Workplace gender inequality has not evaporated

Written by Anita Pilkerton-Plumb, MSW, LCSW

Published April 22, 2018 Lancaster Newspapers, Lancaster PA

It is wonderful to see successful women highlighted in your March 18 story, Local business women in startup, corporate cultures discuss how gender affected their careers. I am happy for these women and agree with Zeta Smith who is quoted in the article as saying that it is a lack of education that causes multiple acts of harassment in the workplace. Yet, it is disappointing that the article, and the women interviewed, do not acknowledge gender inequality in the workplace as a broader societal issue.

Given extensive data collected since women entered the workplace, we know that women (as a group) experience inequality and harassment in all sectors of the workforce. Reliable data can be found on the following websites: Catalyst, the US Bureau of Labor, and the Census Bureau.  Successful women take a degree of risk if they reveal inequalities they have experienced. For example, the US EEOC found that 75% of women experience retaliation when they report sexual harassment. Revealing harassment or gender discrimination makes women appear potentially ‘ungrateful’ and makes them vulnerable to retribution. Many women put on a face of optimism that actually perpetuates societal gender bias as it discredits the struggle that many women experience.

It is likely there are hundreds of local women who have struggled for every one woman highlighted in this article. I am a successful small business owner, and I, too, am confident that my success evolved from my drive and my passion. However, it certainly did not come without gender discrimination and harassment. Two examples from my early career are most memorable. To earn money to continue college, I worked on a PennDOT road crew. It was hard work and an amazing experience in many ways, though my assignment to be supervised daily by a man who jested that “there is nothing wrong with rape, women just have to lay there and enjoy it” was fairly terrifying. His words were intended to get a reaction, intimidate, establish control, and to test my fortitude as a woman in a male-dominated field. In another early experience, I was denied equitable pay when transferring to a new position. There was no performance-based reason given; I was simply told to accept it. This was a directive from a female CEO (her behavior is known as internalized gender bias and is a testament to the larger societal context), and was backed by the mostly male board. I don’t need to look far to know that my encounters are not isolated. Beyond the data, I frequently hear similar stories from friends, acquaintances, and clients.

I encourage all women to reflect on the full spectrum of their work experiences. While it is undeniable that the talents and skill of women are exploding in the workplace, there is careful analysis to do. Women can absolutely succeed in all sectors, yet until we address the entire scope of gender inequality, that success will come with a price and will remain elusive to many women.

If it were true that women can reach the top without any barriers, simply if they worked hard enough, would this article have even been newsworthy? Let this be our goal. Let us get to the place where women and men work side by side, with opportunities for the same pay, without a gender lens or special recognition for success based on gender, and with the freedom to be fearless achievers in any field they choose. On the way, let’s be real, and let’s be honest, about the reality that women currently face in order to gain a sustainable shift in workplace culture.

Anita Pilkerton-Plumb

Lancaster PA

Anita Pilkerton-Plumb is a licensed clinical social worker in Lancaster, Pennsylvania who works with children, teens, adults, and families. She has a teaching and training background that includes women’s issues and sexual harassment in the workplace, and is a certified sexual assault advocate.

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