Social determinants of work

Beyond Pay Gaps, Women Face Disparities in Dignity at Work

Andrew BoardmanJune 22, 2022

It’s widely acknowledged that women face substantial economic inequities. Women working full time are on average paid 83 cents on the dollar compared with men, and progress in closing this gap has slowed in recent years. Research documents additional disparities across the labor market, including biases in hiring and promotion and persistent workplace sexual harassment.

A recent study points to another disparity less frequently discussed, but no less important: the gender gap in dignity at work. In addition to inequities in pay, women experience less respect and recognition on the job, according to study authors Vincent Roscigno of the Ohio State University; Jill Yavorsky of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte; and Natasha Quadlin of the University of California, Los Angeles. They find the gender dignity gap is caused in part by the unequal incidence of discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

To assess workers’ experiences, the researchers investigate whether people feel their dignity is recognized and respected by employers, coworkers, and customers. Their approach is rooted in previous academic efforts conceptualizing the meaning of dignity in the context of employment. Using General Social Survey data collected between 2002 and 2018, the authors analyze responses to questions relating to perceptions of fairness and respect in the workplace. They also examine workers’ overall job satisfaction and reported experiences of gender discrimination and on-the-job sexual harassment.

The results are stark. Relative to men, women are 27 percent less likely to experience respect at work and between 20 to 27 percent less likely to evaluate pay and promotional practices in their current workplaces as fair. In addition, the authors find that in the workplace, women contend with discrimination five times as much and sexual harassment three times as much as men. These disparities show women are “acutely vulnerable” to encounter working conditions that deny and undermine their dignity, the researchers write.

The authors also demonstrate a link between women’s exposure to gender discrimination and harassment and their negative assessments of respect and recognition on the job. They find women who report encountering discrimination or harassment are significantly less likely to say they are treated with dignity at work, showing these experiences are “tightly connected to women’s perceptions of fairness, respect, and satisfaction.”

Workplace dignity versus job satisfaction

In a result that may seem contradictory, the authors uncover no statistically significant variation between genders in responses to the survey question, “All in all, how satisfied would you say you are with your job?” In other words, they find men and women report similar levels of job satisfaction despite clear evidence of disparities in workplace dignity and pay.

This counterintuitive finding is far from anomalous. Instead, it fits with a large body of past research showing gender parity in workers’ contentment with their jobs—underscoring the shortcomings of job satisfaction measurements, which can be one-dimensional. Women and men appear equally happy with their jobs because workers often assess their own employment situations by comparing themselves with others of the same gender or occupation, rather than workers of all genders and lines of work. Such measures can therefore mask disparities driven by gendered structures and behaviors including discrimination and occupational segregation. Although men and women “have similar overall perceptions of job satisfaction—an outcome that can be subject to idiosyncratic interpretation as prior research has suggested—women are considerably less enthusiastic when it comes to particular aspects of their jobs tied to dignity,” the researchers write.

By drawing attention to organizations and employers that fail to uphold workers’ dignity, the paper’s results bolster the importance of broadening the concept of job quality beyond single-dimensional indicators of work satisfaction. The authors suggest expanding the focus to include the “more concrete job experiences and inequalities” encountered by working people, including the presence or absence of discrimination, harassment, and disrespectful workplace practices.

The inequality of workplace dignity is troubling for workers—and it should be a warning sign for employers, policymakers, and advocates as well. Both physical and mental health suffer when workers’ dignity is undermined, research shows, and mistreated employees become more likely to disengage and quit. Disparities in compensation, advancement, harassment, and discrimination take a toll on working people, particularly women, as the researchers demonstrate. Improving job quality, advancing dignity, and achieving gender equity will require addressing these challenges head on.

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