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  • Katica Roy

How Social Constructs About Gender Hinder Our Economic Potential

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

Social constructs regarding gender hinder women’s economic potential throughout their professional lives. It’s these social constructs that hinder a companies’ and our countries’ economic growth. Men are promoted at a 21% higher rate than women during critical early-career stages, and women still earn only 80 cents for every dollar a man makes.

Studies reveal that gender-based social constructs are partly responsible. The wage gap is even worse for women of color and trans or gender non-conforming individuals, who are four times more likely to live in poverty.

To understand how gender social constructs affect the economic potential of both the individual and the larger community, we must travel back to childhood, when gender roles and behavioral expectations are first formed.

What Are Gender Social Constructs?

Social constructs are ideas that have been created and accepted by the people in a society. When it comes to gender, social constructs regarding what it means to be a boy versus a girl usually begin as early as age six. They often convey the outdated message that girls are vulnerable and boys are strong. Even in the U.S., with gender-fluid marketing strategies, there is a perceived gender difference that can have far-reaching, negative consequences.

Gender Bias in Education

Researchers have found that girls often score higher than boys on name-blind math tests, but once presented with recognizable “boy” and “girl” names on the same tests, teachers award higher scores to boys. The study, conducted in a primary school, shows that teachers’ biased behavior at early stages of schooling have long-term implications for occupational choices as well as earnings in adulthood, since enrollment in advanced courses in math and science in high school is a prerequisite for post-secondary education in computer science, engineering and related fields. Low test scores often prevented girls from entering these courses as frequently as boys. Advanced courses were also worth more matriculation credits and researchers found a correlation between credits received and annual earnings at age 30. For example, each credit unit was associated with a gain of the equivalent of $343 per annum and having a matriculation certificate resulted in $4,230.

Hostility in the Workplace

Though women are increasing their STEM representation, progress is slow and these workplaces are still dominated by men, which can sometimes mean they are hostile places for women. One survey showed that 50 percent of women in STEM jobs say they have experienced any of eight forms of discrimination in the workplace because of their gender, including job promotions and equal wages. The survey also found that nearly half (48 percent) of female STEM workers in male-dominated workplaces say that sexual harassment is a problem where they work. Not surprisingly, more than half of women who work in STEM quit their jobs because they felt unsupported and marginalized, with 32 percent of them quitting after just one year. STEM is also found to be less tolerant of caregiving responsibilities, which leads to more than 40 percent of women quitting after starting families. When you consider the research that proves STEM jobs to be some of the highest paying in recent years and the projection that STEM fields will create 1 million jobs by 2020, the economic cost of shutting women out is devastating.

Fewer Job Promotions

For more than 30 years, women have been earning more bachelor’s degrees than men. They’re also asking for promotions as much as men, but not getting them. Women remain underrepresented at every level, especially in management positions, of which men hold 62 percent. Yet, companies benefit rom having women in leadership positions. A paper by the financial planning company MSCI found that having three or more women on a company’s board of directors helps companies perform better financially, with a Return on Equity (ROE) of 10 percentage points and Earnings Per Share (EPS) of 37 percent.

How We Function in the Workplace

Even when women do hold management positions, they are less likely to be taken seriously by the people who work for them. Because of gender social constructs, when men direct others, they’re often assumed to be assertive and competent. But when women direct others, they’re often disliked and labeled bossy and less likable. And not being likable in the workplace can have detrimental effects for women. One study showed that while employers valued competence and commitment among men applicants, they privileged women applicants who they simply perceived as likeable, viewing high-achieving women with more skepticism. A separate Rutgers University study showed that women who used self-promotion in an interview were seen as less hirable.

Social Security

Since women are paid less than men, they are more dependent on Social Security benefits. Even so, an average female worker generally receives a substantially smaller Social Security check than does a male worker. This is not surprising given that women have been paid lower wages than men throughout their careers and also the fact that they may have spent time outside the workforce devoted to unpaid caregiving.

Gender Equity and the Way Forward

While gender social constructs have hindered economic growth, there is a way forward: gender equity, or the fairness of treatment for women and men according to their respective needs. Companies can take several steps to ensure gender equity in their workplace, from hiring women in the early stages of their careers, to welcoming breadwinning mothers, to promoting a culture of inclusion. Research shows if there’s only one woman in your candidate pool, there’s statistically no chance she’ll get the job, so managers are encouraged to change the status quo of the finalist pool by including more than one woman. Knowing your company’s executive make-up will also reveal if gender bias is robbing women and your company of economic advancement.

After all, gender equity isn’t just the right thing to do on behalf of women, but on behalf of companies too. In research pioneered by Pipeline™ across 4,161 companies in 29 countries, we found that for every 10% increase in gender equity there is a one to two percent increase in revenue.

When women are given as many opportunities as men, we all win.

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