Anyone who’s been following the newest season of Mad Men is likely well aware of the workplace challenges that women once faced. In the 1960s (when the show takes places) and even for a couple decades afterwards, women were expected to largely work in subservient jobs and take home less pay than men. They were often confined to “female” positions such as teaching, nursing, and secretarial work. They were many times treated inappropriately in the workplace setting. And, of course, they were expected to sacrifice their career in order to raise their children and take care of their families.
Surely we have come a long way from this era, and women today enjoy a level of workplace equality and opportunity that would have seemed unconceivable just a generation ago. But challenges remain, not the least among them being the disproportionately low number of women who are made partners at major firms.
While an entrepreneur’s chief focus may be raising capital and avoiding small business debt, the corporate employee’s main goal is likely to be a promotion-oriented one. And it is here, in several industries, where the difference between male and female workers is especially stark. Although women enter major legal and consulting firms at similar proportion to men, it is a far smaller number that receive those crucial promotions and ultimately become managers, executives, and partners.
In some cases an overt discrimination may be behind this discrepancy, but it is more likely the case that more subconscious and subtle determinants are at work. Specifically, the promotional system is often a male-dominated and male-biased one – one that naturally gives advantages to men without requiring any sort of discriminatory policy.
If you work in a firm you’ve likely seen signs of such a male-biased promotional system. When major deals are made at a bar or on a golf course, that reflects an inherent bias that keeps female associates further removed from the process. When a company’s male-dominated partners take on mentees of the same gender, they are furthering this bias by creating a positive feedback loop: male partners help male associates become partners, and so on.
So how can a woman in such a field rise up against the bias programmed into the system? Perhaps the best approach is one that throws social conventions to the wind. While a female worker may feel uncomfortable forming a close business relationship with a male superior, such relationships are often crucial in the promotion process. Similarly, while a woman may feel it best to be less aggressive and open about her desire for a promotion, she may ultimately need to explicitly show that she seeks an executive role just as much as her male colleague does.
We live in a business world where bias, when it exists, is far more likely to be ingrained and systematic than conscious and personal. As such, it is often to the businesswoman’s benefit that such biases are countered, contested, and brought to light.
Amanda Green is a guest writer who has written extensively on the subject of business and personal finance.
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