Gender Bias in the Workplace: Bridging the Gap for Women in Business

Gender bias in the workplace continues to limit women’s success. Learn more about gender biases and how to bridge the wage gap for women in business.
Woman meeting with coworkers at table

While women have made strides in advancing gender equity in the workplace, gaps persist. Women still earn less, get promoted less frequently, and continue to be underrepresented in the highest leadership positions in business.

Yet the workforce’s biggest source of untapped strength may be its underrepresented workers. That’s because U.S. companies that pay, hire, and promote people from diverse groups reap long-term financial benefits. According to findings from Boston Consulting Group reported in a 2020 Forbes article, workforce diversity correlated with a company’s adaptability and creativity.

Business leaders can move their industry forward and foster more inclusive, equitable environments for all employees — starting with recognizing the gender bias in the workplace women still face.

Gender Barriers and Bias in the Workplace

Gender bias exists when a person faces unfair disadvantages (or benefits from unearned advantages) because of their gender.

In business, women continue to experience the negative effects of gender bias, namely lower pay — women’s annual earnings were less than 83% of men’s in 2020 with an even wider pay gap for women of color, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data.

Entrepreneurs also face gender bias. According to HSBC Private Banking’s survey of over 1,200 entrepreneurs, U.S. women secured an average of 8% less capital than their male peers.

Worse, the pandemic stymied progress toward closing the pay gap. Women’s labor force participation rate was at only 55.8% in February 2021, reports the BLS (the same rate as in April 1987). A lack of child care, layoffs, and other pandemic pressures have laid bare just how common gender bias in the workplace is.

Caregiver Bias

Our society continues to place the majority of caregiving responsibilities — for children and adults — on women. As a result, women are more likely than men to make tough decisions to leave or take steps out of the workforce:

  • Postponing opportunities for advancement
  • Taking unpaid leave
  • Scaling back hours
  • Seeking more flexible or inconsistent work, such as part-time work, contracting, and freelance jobs

The pandemic especially hurt caregivers. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) found that 1.4 million fewer mothers with school-aged children were working in January 2021 compared to the year before.

Society also expects women to care for their elderly relatives. The AAUW found that around 25% of women aged 45 to 65 care for an older person.

Clearly, the need to leave the labor force to work as an unpaid caregiver limits women’s ability to advance in paid positions. The result? Gender bias in the workplace: less advancement, fewer pay increases, and a resulting gender pay gap.

Motherhood Bias

Not only does our society often expect women to work as unpaid caregivers, mothers face discrimination in the form of the “motherhood penalty.” Women who are mothers experience the following consequences of gender bias compared to women without children :

  • Lower salaries
  • Fewer promotions
  • Fewer job offers

Meanwhile, as mothers in the workforce get passed over for promotions and earn less, working fathers make 119% of what men without children earn, according to estimates by the AAUW. Thus, if mothers incur a penalty for becoming parents, fathers reap benefits of a “fatherhood boost.”

Meanwhile, as mothers in the workforce get passed over for promotions and earn less, working fathers make 119% of what men without children earn, according to estimates by the AAUW. Thus, if mothers incur a penalty for becoming parents, fathers reap benefits of a “fatherhood boost.”

“Women’s Work” Bias

Society undervalues work done by women, as shown by occupational segregation, in which one gender is overrepresented in a particular field or workforce. The AAUW reports that occupational segregation accounts for up to 51% of the disparity between men’s and women’s earnings.

In women-dominated fields, companies pay workers lower salaries than companies in fields dominated by men — even when the jobs require the same level of education, training, and skills.

Moreover, women are more likely to work in the low-wage workforce, where they account for around two-thirds of workers. Such jobs offer fewer employee benefits, including health insurance, paid time off, sick leave and other forms of job security. This leads to more women leaving the workforce entirely during times of instability.

Another result of this “woman’s work” bias is that women who become skilled workers often face stricter qualification expectations than their male peers. In a study of almost 30,000 workers reported in Yale Insights, women were 14% less likely to be promoted each year than men. The major factor preventing women from promotion? Managers consistently judged women as having less potential for leadership than their male peers.

That means, to advance, women often must significantly outperform men — not simply meet standard qualifications for promotion.

Intersectional Issues

The gender pay gap reflects not only gender bias in the workplace but other biases and prejudices about what constitutes the “ideal worker.” Systemic racism, ableism, classism, heteronormative biases, and other pervasive forms of discrimination compound to impose barriers on women trying to advance in their careers.

Navigating gender biases at work can be especially difficult for women who stand out in corporate America. According to a 2021 study by McKinsey in partnership with Lean In, women who were “onlys” — the only person of their gender identity, race, or ethnicity at work — were more likely to be heavily scrutinized by co-workers and more likely to encounter negative stereotypes at work.

Supporting Women in Business: Tips to Bridge the Gap

Business leaders must recognize the importance of elevating women to an equal status at work. To reduce gender bias in the workplace, consider the following suggestions.

Expand Child Care and Paid Family Leave

Adding more support for parents and caregivers can help alleviate the burden for women in the workplace.

Policies that companies can adopt to bridge the gap for women in business include offering and expanding access to:

  • Paid sick days
  • Paid family leave
  • Comprehensive paid medical leave
  • Child care services

Policies like these can minimize job loss and ensure better economic security for all workers, especially women, who continue to bear the burden of caregiving in U.S. society.

Provide Ongoing Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity Training

Deep-seated biases against women in business cannot be unlearned overnight. Companies should invest in ongoing employee education to see lasting culture change. A single training is typically insufficient — consistent, reinforced messages that women face gender bias in the workplace is a good place to start.

Companies also must put their inclusive ideas into practice. For example, companies can send managers reminders about how bias can influence employee evaluations before they write their annual reviews. This practice of naming types of biases can help improve outcomes for women and other people from underrepresented groups.

Bridge the Gap with a Robust Business Education

The gender bias in the workplace limits women and the companies they work for, foreclosing possibilities for creativity and innovation. To correct for this, savvy employers and workers alike should become aware of the extent to which gender biases continue to hold valuable contributors back.

Students looking to succeed in business should start with the right education. Explore St. Catherine University’s online business degree programs, where students gain experience in planning, strategizing, and managing all aspects of business, from allocating resources to creating innovative business plans. St. Kate’s programs equip graduates with the necessary skills to become leaders in business by leveraging their unique stories and experiences.