False Perceptions, Meet Reality

According to research by professors at Georgia Southern University, most undergrads do not believe that discrimination will affect their careers. Ninety percent of students surveyed did not believe that women would have fewer opportunities for networking or mentoring, and 75% believed that women would not face a pay disparity. This same research found that women (and minorities) are slightly more cognizant of the potential for discrimination in the workplace than men; however, the overwhelming attitude seems to be, ‘Even if discrimination happens, it won’t happen to me.’

It’s true that it is far less likely that the young female workforce of today will face the overt, Mad Men-esque gender discrimination of the 1950’s and ‘60’s. However, defined more broadly to include any instance where gender negatively impacts opportunities, the perception that discrimination will not affect women is flawed.

Each year the EEOC compiles the number of times people filed discrimination charges against their employers. For the last five years, the number of charges has ranged between 90 and 100 thousand incidents. Gender-based discrimination makes up between 1/4 and 1/3 of that total number, with charges ranging from unequal pay, to pregnancy discrimination to sexual harassment. As this is only the number of people who filed charges, this is likely a gross underestimate of the actual amount of discrimination that occurs.

In 2013 there was a slight (about 9%) decrease in the number of gender based charges filed.  However, this may be indicative of a shift in the way discrimination looks, or in the number of reported incidences rather than the prevalence of discrimination. Discrimination today is taking the form of microaggressions.  Microaggressions are more than the tiny twitches of the face used by Dr. Lightman to uncover deception in Lie to Me. Microaggressions include all forms of communication, verbal and nonverbal.  For example, a male manager omitting slides addressing gender inequality from a presentation about the status of the company, and saying that “it doesn’t seem that important” is a microaggression.  A supervisor telling a female employee that her wardrobe is “too feminine” or “too masculine” constitutes a microaggression. Even, a male boss asking a female employee who turned in a good product “who helped you with this?” could constitute a microaggression. Both male and female participants in the study recognized these microaggressions and attributed negative future employment actions to these microaggressions.  Proving that, women can be undercut in the workplace even without physical contact or lewd comments.

Society can’t combat issues it doesn’t recognize or diagnose correctly.  If young graduates are unwilling to believe that discrimination might happen to them in the workplace, they may face a cognitive dissonance if they later become an unfortunate victim. This may lead to women losing opportunities for advancement as the discrimination goes unnoticed and unaddressed or, perhaps even more damaging, to increased incidence of self-doubt, depression and internalization of discriminatory critiques.

Change only happens when people are willing to recognize and address discrimination in all its forms. Then and only then can we move toward a workplace where undergraduate perceptions align with reality.

Martina Radney

Martina Radney is a former contributor to Shattering the Ceiling.

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