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Harvard Business School Study Shows that Subtle Gender Discrimination in Workplace Can Lead to Significant Disparities in Senior Leadership Roles

Researchers at Harvard Business School (HBS) and Hunter College recently issued a report based on their survey of more than 25,000 HBS graduates on issues related to work, family responsibilities, and the gender gap in senior management positions in the workplace. The study concludes that these highly educated and ambitious professional women are and have been “leaning in,” well before Sheryl Sandberg coined the phrase, despite having significantly more childcare responsibilities than their male peers. Yet, these women have not earned senior management roles at the same pace as their male counterparts.   These results make clear that gender discrimination is still rampant in the workplace, even in the upper echelons of corporate America.

The survey showed that HBS men have been given more powerful leadership roles than their female counterparts. Specifically, the men were significantly more likely than women to have direct reports, profit-and-loss responsibility, and positions in senior management. However, the gender gap between men and women cannot be explained by the conventional wisdom that women “opt out” of ambitious career tracks to be home with their children. Approximately 74 percent of HBS women in Gen X (ages 32 to 48) are working full time, and of both Gen X and Baby Boomers (ages 49-67), only 11 percent of women surveyed stayed at home full-time to take care of their children. Interestingly, these figures are almost identical to a study conducted almost two decades earlier by Deloitte & Touche, which showed that 70% of women who left Deloitte continued to be employed full time and fewer than 10% were out of the workforce to care for children.

The study further found that most of the small percentage of women who stayed at home did so because their careers were “unfulfilling . . . with dim prospects for advancement.” According to the authors, many of the women who left the workforce to take care of children received “the message, that they are no longer considered ‘players,’” which was “communicated in various, sometimes subtle ways: They may have been stigmatized for taking advantage of flex options or reduced schedules, passed over for high-profile assignments, or removed from projects they once led.” Other studies support these findings, showing that women suffer lower pay and fewer promotions after having children. However, according to the HBS study, these women did not want to become “mommy-tracked” after having families, but instead wanted challenging and fulfilling job responsibilities that kept them engaged.

The study’s authors make the same recommendations that have been made time and again by others who have spoken on these issues – to change the organizational structure of companies to level the playing field for caregivers of both genders, to allow for different full-time entry points for women who were part-time or on leave, or to encourage and respect the use of flextime policies. While such broad-based changes are no doubt welcome in the workplace, they will not happen overnight and do not address the underlying issue that the study itself recognizes. The ultimate reason women have been held back in the workplace is the unfounded assumption that women value family life over career and want their careers to take a backseat as a result. In other words, women with family obligations are stereotyped and discriminated against based on their gender.

If a woman is rejected for a position, passed over for promotion, demoted, or terminated despite strong performance simply because her employer makes personnel decisions based on this stereotype, such conduct may violate state and federal anti-discrimination laws. This type of discrimination is subtle and often hard to recognize when it is happening because it is seemingly based on good intentions and professional norms based on what other female employees have done to balance their childcare responsibilities. Managers may simply make assumptions that when a woman announces a pregnancy or has children she will want a reduced work schedule, less stressful job assignments, or less demanding management roles, and act based on those assumptions. Moreover, as a recent study has shown, professional women may not recognize this type of treatment as discrimination and, in fact, may buy into the professional norm that they should be “mommy tracked” after they have children. Employees in such situations often do not get legal help at all or wait until they are terminated, which is often too late to challenge failure to promote or demotion decisions that occurred years earlier.

The subtle cues of discrimination in cases involving professional women in so-called “white collar” fields lie in stark contrast to the recent $185 million verdict against Autozone for pregnancy and gender discrimination. In that case, there was direct evidence of pervasive and vile discrimination against the plaintiff, a female store manager, who was told she could not handle her job when she announced her first pregnancy, was constantly berated and harassed by her male manager, and was demoted a few months after she announced her pregnancy. The plaintiff also presented evidence to the jury that Autozone had a stated policy and practice of terminating or failing to promote women into management positions. In awarding $185 million in punitive damages, $20 million more than the plaintiff’s lawyers asked for, the jury clearly decided to send a message to Autozone about its discriminatory practices.

While the discrimination in cases involving professional women may not be as obvious as in a male-dominated industry such as autoparts, the HBS study shows that its impact is pervasive and has had a direct impact on the number of women in senior leadership positions. Despite the challenges of making such claims, women can and should protect their legal rights to ensure they are able to succeed in the workplace.

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