Although we’ve come a long way, women still face considerable barriers and obstacles in the workplace and even within female-dominated careers.
Whether it’s underrepresentation of women in executive roles, lack of childcare support, harassment or biased and discriminatory behavior, these issues are an ongoing occurrence for women across all industries and organizations around the world.
In order to climb the career ladder and chase after our professional ambitions, we must first break the glass ceiling.
Below, we consider some of the biggest challenges women face in today’s workplace.
1. Pregnancy discrimination
Many working women are faced with a major dilemma when it comes to starting a family.
Pregnancy discrimination occurs when a woman is treated unfairly due to pregnancy, childbirth or a medical condition related to their pregnancy. It also involves bias towards an expectant woman, and behaviors such as social isolation, stereotyping, intrusive comments, change of duties, lack of development opportunities and pay reduction.
In some other cases, employers may be unwilling to offer reasonable accommodations to their pregnant employees, which could have serious health repercussions for both the expectant mother and the baby, as reported in a Baylor University study.
While there are laws in place that prohibit the unlawful termination of employment for pregnant workers, the latest Women, Business and the Law 2021 report found that 38 of 190 economies do not, in fact, prohibit dismissal of pregnant workers in their laws.
In the US, despite the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), statistics show that over 50,000 claims of pregnancy discrimination have been filed over the past decade, with numbers steadily climbing. These concerning facts are mere proof that pregnant women still face discrimination by their employers, something which also demonstrated by The New York Time’s in-depth exposé, which shared true stories of numerous women who faced such behaviors.
2. Sexual harassment
Workplace sexism and harassment have become even more evident in recent years, with women plucking up the courage to share their horrific experiences. With the #MeToo movement exposing just how widespread sexual violence, abuse and harassment are in professional environments, and beyond.
Sexual harassment can manifest in multiple forms, from sexual remarks about a person’s body, appearance or clothing, to unwelcome physical advancements and any other nonverbal actions that can create a hostile, offensive or intimidating environment.
Despite there being laws in place to reprimand such behaviors, victims of sexual harassment have found that reporting cases of sexual harassment resulted in their career being in jeopardy and them becoming a pariah at the office. This is a direct result of the prevailing culture of victim blaming and blame-shifting, which places responsibility on the victim instead of the abuser. This pattern faults the accuser for what they were wearing, for how they conducted themselves, and for not shutting down their abuser earlier on. As a result, it absolves the perpetrator from their actions and puts the blame on the victim’s shoulders.
It is not surprising, then, that 99.8% of harassment cases go unreported, despite findings suggesting that over five million workers are sexually harassed at work every year in the US.
3. Gender pay gap
The gender pay gap is something that’s widely discussed in today’s working world.
While some may try to dismiss this issue as a myth, the numbers and figures prove this claim to be false.
PayScale’s 2021 survey found that women make only $0.82 for every dollar a man makes — one cent more than what they made in 2020. Findings by the Pew Research Center as well as the U.S. Census Bureau also demonstrate the ever-prevailing pay gap across the US. Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum has reported that, at this rate, the gender pay gap will not close for another 99.5 years.
Despite the gender pay gap deniers out there, the numbers don’t lie — as a woman, you will probably earn a lower salary than a man applying for the exact same position.
4. Racial discrimination
Sadly, racial discrimination is still prevalent in the workplace. In fact, in a survey by Essence magazine, 45% of Black women in the US said that the workplace is one of the most frequent places where they experience racism. Indeed, according to McKinsey and LeanIn’s ‘Women in the Workplace’ report, women of color experienced microaggression at the workplace at the same frequency as two years before. The study also notes that women who experience microaggressions are also more likely to have a negative feeling about their careers and be impacted by burnout.
When it comes to the gender pay gap in the US, Black, Hispanic and Native American women earn even less than their white counterparts and face more barriers in their careers due to racially biased behavior. Essence’s survey reported that 44% of women of color also said they faced discrimination when being considered for a job promotion or equal pay.
5. Breaking the glass ceiling
Career advancement is much trickier for young female professionals who need to work harder than their male peers in order to earn recognition or praise.
Take a look at the big dogs of the most popular corporations and you’ll notice a recurring pattern: that the majority are men! The reason is unknown, but in most workplaces, there’s a general feeling that men advance faster, and women are deemed ‘incompetent’, even when they haven’t been given the opportunity to prove themselves. In fact, according to McKinsley & Company, for every 100 men who are promoted to managerial positions, only 85 women are promoted, in comparison. For African American women and Latinas, this gap is even more pronounced.
A quick look at Fortune’s 2021 list of CEOs at the 500 largest companies in the US will reveal that a mere 41 female executives made it on the list. What is even more disturbing is that this number is considered to be at an all-time high. In fact, in 2011, Fortune’s CEO list featured only 15 female executives and in 2000, there were only 2.
So, while there may be an encouraging upward trend, the imbalanced ratio between female and male leaders, as well as job advancement opportunities, is still an issue that needs to be addressed in today’s workplace.
6. Biased office temperatures
Let us set the scene: the sun is pleasantly beaming through the office windows but, somehow, you’re wrapped up in a blanket in a futile attempt to keep yourself warm. How could that be?
What you are experiencing is what is known as the Great Arctic Office Conspiracy.
A scientific study found that most office buildings use a decades-old formula that uses the metabolic rate of a 40-year-old man to set temperatures. Meanwhile, women, who make up of half the American workforce, have a slower metabolic rate than men. This means that the current model being implemented in offices across the US is overestimating women’s resting heat production by as much as 35%.
In order to address this gender-discriminating bias in thermal comfort, companies need to implement a new formula that is calibrated towards both female and male metabolic rates.
7. The grooming gap
Also known as the beauty expectation gap, this phenomenon encapsulates the social norms that are imposed on women regarding their grooming and appearance, and the financial and time constrictions it imposes.
In most professional settings, for women to ‘look the part’, they are expected to abide by certain beauty standards, such as wearing makeup, having well-manicured nails, wearing high-heels and so on. It is important to note that many women use makeup and fashion as a form of self-expression. However, the problem arises when this becomes a mandate — women are expected to look a certain way to be considered ‘polished’, ‘professional’ and ‘competent’ to do their job. As a result, the respect we receive by others in the workplace, and beyond, becomes tied to our appearance — enter appearance-based discrimination. Indeed, a study found that appearance, both for men and women, plays a key role in career advancement and income potential.
An important consideration bound to this issue is also the time and financial cost it commands. For men, looking polished and professional usually means a haircut and business casual attire. Meanwhile, for women to fulfill expectations regarding their appearance, they must spend significantly more time on beauty regimes and grooming routines. This might also be a good time to mention that female grooming products have been proven to be more expensive due to the infamous ‘pink tax’, which found that women pay more for products that are marketed towards them 42% of the time.
Unsurprisingly, research has found that people who thought women could achieve equality with men were also more likely to believe that women should spend more time on beauty and appearance. It seems that for female workers, there is an impossible Catch-22: ignoring these imposed beauty expectations could be damaging for their careers and abiding by them could be furthering them from achieving equality and defying these double standards.
8. Work-life imbalance
Another noticeable challenge that the working women face is the lack of work-life balance. Of course, everyone struggles with balancing their work and personal life. This was made especially obvious during the COVID-19 pandemic, with workers working from home reporting they were unable to switch off and maintain boundaries with their work.
That said, women are still facing societal expectations regarding family roles, especially in heterosexual relationships. In a survey by the Pew Research Center, mothers with children under 18 were three times more likely than men to say that being a working parent made it harder to advance in their careers. Women were also more likely to face career interruptions due to family matters, as 39% said they had to take significant time off work to care for a child or family member, compared to 24% of working fathers.
While these gender-based expectations seem to have improved over the past few years, COVID-19 hindered this change, as social distancing measures and the closing of schools in combination with parents working from home had more negative implications for women, as they were faced with an unequal distribution of housework and childcare, research has shown. Another study by the OECD also found that 61.5% of mothers of children under age 12 took on the majority or entirety of the extra care work during the pandemic, while 22.4% of fathers reported that they did.
As a result, this imbalance placed a significant amount of pressure on working women, which also placed a strain on their career and advancement within their roles, but also resulted in serious burnout.
9. Lack of childcare support
Following up from the previous point, it’s important to address the detrimental effects that lack of childcare support can have on working moms and their careers.
Indeed, research demonstrates how the high cost of childcare and limited help offered by employers in the US is reducing women’s participation in the workforce; from reduced hours to pay cuts to loss of employment altogether. Indeed, the same research found that just as fee-based childcare costs began to increase, the number of women in the labor force entered a 20-year-long decline.
In a CAP survey, participating mothers said that if they had access to affordable childcare, then they would seek higher-paying job roles, promotional opportunities and more working hours. However, it seems that lack of governmental support, especially when it comes to policies for paid family leave and support access, is causing a loss of female talent in the workplace.
10. Ego clashes
This phenomenon is not talked about as much as it should.
Women who find themselves progressing in their careers and achieving their professional objectives may face backlash from male partners. This behavior often manifests as sarcasm, passive-aggression, discouragement and guilt-tripping.
The reason? A study (PDF) published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that men’s implicit self-esteem was negatively affected by their romantic partner’s success. Meanwhile, women remained unaffected by their partner’s performance. This behavior was not limited to career performance and was often a result of other markers of success, such as achieving a fitness goal. The study theorizes that this behavior is tied to gender beliefs, as ‘’having a partner who experiences a success might hurt men’s implicit self-esteem, ambition and success”.
This behavior can have major implications for working women, as their success in the workplace could cue in toxic behavior from their partner, placing them at a crossroad. That is not to say that women should sacrifice or underplay their professional success to benefit of their partners’ egos (if anything, this should raise a red flag for them). However, this does go to show that even when women do manage to break the glass ceiling, this may have negative implications for their personal life.
11. Being talked over
This is a scenario that women are all too familiar with: You start making a point during a meeting only to be interrupted halfway through, talked over and have your idea handed back to you and presented as the culprit’s suggestion.
This might not seem like such a big issue at first — it’s something that everyone experiences every now and again. But the problem here is that women being interrupted whilst speaking is a systematic behavior that stems from women being viewed as less authoritative and influential figures, as Jessica Preece, associate professor in political science at BYU, told BYU Magazine. Preece goes on to explain that this behavior is not necessarily intentional. Rather, this dynamic is often the result of cultural and gendered messages that affect people’s perceptions of social engagement.
This, however, should not detract from the fact that women get interrupted 50% of the time in meetings; and 38% have experienced others taking credit for their ideas, according to McKinsey and LeanIn’s ‘Women in the Workplace’ report. Another study also suggests that women are 33% more likely to be interrupted when speaking.
12. Exclusion in male-dominated fields
An industry is considered to be male-dominated when it consists of 25% of women, or less. These often include engineering, finance, manufacturing, aviation and IT. It’s also important to mention that in the US, male-dominated fields have a higher earning potential. However, women within them still earn less.
Unfortunately, women who do choose to pursue a career within these fields are often faced with considerable challenges. These include pervasive stereotypes about their abilities and skills, higher stress and anxiety compared to women working in different fields, and lack of career advancement opportunities.
Indeed, in a Pew Research Center study, female participants working in male-dominated fields reported that they had felt isolated, been passed over for important assignments, been denied a promotion or turned down for a job because of their gender. Moreover, the same study found that women in male-dominated fields are more likely to experience sexual harassment and gender discrimination.
So, while women in STEM fields have been blazing the way for other female professionals, there is still a long way before women are welcomed in any industry and role.
Favoritism is quite a common occurrence in any work environment and can take many different forms: extra privileges, additional opportunities, undeserved promotions and general sense of entitlement.
In male-dominated fields, favoritism is often the result of gender-discrimination. This behavior can be even more detrimental for female workers who may miss out on promotions, career opportunities and equal pay with their male counterparts doing the same job.
Favoritism can also create a more hostile and unwelcoming environment that can stunt an individual’s growth and advancement in their career. All in all, this can be quite a demoralizing experience, especially in a field that is already dominated by male professionals.
14. "That time of the month"
The trope of the "overly emotional woman" is not new, and it often goes hand in hand with period shaming. It’s no secret that periods are associated with emotional outbursts and mood swings — a common myth that is often used against women to invalidate their reaction and feelings towards certain situations. You might be discussing an urgent matter with a colleague or taking part in a heated debate, only for your presented arguments to be shut down with "Is it that time of the month?"
Frustration, stress, excitement and disappointment are emotions we all experience at work. The real issue here is that women are labeled as the feelers, while men are told to suppress their emotions. This is, undeniably, a lose-lose situation.
In a study by CIPD, 47% of menstruators said that they experienced stigma. Meanwhile, 57% of those who experience severe symptoms and live with chronic conditions, such as endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome, have had to lie to their managers about the reason for taking sick leave.
The ridicule, lack of awareness and taboo that exists around these topics are detrimental and can also pose health risks for many menstruators.
15. Gender bias and discrimination in interviews
Unfortunately, inherent gender bias is exhibited by both male and female hiring managers, who have been found 1.5 times more likely to hire a male over a female candidate that are equal-performing candidates.
Meanwhile, gender discrimination at interviews often manifests through questions like “Are you married?” or ‘’Do you plan on having children?” These questions have probably left you wondering what your family plans have to do with the skills you can offer to the company. Although the hiring manager might just be asking to get to know you on a personal level, the interview is the wrong place to be doing it — in fact, in many cases, it’s illegal to inquire about an interviewees’ marital and familial status.
Whether these prejudiced behaviors are subconscious or intentional does not matter as, either way, they can stand in the way of a woman getting hired for a job she is evidently qualified for.
While the ground may be considerably more level than how it was a few decades ago, there is still a long way before we can say that there is true equality in the workplace (and beyond). Indeed, a lot of these issues are much more nuanced, and hence easier to dismiss and met with scrutiny by individuals who believe we have achieved gender equality.
Steps like governmental legislation, corporate diversity policies and individual action can go a long way. By bringing awareness to these issues and educating others on them, we can continue to pave the way for future generations and creating safe spaces for them to excel in.
How can we combat these workplace issues? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below!
This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 8 January 2018 and contains contributions by Joanna Zambas.