Think problems in the workplace are limited to sexual harassment? Think again. New data from a nationally representative Pew Research Center survey out Thursday show upward of 4 out of 10 employed women report experiencing at least one kind of gender discrimination, not including sexual harassment, at work. A separate question found 22 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. The findings are especially significant because the survey was conducted between July and August of 2017, months before reports of sexual harassment and abuse across industries could have impacted perceptions of the questions.
The survey asked both men and women to report whether a series of incidents had happened to them because of their gender, including whether they had earned less than a woman/man doing the same job; were treated as if they were not competent; experienced repeated, small slights at work; been passed over for the most important assignments; felt isolated in the workplace; or been denied a promotion.
Black women were more likely to report at least one kind of gender discrimination (52 percent) than women who were white or Hispanic (40 percent for each). Perhaps the most surprising finding in the survey is that less educated women are less likely to report experiencing gender discrimination than their more educated peers (those with bachelor’s degrees and more): “Roughly three-in-ten working women with a postgraduate degree (29%) say they have experienced repeated small slights at work because of their gender, compared with 18% with a bachelor’s degree and 12% (of women) with less education.”
This finding seems counter to recent reports emphasizing high rates of harassment and workplace abuse in the lowest paid professions where the least educated women have very few labor protections. A 2014 report from the National Women’s Law Center suggests the 17 million women in low-wage jobs are especially vulnerable to harassment by low-level supervisors. One might guess this high vulnerability to abuse would be correlated with overall gender discrimination.
However, the lowest educated and lowest wage women are concentrated in “feminized” pink-collar jobs. They are overrepresented as child care providers, maids and housekeepers, home health aides, personal care aides, cashiers, and in food service. A side effect of this concentration: There may just be fewer men around to discriminate against women in “feminized” professions or for women to have other professional experiences to compare it to. Kim Parker, director of social trends research at Pew and a co-author of the report, notes that other studies have shown women in female-dominated workplaces don’t experience the same rates of discrimination as those in male-dominated workplaces.
Increased levels of education (and discrimination) may have more to do with different perceptions of discriminatory experiences at work. Women might learn about discrimination (as a concept) through higher education and secondly, believe that by getting an education, they should be able to overcome any barriers that exist in today's society. In other words, whether women consider discriminatory behavior like getting passed over for a big assignment to be normal or to be discrimination may vary by level of education.
But Parker wants to ensure that this question of perception does not mean we should assume the discrimination some respondents report isn’t happening, just because they’re more likely to report it than less educated peers. According to Parker, for more educated women, “There’s probably a greater level of awareness about these types of experiences, what they mean, and the broader conversation around gender and work.”
In addition, the structure of low-wage versus high-wage work might affect knowledge of discrimination: High turnover and income volatility might make it harder for workers to know things like whether their income is the same or less than that of co-workers of a different gender. Data from the Urban Institute show that “40 percent of low-income, working-age adults have household income that spikes or dips in at least six months of the year,” probably reflecting job instability. It’s possible that discrimination is more noticeable the longer you're in a job, up for promotions, and exposed to hierarchy in the workplace, which is increasingly limited to higher-wage work. Women with more education may have a leg up on learning about salary differentials, or other less visible forms of discrimination.
As for the sizable racial differences in whether they say they’ve experienced: In particular, while more than 1 in 5 black women say they’ve been passed over for the most important assignments because of their gender, less than half that number of white and Hispanic women report this experience. These claims bolster other findings reflecting worse incidences of most kinds of gender inequalities for black women compared with women as a whole (according to the NWLC, while women over all make about 80 cents to the dollar men make, black women make just 63 cents).
The study’s findings on sexual harassment are also somewhat low, just 22 percent of women and 7 percent of men, compared with other recent polls, though that may be due to the question design and the survey’s pre-Weinstein timeline. But in a different study that breaks down that harassment question to ask respondents about whether they’ve experienced more specific behaviors, such as “unwanted sexual attention,” that number goes up to 40 percent of women reporting harassment.
Parker says the number of men who reported experiencing one of the eight kinds of gender discrimination in the survey (22 percent) is similar to other studies on the question. She points to an October study from Pew that showed a significant portion of men, mostly white men, believe that women are getting preferential treatment in hiring, pay, and promotion. But, according to Parker, women respondents to the survey released today were more likely to have experienced more than one of the kinds of discrimination than men. “Among men who say they’ve experienced at least one of the eight forms of discrimination we asked about, 56% have experienced one and 44% have experienced two or more. Among women who say they’ve experienced at least one of the eight forms of discrimination we asked about, 37% have experienced one and 63% have experienced two or more.”
In the context of our #MeToo moment, they’re helpful in confirming what many have suspected: Sexual harassment and misconduct are happening in the context of larger patterns of behavior that create discriminatory and sexist work environments.