Window into women’s collective experiences in the workplace


According to Tshinondiwa Ramaite, in her masters research, entitled ‘South African female individual’s perceptions and experiences of their gender and leadership roles’, ‘The underrepresentation of women in senior and top management positions in the private sector continues to be a problem in South Africa’.

This is supported by data from McKinsey’s, which recently surveyed 60 major corporations. The survey showed that both the number and the percentage of women fall off dramatically in the higher ranks of organizations. In the research, a total 325 000 women had entry level positions, 150 000 made it into middle management, and only 7000 made it to Vice President, senior vice president or CEO.`

What is the reason for so many women falling off the ladder in such huge numbers with a special few that ends up at the top of the foodchain?

First of all, we all expect to be judged on our merits at work—to be recognized for our accomplishments and our unique talents, insights, and efforts. But does that actually happen? What is the collective experience of women in this regard?

According to a recent Catalyst study of 1,660 business school graduates, which examined the nature of projects given to high-potential employees, Men get more of the critical assignments that lead to advancement than women do. This already shortchanges women on the upward mobility scale as they are unlikely to reach the C-Suite as much as men would do. In a different study of two large stockbrokerages, Wharton professor Janice Madden found that saleswomen earned less than salesmen because they’d been systematically given inferior accounts that generated smaller commissions and then denied support staff, mentors, and other amenities that would have helped them perform better, suggesting that outright discrimination can be disguised as merit pay.

In a classic discrimination experiment, sociology professors at Stanford University, Shelley Correll, Stephen Benard, and In Paik asked college students to rate a pair of job applicants after examining information packets that included résumés, personal fact sheets, and notes from screening interviews. After establishing that the application materials presented the candidates as equally qualified, the researchers altered them to indicate that one applicant was a parent. When being considered for the same job, mothers were significantly less likely to be recommended for hire, and when they were, they were offered $11,000 less in starting salary, on average, than childless women. Fathers were not penalized at all. The raters, displaying a clear form of status-based discrimination, revealed that they assumed the mothers to be inherently less competent and less committed.

Correll and Benard found in a similar follow-up experiment, that Interestingly female raters (not the male ones) judged the mothers to at workplace to be less likable than the fathers and the childless women, and this normative discrimination produced the same result—fewer offers, less money.

As a result, 90% of women left the workplace, not to care for their families as many people think, but because of workplace problems, frustration and long hours. Two-thirds of those who left tried part-time work but found it problematic; since they’d been putting in long weeks, part-time tended to mean 40 hours of work for 20 hours’ worth of pay. Factoring even more into decisions to opt out entirely, though, was the inability to work part-time without being marginalized. If high-potential women are leaving their careers to care for their families, they’re not doing it on purpose. That’s the conclusion Hunter College professor Pamela Stone drew from a study of 54 female high achievers, recruited mostly from alumnae of four selective colleges and universities. The women pursued their careers an average of 11 years; 60% worked well past the birth of their second child. None was pushed out.

Other challenges facing women, which is no less profound, is what a host of researches call ‘insidious effect of benevolent sexism—the view that women are inherently in need of protection and special consideration—on women’s advancement’.

When George Mason psychology professor Eden King and five colleagues surveyed energy industry managers, for instance, the women reported receiving less criticism—but also less challenging developmental assignments—than their male counterparts. Similar results from a subsequent study by the same team conducted with thousands of managers in England’s National Health Service suggest that rather than a mark of favor, less criticism was a sign of condescension.

A trio of researchers—Monica Biernat of the University of Kansas, consultant M.J. Tocci, and Joan Williams of the Hastings College of the Law— found that women received more positive comments (excellent! stellar! terrific!) than the men, but only 6% of the women (as opposed to 15% of the men) were mentioned as potential partner material, reflecting, the researchers concluded, the application of lower standards to the women and (self-fulfilling) lower expectations.

South Africa follows these narratives almost to the latter. According to HRSC’s report entitled,’Women leaders in the workplace: The intangible barrier’, ‘a closer analysis of South Africa’s score in the area of economic participation and opportunity reveals disparities regarding gender equality.

Firstly, men’s predominance in positions of organisational power, coupled with their well established professional and social network patterns, provide them with greater access to information and support. Women often have difficulty breaking into this professional support system.

It seems scales are tilted against women from the very start. More troubling is that many man are not aware of this. More man than women think there is more gender equality than not, as a result they continue to be blind to so much weight that weighs heavy on women and their advancement.

A new lever of consciousness is required, if we dont want to have the same conversation 50 years from now.

Thembani Makata is National Secretary General of the South African Students Congress (SASCO) and Deputy Secretary General of the South African Youth Council