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Looking Beyond Sexual Harassment

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Connecting state and local government leaders

The most common forms of discrimination that women face are getting paid too little and constantly having their competence doubted.

The much-discussed stream of sexual harassment allegations against famous men has left many people wondering just how common such problems are in American culture. The answer, it seems, is pretty common. The allegations and subsequent firings, coupled with new data about how women experience discrimination in the workplace, paint a pretty disturbing picture of what it’s like to be a woman at work in 2017.

According to a new survey from Pew Research, 42 percent of women say that they have experienced some sort of gender-based discrimination at work. And while more than one-third of the men and women polled said that sexual harassment was a problem at their workplace, women were three times more likely than men to say that they had personally experienced harassment.

The survey, which polled a representative sample of nearly 5,000 men and women, asked if workers had ever felt that their gender led to being passed up for a promotion or receiving less attention or support from superiors. By contrast, 22 percent of men said that they’d faced any sort of bias because of their gender. The survey was conducted during the summer of 2017, well before the major recent stories about alleged sexual harassment began to break.  

Researchers also asked if people had ever discovered that they were being paid less that someone of the opposite gender for the same work, or if they felt that they were often treated as if they were incompetent. About a quarter of the women surveyed answered yes to each of those questions. This data tracks with existing narratives about how gender discrimination manifests in the workplace.

Many of anecdotes about on-the-job gender bias hinge on women having their competency questioned, despite a demonstrated record of success. In Liza Mundy’s recent Atlantic story about gender discrimination in Silicon Valley, Tracy Chou, a software engineer, described finding a critical flaw in her company’s code. She goes on to say that her finding wasn’t taken seriously until a male colleague backed her up, and after that, her work to fix the bug was constantly scrutinized and second-guessed, even though she had saved the company from a large error.

Chou’s experience with gender discrimination fits a pattern in the labor market that can seem counterintuitive: Having more education and working in more competitive and highly paid fields make women more likely to experience certain forms of discrimination at work. In Pew’s survey, reports of discrimination increased significantly for women with postgraduate degrees: Nearly 60 percent of working women with advanced degrees reported encountering discrimination. For women with a college degree, around 40 percent reported this issue. And that figure was about the same for women with no college degree, 39 percent of whom reported issues with gender discrimination. Highly educated women are also more likely to see a bigger difference between their own incomes and that of their male colleagues.

There are other notable patterns in who reports experiencing harassment at work. More than half (53 percent) of black women surveyed by Pew said that they had experienced some form of gender-based discrimination at work, significantly more than the 40 percent of white and Hispanic women who reported issues with discrimination. More specifically, nearly one-quarter of black women said they had been passed over for important assignments because of gender. Fewer than 10 percent of white and Hispanic women reported facing the same problem.

These findings track with existing research that shows that despite educational gains, black women are rarely found in the upper echelons of company management, and still struggle to overcome stereotypes that paint them as aggressive or difficult to work with. And there’s still more evidence that black women struggle to get the economic and labor-force boost that many other groups get from increasing their education. Instead, their pay remains significantly lower than most other groups, they remain overrepresented in low-pay industries, and they are more likely to be fired than their peers.

Given the recent wave of horrifying allegations of harassment and assault in the workplace, issues of pay and promotion can seem less critical or urgent. But workplace cultures that devalue women economically and professionally send a message that suggests that women are expendable. Bias in determining compensation and position also plays a critical role in creating the power structures that empower men while disempowering women—breeding inequalities that can foster discriminatory and dangerous behavior. And while examples of sexual harassment and assault are making headlines and getting men fired—more subtle gender discrimination also severely harms women, and undermines the prospect of greater equality.

Gillian B. White is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where this article was originally published.

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