to gender.

How many women have never been offered opportunities that their male counterparts are offered? It would be no surprise if a team member who showed more commitment to the organization by volunteering for unique opportunities would command more respect by those who did not – or those who couldn’t, because they were never offered the opportunity in the first place.

5. Women Can’t Have it All - But Men Can The refrain “Women can have it all!” began as a way to send girls the message that they no longer had to choose between having a family or having a career. The implication was that they could have both – just like men could.

Here is the problem with that assumption. Work/life balance is not just a women’s issue. You see, men have never “had it all” either. This is because nobody – man or woman – can be in two places at one time. Life is busy and juggling all aspects of it is difficult for anyone. Neither gender is spared this struggle.

Over the last twenty years, I have worked with, and have observed, a lot of men who have been practicing law since the late 1950s. The vast majority of them are married with children, yet they had little to do with the raising of their children. Even now, they have a completely different relationship with their children and grandchildren compared to their wives. Their personal connections suffered at the hands of their careers. So, do these men “have it all”? I don’t think they do.

Fortunately, I have seen younger male colleagues move to slower paced environments, often with a corresponding pay cut because they have small children at home. These men seem to be working through their need for work/life balance, making the same difficult decisions as their female counterparts.

Characterizing the work/life balance issue as an issue for women merely perpetuates the myth that women who have any semblance of a personal life will remain on a less ambitious path than their male counterparts. Why bother trying to keep female workers happy with attractive career opportunities if they are viewed as being more likely to slow down or to leave eventually anyway? It is no surprise that women are not treated with the same equality and respect if the prevailing view is that the real go-getters in an organization can only be men.

Unless we really stop and ask ourselves what sort of sexist beliefs are still coloring our perspective on men and women in the workplace, the concept of equality and respect for women in the workplace isn’t going to budge from where it is now. We are the workplace – you and me. We can all decide to challenge our own unconscious beliefs about gender and walk into work tomorrow with a fresh perspective. We can begin treating everyone with equality and respect.

What bias do you experience in the workplace?