There's No Gender Equality Problem At Work If I Don't Believe There's One

CarbonNYC [in SF!] via / CC BY

Man with look of disbelief

CarbonNYC [in SF!] via / CC BY


You can’t get an answer to a question you don’t ask. And you also can’t fix a problem you don’t see. 

This is what’s so disturbing about a new Payscale survey of 140,000 people from a broad range of industries. As reported by Fortune, “the survey found that 67% of men believe that in most workplaces, ‘men and women have equal opportunities’. Yet only 38% of women say that’s the case.”

The implication, of course, is that men (who are the vast majority of leaders at companies) may be less likely to prioritize gender diversity of initiatives to support women simply because they don’t think there is a problem in the first place. Is there any single objective measure to this complex question about equal opportunity?

We doubt it. While there are certainly objective measures of equality (e.g. equal pay audits such as those conducted by unions or brave employers like Salesforce, Apple and Accenture), the idea of equal “opportunity” is much fuzzier. Do women feel they are given an equal opportunity for job openings, promotions, international assignments and plum projects? These feelings are by definition subjective, but are also very “real” in the day-to-day life of a female employee. Employee engagement surveys and employee review sites provide employers some way to fill that information gap.

While it’s not surprising that more women perceive inequities in the workplace than men, it’s interesting to see that people generally believe this gender inequality is someone else’s problem. In other words, women and men were more likely to believe that their
own companies were fair: 75% of women believed that in there was equal opportunity in their own workplaces compared to 51% of women. Payscale’s figures are actually very similar to Fairygodboss’ own numbers. 54% of the women in the Fairygodboss community believe their employers treat them equally and fairly relative to men. 

It’s unclear why many of us think our own workplaces are better for gender equality than others’ workplaces, but in psychology there is a well-known phenomenon known as an “endowment” effect. That is, we tend to “over-value” what we already possess and under-value what we don’t have even when there’s no rational basis for this preference. This is been shown in countless famous experiments where students are asked to trade things of identical value and yet prefer and pay more to keep things they already were given that should have no other sentimental or unexplained value (e.g. a coffee cup).

To complicate matters, many of us feel loyal to our employers. Workplace colleagues can be as close or even closer to us than friends and family and what happens at work can feel deeply personal. Sharing information that may paint an employer in a less-than-flattering light isn’t the easiest thing to do and many of of us give slight injustices the benefit-of-the doubt. Take for example, one of the most common refrains in our reviews: "It's not perfect, but it's better than most." 

All of this is understandable, but if we we are to get to more gender-equal workplaces, we have to get beyond the general statistics and generic descriptions of the problems. To identify — much less improve — gender inequality at your company, we have to (a) get more specific data and evidence about it, and (b) tackle any problems that evidence might surface. 

This means individuals have to get involved and share their points of view. We hope you do that today — and encourage your colleagues to do so as well. Even if
you think you work in the worst, or greatest place on Earth, others may have had a different experience. It may take a lot of evidence to convince men, in particular, that there’s any problem in the first place. And if there isn’t a problem, well, it’s important to have evidence of that too. Leave a review today!


Fairygodboss is committed to improving the workplace and lives of women.
Join us by reviewing your employer!