New ways of working, Same old gender inequality

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New ways of working, Same old gender inequality

How recent work transformations can undermine women at work

by Lindsey B. Trimble on Thursday, October 11, 2012 - 2:34pm

Think it's old-fashioned for a supervisor in an otherwise progressive work environment to insist that a female scientist’s work be pre-approved by a male co-worker before acceptance? According to sociologist Christine Williams, this scenario is surprisingly common.

Progressive companies are implementing new work structures in order to be more nimble and responsive to changes in their industries. Williams, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, asked the question of how women are faring with these contemporary work transformations. Her research shows that, while recent work transformations may seem progressive, they can actually belie progressive aims and undermine female employees.

Over the last several decades, companies have restructured work to remain competitive in the face of globalization, downsizing, and other economic challenges.  Williams, who is taking part in the Clayman Institute’s Redefining and Redesigning Work project (RRW), and her colleagues, Chandra Muller and Kristine Kilanski, suspect that the evolution of new work structures created new barriers for women.

oil refinery

In a case study of female geoscientists, Williams discovered that women enter the oil and gas industry in equal numbers to men but tend to “stall out in mid-career.” The result? Few women in executive or other leadership positions of the major oil and gas companies. Despite the industry’s commitment to diversity and efforts to recruit talented women, Williams thinks gender inequality persists, in part, because of recent changes to the structure of work. Studying these new work structures, Williams contends, is key to understanding why women continue to lag behind men at work.

Employers create work structures for the “ideal worker” —a man unencumbered by family responsibilities and completely devoted to work

The researchers discovered that some new work structures are in fact undermining women’s career advancement. Their study of female geoscientists shows that three work transformations in particular—the implementation of teams, career maps, and the increased importance of networking for career development—disproportionately disadvantage women. 

Building bias into new work structures

In theory, new work structures should be equal. After all, many were implemented after the adoption of civil rights legislation and in era in which diversity in the workplace is highly valued. This begs the question, how does gender inequality persist as new work structures evolve? 

Williams explains that gender bias is “built into” new work structures because employers draw on gender stereotypes when designing them. Specifically, employers create work structures for the “ideal worker” —a man unencumbered by family responsibilities and completely devoted to work. As managers formulate job descriptions, expectations, and salaries with men in mind, they write gender bias into the organizational structure, rules, and norms of work.

Three work transformations that disadvantage women

1.  Teamwork masks individual contributions

To increase business flexibility and thin layers of management, companies are turning to teams to get work done. Teams are often formed of cross-functional members to leverage expertise from across the company. Teams, as opposed to managers within one’s group, dictate when work is accomplished and have considerable latitude in deciding how to approach projects. Moreover, team members are often responsible for evaluating one another’s contributions.

woman scientist

In the oil and gas industry, geoscientists almost always work as part of a team, yet they are evaluated for their individual contributions, either by team members or their supervisors. According to Williams’ research, women’s contributions to team projects were not always evaluated fairly.

Williams noted that geoscientists must promote their contributions and accomplishments in order to receive recognition for their work. She found that many women, particularly those who worked on male-dominated teams, felt uncomfortable self-promoting. In fact, when they did self-promote, they were often not taken seriously, not given full credit for their contributions, or were thought to be too “bitchy.” Young women experienced additional barriers to their credibility—many reported feeling sexualized or patronized by their male team members. 

2.  Career maps offer increased flexibility but lack standardization

Career maps, although generally liked by female geoscientists, actually contributed to gender inequality.

“Career maps” have replaced more standardized and linear career trajectories. Workers, with their managers, develop individualized career plans by negotiating career aspirations with employers’ needs. On the positive side, career maps should give workers more control over the pace of their careers. The process allows workers to set goals and timeframes, as well as the option to “scale back” work when desired. For example, a worker might scale back when family responsibilities are most time-consuming or to pursue an advanced degree. The challenge, Williams and her team discovered, is that this lack of standardization opens the door for gender bias to shape career options.

The researchers found that career maps—although generally liked by female geoscientists—actually contributed to gender inequality. Because supervisors are not held to a standard of equality, employees have no way to evaluate the fairness of their career path. Some female geoscientists felt that supervisors were too vague when assigning work, leaving them unsure of their job responsibilities and the resources needed to meet them. Many also expressed confusion over how promotions, raises, and projects were awarded; and they were often left feeling bewildered and frustrated by the lack of transparency in personnel decisions. Others reported that supervisors did not advocate for them, made gender biased decisions when hiring team members, and were inconsistent in granting family leave. 

In short, because of the individualized nature of career maps, decisions are often left up to the discretion of supervisors. Williams and her colleagues contend that these decisions are sometimes motivated by gender bias. 

3.  Work-related networks exclude women from opportunities

Workers often hear about job and promotion opportunities from their friends, coworkers, and other personal acquaintances. Personal networks are increasingly important in the new economy—without standardized career ladders, employees have few formal ways to identify promotion and advancement opportunities. Networks also provide a measure of protection against job insecurity by keying employees into information about other job possibilities.      

Williams discovered that female geoscientists readily recognized the importance of personal networks for career development but had trouble joining the most powerful, male-dominated networks.  Many women reported feeling uncomfortable and unwelcome at informal networking events centered on golfing, hunting, or fishing. Some women who attempted to organize informal networking retreats for women were met with backlash from male coworkers who accused them of arranging “ladies’ boondoggles.” Other women reported that their employers sponsored official women’s or family support networks, but most felt that they were not useful for career development.       

Moving toward gender equality in the new economy

Williams and her colleagues warn that teamwork, career maps, and social networks—although seemingly gender neutral—actually limit women’s advancement at work. So, how can employers and policymakers make sure new work structures do not give rise to the same old gender inequality? Williams recommends that employers take steps to minimize the impact work transformations have on women. For example, Williams found that gender bias is less influential in some team settings than others. Female geoscientists who worked on gender balanced-teams—teams consisting of both women and men—received more credit for their contributions than women who worked on male-dominated teams. These findings suggest that employers may be able to create teams in which bias is less detrimental for women. 

Female geoscientists who worked on gender balanced teams—teams consisting of both women and men—received more credit for their contributions.

Williams also recommends that employers standardize and demystify career maps and make networking events—both employer-sponsored and informal—available to all workers. Supervisors must also be held responsible for achieving diversity goals and encouraging workers to make use of flexible work policies. Williams and colleagues believe that these sorts of changes will enhance future female scientists’ careers, ensuring that these women are no longer undermined by the transformation of work. 


Williams headshotChristine Williams  is a professor of Sociology and Department Chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. She studies gender, race, and class inequality in the labor market and is the author of several books, including Inside Toyland: Working, Shopping, and Inequality and Still a Man’s World: Men Who Do “Women's Work." Williams is part of the Clayman Institute's initiative on Resdesigning and Redefining Work. 

Muller headshotChandra Muller is a professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research examines the effects of family, community, health, and educational policy on educational attainment and the transition to adulthood. She has a special interest in STEM career preparation.

Kilanski headshotKristine Kilanski is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin.  Her research interests include gender and race inequality in the labor market, neoliberalism, urban poverty, and the criminal justice system.


Trimble headshotLindsey Trimble received her Ph.D. in Sociology from Washington State University. She is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, where she studies social networks and labor market inequality. She is a member of the Clayman Institute student writing team.