How workplace equality perceptions are shaped by gender

New research shows just how differently men and women perceive issues of workplace equality -- and how those perceptions shift (or don't) over time.

gender equality scale
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New research from company ratings and review platforms InHerSight and Kununu reveal just how differently men and women perceive several key workplace factors, including issues like management opportunities for women, female representation in top leadership, access to equal opportunities, parental leave policies, family growth support and mentorship opportunities.

While both men and women start their careers mostly optimistic about the opportunities for advancement and their respective representation in management and senior leadership, those perceptions shift drastically over time -- at least for women.

Men see things differently

The Gender Equality Survey polled 5,000 working professionals, 38 percent of whom were men and 62 percent of whom were women, in September and October 2016, with the goal of determining how men and women's workplace experiences differ. The results show that men don't accurately assess what women experience in the workplace and, as such, rate their companies' support for women significantly higher than women do, says Ursula Mead, CEO and founder of InHerSight.

"We wanted to gauge perception of how workplaces specifically support women, but not just from women. We know it's hard to see things from a perspective that's different from your own, and what we knew anecdotally was that men are very rarely asked about women's experiences in the workplace so it's very hard for them to see the challenges. But this backs that up with data -- that men have these blind spots when it comes to workplace equality," Mead says.

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Can't get no satisfaction

Survey participants were asked to rate their satisfaction with a number of factors across past and present employers. Not surprisingly, men were more satisfied overall with 15 out of 16 workplace factors. The only area where they were less satisfied than women was with their paid time off, according to the results.

There are six major blind spots the survey revealed where men rate their companies' policies, culture and initiative higher than women do, including management opportunities for women, female representation in top leadership, access to equal opportunities, maternity leave policies, family growth support and mentorship programs, according to the research.

Overall, women place greater importance on work/life balance and compensation/benefits than men do; 80 percent of women say work/life balance is most important to them compared to 70 percent of men and 76 percent of women and just 68 percent of men rated compensation and benefits as "very important," according to the research.

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Equality ebbing?

What's more interesting, according to Mead, is that women's own perception of the equality of career and management opportunities available worsens as they advance in their career. Early career women and men are consistently satisfied with the equality of opportunity available to them -- in fact, women are slightly more satisfied; 43 percent to men's 42 percent, according to the research. But by the time women reach senior management level, only 27 percent say they are satisfied with the equality of opportunity available to them, compared to a fairly consistent 39 percent of men.

"When women set out in their careers, they are more optimistic about the access to equal opportunities than men, even if it's by a slim margin. But as they progress, you can see from the data that there's a huge drop in perception. Women start to see that they're being denied promotions. They're being passed over in favor of men. They're coming back from maternity leave and seeing their career trajectory blocked or slowed down. Or, they're seeing their friends and coworkers experience that," Mead says. Over time, she adds, women begin to see the biases and discrimination that happen in the workplace and understand that there are factors impacting their ability to succeed.

It's also problematic that men can't see through the blind spots outlined in the research, Mead says, because unless everyone pulls together to make a change, it won't happen, she says. Even in organizations that claim to be transparent and provide equal opportunity in theory, in practice, what women are actually reporting is the opposite -- and men just aren't seeing that, Mead says.

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Equality in practice

"So many companies will claim they have equal opportunity and equal access; they'll have policies and benefits like parental leave, flex time, all of these great things. It looks great on paper. But if, in practice, in reality, women are paid less than men, or they come back from a maternity leave and they aren't eligible for promotions, or they have large projects taken away from them, or countless other ways women are sidelined, then that isn't actually supportive," Mead says.

Mead says she hopes this research will help highlight for men the challenges women still face both in access to opportunity and in workplace equality overall and spur everyone to help make the workplace more equal not just in the hypothetical, but in practice.

"We all want to believe that we have the same access to opportunity, and that we all can succeed based on merit and hard work. But when you see these other factors, it really impacts how you see your career path. We wanted to take these anecdotes and bring hard data to back them up so everyone understands what we're up against," she says.

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