1920 marked a turning point for women in the United States. Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and too many other women to name were finally heard and granted the right to vote. However, while women then had the same rights for the most part as a man in the eyes of the federal government, people did not become gender blind. Only 11 years after the 19th Amendment was passed, Virginia Woolf penned a powerful piece on society and its expectations of women in the workforce. Woolf commented, “Even when the path is nominally open—when there is nothing to prevent a woman from being a doctor, a lawyer, a civil servant—there are many phantoms and obstacles, as I believe, looming in her way,” showing that preconceived notions about women being the weaker sex still ran rampant. This is still true today.
Despite being legally recognized as fully equal to men, women still face numerous obstacles in their careers today due to unfair perceptions regarding women, or familial duties many women feel responsible for, similar to what Virginia Woolf observed and wrote about in the early the 20th century.
Double standards and unfair expectations when hiring or evaluating women at work must still be overcome by teaching children from a young age that all people are equal and that; in general, standards and expectations for all should be the same. While there is American legislation ensuring equal opportunity and pay for women in the workplace, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Department of Labor’s Women Bureau, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, there are still structural biases in the system. Under the seams of the corporate world, there is the dark underbelly of discrimination. In a 2014 study by the Australian Human Rights Organization, countless biases were uncovered in the Australian workforce. The results of this study reflect similar conditions in the United States and Western world and are depicted in the pictograph above. Additionally, other statistics on the subject of gender inequality in the workplace were covered in Sheryl Sandberg’s 2010 TED talk. According Sandberg’s TED talk, “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders,” only nine out of 190 heads of state globally are women. No more than 16% of women in the corporate business world hold high-level positions. These statistics show just how grave the subject of gender inequality is and just how important it is to overcome.
Women are not only held back by others, but are also held back by self-made perceptions and by their own personal sense of need to personally care more for their families, which in most women is greater than in men. Although this is certainly not the case for some, men are seen as prestigious when they accept more demanding work commitments, whereas a woman who accepts a demanding commitment is often looked down upon for sacrificing her family life for her career.
Working women are currently in a career limbo, where women who elect not to have children are judged, working mothers are gossiped about for not keeping their families in mind, and non-working mothers are seen as antifeminist women with no ambition.
Women face more difficulty in being hired and promoted, as seen in a 2016 Women in the Workplace study, which shows that for every 100 female promotions, 130 men are promoted. This provides great insight into the hiring process. As is supported by other research as well, employers are less likely to promote women because women are less likely than their male colleagues to push for a promotion or even accept one when offered due to their familial sense of duty. These commonly held perceptions make it nearly impossible for one to find a correct balance in society’s eyes. On top of drastically holding fewer top company job positions, per the statistics mentioned before, the few high-achieving women who do make it to the top are often then judged harshly, being held to different and more judgmental standards than their male counterparts. Often labeled as “aggressive,” “bossy,” or even “bitchy” for simply doing their job and trying to push past gender discrimination barriers. Women naturally and unintentionally do not always put themselves out there or first in the workplace. 57% of men negotiate for their salary in their first entry-level job, while only 7% of women do so. This double standard that forces women to prove themselves by working harder than men is a key barrier to equality in the workplace and is a “phantom [or] obstacle” as Virginia Woolf would say.
Workplace and hiring discrimination against women, whether purposeful or unintentional, must be ended, as these are what prevent full gender equality from being reached. According to a 2014 PEW Research Center survey, a large reason why women are held back from “top jobs” is that females are held to a higher standard than men. The survey also shows data that supports the fact that women are held back because of employers who are unwilling to hire females, female family responsibilities, the perception that women are not “tough enough” or good managers. These perceptions are the ones that must be overcome in order to achieve full workplace equality and are precisely what Virginia Woolf spoke about in her essay. These hidden biases are the roadblocks that have been present since the early 20th century when women began to enter the workforce.
Virginia Woolf’s words from 1932 still pertain to the world today, as women work to overcome both outside and personally imposed workplace and familial expectations and perceptions. Pre-conceived notions of workingwomen color their ability to succeed in business and the corporate world; however, these can be overcome through thoughtful education and professional conduct. Although Virginia Woolf’s words, “there are many phantoms and obstacles . . . looming in [a woman’s] way,” still ring true today, there is a bright future ahead for women in the workplace and in the world.