Do Men Hold Women Back At Work?

I often think about whether my daughter will enter a workplace without any biases against women. After all, we’re supposedly in a ‘woke’ culture, so surely the playing field is now level. But there’s often a big difference between what is said on social media and what is happening in the real world.

Indeed, it seems that the COVID pandemic hit women more than men in the labour market. Part of this was due to lockdowns impacting sectors, like hospitality, dominated by women. But another factor was the additional pressure on employed women from working mothers having to undertake additional childcare and teaching duties with school closures and working adult daughters having to look after parents. This notably impacted the career aspirations of women.

And now with most companies urging workers to return to the office, the question is how men and women will interact after having not worked together for a while. Before the pandemic, a PEW survey found that 60% of women had been sexually harassed at work. At the same time, the survey found that men were finding it harder to know how to interact with women for fear of being accused of harassment. Will we return to this, or has something changed?

But rather than hoping we have learned the right lessons, it’s good for men like myself to remind ourselves of ways in which we hold women back at work, often without realising it. Most studies seem to identify four ways this happens:

  1. Getting women to ‘Prove-It-Again’When it comes to promotions, men tend to ask women for lots of evidence for their promotion such as past achievements and skills. But when it comes to other men, that gets thrown out of the window and instead they focus on the man’s potential not past achievements. This allows men to move up the corporate ladder faster as they don’t need to prove themselves again like women.
  2. Force women to walk ‘the Tightrope’. Men tend to see women either as doormats (feminine, soft) or ice queens (masculine, hard). If a man has ‘soft’ traits he’s seen as charming, while if he has ‘hard’ traits, he’s seen as being a leader. Women, therefore, have to balance on a tight rope of being neither too feminine (soft) nor too masculine (cold), unlike men.
  3. Assume there is no ‘Tug of War’ amongst women. Men tend to lump all women together as being part of the ‘sisterhood’. They assume all women will look out for each other. Yet men don’t assume the same for other men and are careful who they align themselves with or others with. For women, they ignore the possibility that a woman may not be the best match for (say) managing or mentoring another woman. This short-sightedness creates additional obstacles for women.
  4. Think that women will hit ‘the Maternal Wall’. Men tend to assume that women will lose ambition after having a child. Meanwhile, they, men, will in no way lose their ambition after having a child. The question doesn’t even arise. This mindset puts women on the ‘mummy career track’, that is, a dead-end.

On top of that, studies find that men should not:

And men should:

So armed with these insights, hopefully, men like me contribute to making the workplace a level playing field for women.

Good luck



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