Gender Equality in the Workforce: The United States Has Come a Long Way, but Barriers Remain

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The FINANCIAL — Three-fourths of Americans (75%) believe the U.S. has come a long way toward reaching gender equality, but issues clearly persist. Strong majorities believe that:

Female leaders have to work harder than men to prove themselves (83%),

Women’s contributions in leadership roles often go unrecognized (78%), and

Being a parent has more negative implications on a woman’s career than on a man’s (75%).

Meanwhile, fewer than half believe that:

Women are just as likely as men to be considered for top executive roles (43%), and

Women typically receive the same pay as men for doing exactly the same job (31%).

These are some of the results of The Harris Poll of 2,057 U.S. adults surveyed online from January 19-21, 2016.

Optimism and Realism

Men tend to be more optimistic about the current state of affairs. They’re significantly more likely than women to believe both genders are equally likely to be considered for top executive roles (46% men vs. 40% women) and are nearly twice as likely as women to believe both genders receive the same pay for doing exactly the same job (41% vs. 22%).

Women, on the other hand, are more attuned to workplace (in)equality concerns than their male counterparts. They’re more likely to believe that female leaders have to work harder to prove themselves (89% women vs. 75% men), that women’s contributions in leadership roles often go unrecognized (83% vs. 71%), and that being a parent impacts a woman’s career more negatively than a man’s (79% vs. 71%).


When asked which barriers, if any, prevent women from being considered for leadership roles, the top culprits (according to both genders) are, well, men:

Discrimination by men (59%),

Male leaders unwilling to promote women to leadership roles (57%), and

Male workers unwilling to follow female leaders (54%).

Additionally, nearly four in 10 (38%) point to societal standards, indicating that some roles are inappropriate for women, while three in 10 cite women’s roles in U.S. households and families (31%) and women’s lack of support within their households/families (29%).

And though men take the lion’s share of the blame on holding women back in the workplace, many fingers also point right back at women. Three in 10 (29%) cite discrimination by women as a barrier, while over two in 10 (22%) feel women are unwilling to make sacrifices needed to succeed in leadership roles.

…and opportunities

So, what can be done to foster equality at the C-suite level? A level and transparent playing field seems key. When asked which steps are most important for employers to take in order to help promote equal leadership opportunities for women and men, the top requests are:

Enable flexible working hours for parents of both genders (55%),

Make salary ranges for various positions more visible (52%),

Ensure clear career paths and development plans for all associates (51%),

Encourage women to apply (51%),

Improve child care support (47%),

Offer equivalent maternal and paternal leave (47%), and

Advertise/post all job opportunities (44%).

Targets or quotas are less popular options, though still embraced by a noteworthy three in 10 Americans (for equal number of male and female candidates for all roles – 30%; for equal number of males and females in leadership training programs – 29%). Three in 10 also suggest implementing mentor programs (29%), while one-fourth recommend building and promoting a women’s network (25%).

Building blocks of workplace equality

Ultimately, Americans see workplace gender equality as being much more about opportunity and equal treatment than equivalency of bodies on the ground. When presented with a list of equality benchmarks and asked to rate the importance of each in working towards gender equality in the workplace, those most likely to be rated “absolutely essential” include:

Equal pay for equal work (47%),

Equal benefits (44%),

Equal opportunities to get an education (41%),

Equal opportunities for advancement in the workplace (41%), and

Equal job training opportunities (40%).

On the other end of the spectrum, having an equal number of men and women in leadership positions is the aspect least likely to be seen as absolutely essential (18%).

Perceived importance

Clearly Americans agree both that the U.S. has come a long way and that there’s a long way left to go. However, it’s far from the only issue facing our country today. In fact, three-fourths of Americans (75%) – including roughly the same percentages of women (75%) and men (76%) – believe that there are more important issues to address in the U.S. than gender equality.


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