Gender discrimination and workplace

Gender discrimination and workplace


In 2000 the United Nations established the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These eight goals focused on international development were accepted by 193 member states of the United Nations as well as by 23 international organizations. One of MDGs became to promote gender equality and to empower women (Rao, 2012). Therefore, women’s rights and gender discrimination have become the important topics on the international agenda with the beginning of the twenty first century. Not only did international community aim to improve social status of women (i.e. living standards) but it also focused on the economic situation of women, in particular on gender inequality at work. Despite these ambitious goals, Global Report prepared by International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2011 warned that “Women continue to suffer discrimination in almost all aspects of employment, including the jobs they can obtain, their remuneration, benefits and working conditions, and their access to decision-making positions” (ILO, 2011, p.19). In the recent years there was a few well-known cases of gender discrimination at work. One of them is the example of Morgan Stanley’s, investment banking business. The company had to pay $54 million to its 300 female employees after they postulated that they have been treated unequally compared to their male colleagues in reference to payment and promotion opportunities. Following the statistics of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission a number of discriminatory lawsuits have increased in the last decade (Welle and Heilman, 2005). The issues presented above indicate that gender discrimination is still an inherent element of the work places.

The following essay is an in-depth analysis of gender inequality at work that aims to examine various types of gender discrimination in a workplace. First, the essay defines term “gender discrimination” and presents the methods of measuring discrimination in order to gain detail understanding of researched topic. Second, the essay analyzes changes in gender inequality between 1970[1] and 2010 such as labour market participation, pay gap and occupational segregation in order to examine the improvement of women’s working situation within last 40 years. Further, the essay considers current forms of gender discrimination, in particular problem of women’s career advancement and sexual harassment. Moreover, the essay studies the roots of gender inequality at work with an emphasis on gender stereotyping. Finally, the essay presents various actions taken by the national governments and international organizations in the last decade in order to combat gender discrimination.

Gender discrimination – definition

According to the EU legislation, gender discrimination may have a direct or indirect character. Direct discrimination is defined as a case where “one person is treated less favourably on grounds of sex than another is, has been or would be treated in a comparable situation” (Prechal and Burri, 2009, p. 4). Typical example of direct discrimination is wage gap between women and men who perform the same duties in a workplace. Direct discrimination does not include the situations where the sex of the person is a factor that determines the job. For instance, a male role in the movie has to be performed by a man (Welle and Heilman, 2005). In turn, indirect discrimination is regarded as a situation where “an apparently neutral provision, criterion or practice would put persons of one sex at a particular disadvantage compared with persons of the other sex unless that provision, criterion or practice is objectively justified by a legitimate aim, and the means of achieving that aim are appropriate and necessary” (Prechal and Burri, 2009, p. 4). A form of indirect discrimination is a part-time contract as a basis of women’s employment, typically preferred by the employers.

Over the past years a number of methods have been developed in order to analyze gender discrimination at work. Standard measures are women’s participation in labour force as well as the gender gap in earnings (Cotter, 2004). In 2008 the ILO introduced two new indicators. These indicators were occupational segregation by sex as well as female share of employment in managerial and administrative occupations[2]. It is worth to mention about three groups of indicators developed by the EU. First group are indicators that measure discrimination and aim to expose gaps, disadvantages and other differentials affecting people protected by equality policies and anti-discrimination law. Second group constitute indicators that measure progress with anti-discrimination law. They intend to analyze how quickly and accurately public policies instruments and legal tools are implemented. Finally there are indicators that measure the consequences of anti-discrimination law. Their purpose is to examine how effective the implemented policies are in combating inequalities (ILO, 2011). It is also important to add that the organizations use different methods of data collection and hence, the data on women employment and gender discrimination may vary. However, in order to gain a detail insight into the problem of gender discrimination at work it is crucial to consider these diversified data.

Changes in gender inequality at work between 1970 and 2010

Over the last forty years, there have been massive changes in the gender composition of the global workforce. Women have strengthened their position on the labour market and gender discrimination at work has tended to decline. Three indicators should be considered in order to demonstrate these transformations. These are labour force participation rate, occupational segregation and pay gap, as these indicators are often perceived as prime indicators of changes in women’s status (Cotter, 2004) and hence, have significant implications for gender discrimination at work. Considering first labour force participation rate, an increase of female participation rate has been observed between 1970 and 2008. As Appendix 1 presents women aged 25-54 increased their labour force participation rate progressively from 42% in 1970 to 74% in 2000 while the men aged 25-54 decreased their participation rate from 94% in 1970 to 86% (Cotter, 2004). According to the ILO’s methodology[3], global participation rate of women grew from 50.2% in 1980to 52.2% in 1990 and settled at 51.7% in 2008. In turn, male participation rate decreased gradually from 82% in 1980 to 77.7% in 2008 (ILO, 2011). An increased participation of women in the labour market is mostly responsible for the changing composition of the global workforce. Amongst the most important reasons of growing female participation rate are better access to education for women, changing social, religious and cultural norms, marital power or political regime (Acker, 2006). It is crucial to add that female participation rate depends on the factors such as race, age, education level or marital status and hence, may vary across different types of women[4] (Cotter, 2004).

In reference to the patterns in women’s and men’s occupations, women and men perform very different kinds of job and there is a strong division on female and male occupations. As Appendix 2 indicates most of women have been hired in female jobs. Between 1970 and 2010 a number of women working in female occupations have grown steadily what confirmed their increased participation in the labour market. One the other hand, over the past decades women have also gained an access to the jobs that had previously been unavailable to them. A number of women have successfully found employment in the professions such as lawyers and judges, doctors, architectures or policewomen (Appendix 3), typically perceived as male occupations. It is worth notice that there are still various professions that women have a limited access to. Amongst the most important are automobile mechanics as well as airplane pilots and navigators (Wright and Rogers, 2010).

Finally, pay gap between men and women is perhaps the least visible indicator of work-related gender inequality. From 1970 women’s average earnings have grown steadily, while men’s average earnings increased until the mid-1980s, stagnated until the early 1990s and then declined. In 1995 men’s average earnings started to increase again. Although the pay gap between women and men was reduced during the last 40 year, until this day women earn much less than men. In the 1970s the average women who worked full-time earned approximately 62% of the salary estimated for the average men at that time (Cotter, 2004). Currently, there is no statistics on the global gender pay gap, as it varies significantly across the regions. In 2010 the OECD report stated that the average gender pay gap for people being in full-time employment amounted to 17.6 % across the OECD countries (Appendix 4). It indicates that even the countries and regions strongly focused on the elimination of gender inequality at work still struggle with significant earnings gap. Moreover, the ILO postulates that there is still a large number of developing countries where women earn on average between 70-90% of men’s payment (ILO, 2011).

The following analysis of the changing patterns in gender inequality between 1970 and 2000 has two main implementations. First, gender discrimination at work still persists. The labour force is still dominated by men. Men and women are still highly concentrated in typically male and female occupations, respectively. Moreover, there is still a large inequality in the average earnings between men and women. Second, gender discrimination in the labour market has decreased since 1970. However, while a sharp decline in gender inequality falls on the 1970s and the 1980s, this decline seems to have stalled from the 1990s. The primary outcomes of the analysis by the end of the 2000s closely resemble the outcomes at the beginnings of the 1990s. It indicates that strengthening women’s position at work has mostly fallen on the 1970s and the 1980s, while the steps taken by the countries and organizations in last two decades brought much less positive changes to gender discrimination. It also indicates that no pattern of stability have been observed over these 40 years in reference to the reduction of gender discrimination (Cotter, 2004).

Gender discrimination in a workplace

Three primary indicators of the changes in women’s status at work do not reflect fully the problem of gender discrimination in the workplace any longer. In the previous decades a limited access to the labour market and pay gap were the signs of gender discrimination at work. Currently there are various forms of formal and informal discrimination of women in a workplace. While formal discrimination regards the limitations in the access to particular job positions, advancement opportunities and compensation for women, informal discrimination refers to the particular unfavourable situations that woman may face in a workplace. Five forms of discrimination[5] seem to be particularly visible in the current workplaces.

Considering first formal discrimination, its major form is women’s problem with promotion and climbing career ladder in a work place. There is a common opinion amongst the employers that the jobs which concentrate the most power (i.e. organizational leadership, public governance) are male occupations. These positions require particular attributes and skills such as decisiveness and task-orientation, believed to be inherent attributes of male workers. In result, women have significantly lower chances for promotions than their male colleagues (Welle and Heilman, 2005). In order to prove that, it is worth to mention the statistics of the European Institute for Gender Equality. Women represent on average 59% of university graduates within the EU. However, approximately 3% of president roles within the European companies are allocated to women. Similarly, only 12% of them find employment in the company’s management board. Moreover, in the EU the unemployment rate remains higher for women rather than men (Rchland, 2011). It is also important to notice that the EU is one of the most developed regions in the world that aims to promote equal employment opportunities. It indicates that the problem of promotion and successful career might be more serious in other regions across the world, in particular in developing countries due to the traditional perception of women’s responsibilities and limited access to education for women. For instance, in India women represent just under 1% of all positions in the management boards (Rchland, 2011). Another indicator of women’s discrimination in terms of promotion and career is a percentage of women’s representation in national parliaments, used by the United Nations. As Appendix 5 demonstrates, in the developing countries women’s constitute 18% of the representation in national parliaments, while this percentage is only insignificantly higher for the developed regions and amounts to 23%. Hence, women across the world have also got serious problem with accessing prestige public positions (The United Nations, 2011).

Regarding informal discrimination, its prominent example is the employment status of women. As Appendix 6 shows, part-time employment is a common characteristic of the female labour participation, even in the most developed countries across the globe. While some women decide to knowingly choose part-time jobs in order to combine employment with household responsibilities, a significant number of women is forced by the employers to choose part-time work, as it is preferable form of women’s employment in most of the companies (ILO, 2010). Additionally, women are more likely hired in informal sectors than man are. This trend is particularly strong in various developing countries such as Kenya, Chad or Bolivia (Appendix 7). These forms of employment have various costs for women such as low job security, low payments[6] as well as limited access to the basic public services (i.e. public health care). As a result, women are exposed to the marginalization (ILO, 2010; The World Bank, 2012).

Another form of informal discrimination is sexual harassment. Research conducted by ILO revealed, that approximately 40-50% of women in the EU complain about various forms of sexual harassment and unwanted sexual behaviours that they had to face in a workplace. Similarly, UN’s analysis in Asia-Pacific countries showed that 30-40% of women in this region experienced similar abuses. In New South Wales (Australia) sexual harassment became the largest category of work-related complaints in 2009 (ILO, 2011). These examples of sexual harassment strongly underline an existing problem of gender discrimination in the workplace. It is important to add that these unwanted sexual behaviours tend to increase in the recent years. Due to the current economic crisis, women’s employment is highly precarious. Many employers and male workers at the prestige position within a company may take advantages of current situation on the labour market in order to increase these negative behaviours (ILO, 2011).

Finally, informal discrimination of women at work also concerns maternity status. The Maternity Protection Convention from 2000 states that the benefits should be provided for pregnant women so they can ensure accurate level of living standards and good health both for themselves and for the child. According to the ILO survey from 2010, in a number of countries across the world the governments do not provides maternity benefits by themselves. They also fail to obligate employers to deliver such benefits. These negative patterns exist in mostly in developing countries. However, there is also a significant number of developed countries such as the United States where the national legislation does not obligate to provide cash benefits to pregnant women. Hence, as a consequence of pregnancy women have been disadvantaged at work (ILO, 2011).

The roots of gender discrimination in a workplace

As gender discrimination commonly appears in the workplaces, it is crucial to consider the causes of this discrimination. A major determinant of gender discrimination at work are cultural beliefs about the gender, as people translate “ideas about gender into discriminatory behaviours through sex categorization and gender stereotyping”. (Bobbit-Zeher, 2011, p.766). These stereotypes can be further divided into two groups, descriptive stereotypes and prescriptive stereotypes.While descriptive stereotypes refers to the collection of attributes and traits that has been unique for women or men, prescriptive stereotype concerns a set of characteristics and attributes that define what women and men should be like. These stereotypes of gender may lead to different ways of discrimination. Descriptive stereotyping will cause discriminatory behaviour when the attributes associated with that stereotype does not match the attributes required in a particular job. A good example is that women are less likely hired in male gender-typed jobs. Typical attributes of women are relationship-orientation and nurturance, while male gender-typed jobs require usually decisiveness and task-orientation that are regarded as typical male characteristics. Hence, the employers often believe that men will be more successful in male occupations due to their congenital attributes. This fact works against women, particularly in reference to highly prestige job vacancies in senior management. These positions are perceived as male gendered-typed and hence, women are less likely to perform them. In turn, prescriptive stereotyping will lead to discriminatory behaviours when the attributes associated with gender do not match expectation of employers and coworkers. This stereotype is based on the assumption what women should be like and how she should behave. If women undermine typical attributes of women by her behaviour (i.e. being extremely successful while performing male gender-typed job) it might lead to disapproval and hostile reactions from employers and coworkers (Welle and Heilman, 2005).

It is important to add that also organizational structure, policies and practices contribute to gender discrimination. For instance, the company is dominated by male workers may decide to hire women. It may lead to women’s exposure to sexual harassment and various forms of provocation from their male coworker’s side, as a consequence of men’s attempts to demonstrate their strong position within a company in order to preserve it. Also actions and interactions within a company may cause gender discrimination. Institutional actors are responsible for hiring and firing, performance evaluation and promotions. Therefore, actions and interactions within a company affect both gendered belief and organizational context and hence, may contribute to gender discrimination (Bobbit-Zeher, 2011).


To sum up, the following essay provided strong evidences that gender discrimination is an inherent element of the contemporary workplaces. Three primary indicators of changes in women’s employment status proved that gender inequality had significantly declined over last forty years while the position of women on the labour market strengthened. Nowadays women have a significant share in global labour force and enjoy an access to these vacancies that were previously reserved for male workers. Nonetheless, until this day women meet significant forms of gender discrimination in the workplaces. One of its most prominent forms are difficulties in climbing career ladder and problems with advancement opportunities that women have to face in most of the workplaces. Until this day there is still a large pay gap between women and men, even in the developed countries. Additionally, women are often refused a full-time employment and are hired on the basis of the part-time contracts. Further, women often find difficulties in fulfilling obligations by their employers when they are on the maternity leave. Finally, women are exposed to various discriminatory behaviours from their male colleagues, in particular to sex harassment and various forms of provocation. The gender discrimination has strong roots in the cultural views of gender and the stereotypical concept of women as fragile and weak. Also practices and policies implemented by organizations are in favour of spreading gender discrimination.

A number of positive steps was taken in the recent years in order to tackle the problem of gender discrimination. For instance, the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprises launched the Female Future programme (FF) in 2002. It was an eighteen months training which main purpose was to identify talented women in the Norwegian labour force and to move them quickly into leadership roles. This program was further accepted by other countries such as Japan, Austria or Uganda (Rchland, 2011). Another example can be EU Strategy for Equality between Women and Men (2010-2015) accepted by the European Commission. The strategy defined five priorities which should be realized to improve gender equality. These priorities were equal economic independence; equal pay for work and work for equal value; equality in decision-making; dignity, integration and the end to gender-based violence as well as gender equality in external actions (ILO, 2011). Further, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) started a campaign, Decent Work, Decent Life Campaign that intended to promote the rights of these workers that are highly vulnerable to discrimination. Over a hundred trade unions from 64 countries have been involved in this campaign. Also some national governments took steps to combat gender discrimination. For instance, Norway developed a program which obligated all the large publicly limited companies to ensure that 40% of their board members constitute women. This program is currently implemented in France (Rchland, 2011). Although a significant number of various initiatives have been developed to promote gender equality at work in the recent years, more time is needed to assess the effectiveness of these steps.

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