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Chasing a Unicorn? How You Can Help Challenge Gender Inequality in the Workplace

March 8, 2021 Marisa Iacobucci  
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Before COVID-19, the World Economic Forum (WEF) predicted it would take 257 years to close the gender gap. But the pandemic has disproportionately affected women+, so this estimate is likely going to increase (talk about a Debbie Downer). Despite this, there is still a lot to celebrate as some nations celebrate Women’s History this month. As we look back, we can admire the women who persevered and paved new ways for current generations. So what’s another 257-ish years after many hundreds of years of progress?

To celebrate this year’s theme for International Women’s Day, “Choose To Challenge,” we looked at four obstacles that women+ continue to face in the workplace. With each issue, there are suggestions for how you can help challenge them as well as how to be better allies to your marginalized colleagues. This is not an exhaustive list, but includes the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, age, disability, and more because gender inequality isn’t just a women’s issue—it’s a people issue. And all of us, not only women+, need to be a part of the conversation to attain the unicorn that is gender parity.

All women, non-binary people and anyone else who identifies as underrepresented because of their gender identity.

Gender Pay Gap

The gender pay gap is the average difference between the wages women+ and men make. There is a common misconception in countries, where it’s illegal to pay women less than men for the same work, that the gender pay gap is a myth. This, of course, is not true as many women+ can attest to the fact and the data backs them up.

Here are the facts in the U.S.:

  • In the U.S., women working full time, year-round are typically paid 82 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts.
  • Black women make 63 cents for every dollar paid to their white, non-Hispanic male counterparts; for Indigenous women, it’s 60 cents; for Latin women, it’s 55 cents and for women with disabilities it’s 80 cents.
  • Mothers in the U.S. are usually paid 70 cents for every dollar a father earns; regardless of race, mothers make less than white, non-Hispanic fathers.

Graphs showing gender pay gap in the U.S. for marginalized women (Black, Indigenous, Latin, women with disabilities and mothers)

Here are the facts in Canada:

  • In Canada, the stats are similar: the hourly pay of full-time working women is 87 cents to a man’s dollar.
  • Racialized women working full time, year-round make 67 cents to the dollar of racialized men; Indigenous women make 65 cents to the dollar of Indigenous men and women with disabilities make 54 cents to the dollar of men without disabilities.
  • Mothers in Canada with at least one child under age 18 earn 85 cents for every dollar earned by fathers.

Graphs of gender pay gap in Canada for marginalized women (racialized, Indigenous, women with disabilities and mothers)

Since most studies and surveys about the pay gap typically don’t include different gender identities, it’s difficult to say how much they earn to the dollar of cisgender men and women. But the evidence we do have shows they aren’t exempt from the gender pay gap either. For example, one study found that transgender males reported a slight increase in earnings, while transgender females reported a decrease of about 32% in their salaries. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey showed that 15% of trans and gender-nonconforming people reported living well below the poverty line, earning less than $10,000 per year. For people of color, the percentage was worse: 28% of Latinx and 34% of Black trans and gender-nonconforming people.

Related to the gender pay gap, but often less discussed, is the gender wealth gap. Ellevest describes it as “how much money women have and keep in comparison to men. It’s only 32 cents on average, and just a single penny for Black and brown women.” Although over the years we’ve been progressing with the gender pay gap, we’ve been regressing with the gender wealth gap.

How can you challenge the gender pay gap in the workplace?
  • Ensure there are no gaps in your workplace by doing a wage audit and support pay transparency.
  • Evaluate recruitment, promotion and talent management systems for gender bias.
  • Offer paid parental leave so parents, especially mothers, don’t have to choose between their career and family.
  • Write to your government officials if you want to see companies of certain sizes report their gender pay gap figures annually as they do in the U.K., France and Spain.

What are we doing at Vena?
  • We try to achieve equity in our compensation planning and offerings by using pay bands for each role.
  • We conduct job evaluation compensation planning exercises to ensure our compensation packages are competitive with the market and equitable internally.

Workplace Harassment

Workplace harassment is any vexatious and unwelcome action, words or behavior towards another employee, including sexual, physical, verbal and non-verbal harassment. Demeaning jokes and innuendos and circulating offensive pictures are just as much harassment as physical or sexual violence.

In a 2016 report, Statistics Canada found that one in five women had experienced workplace harassment. In that same year, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reported a startling three in four women had experienced sexual harassment at work. Notably, these numbers are based on women who actually report harassment. Many women don’t report it for fear of being fired or punished—the EEOC reported 75% of women who did report harassment experienced retaliation.

Women+ who fall into further minority groups typically experience more harassment than their white, female counterparts and especially more than men. This includes women+ who are also people of color, people with a disability, aged 50+ and members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

How can you challenge workplace harassment?
  • If you’re a man, hold other men accountable and confront them about their sexist behavior.
  • If you’re a people leader, ensure everyone knows how to report harassment and that managers have the appropriate training to handle reports of harassment.
  • Thoroughly investigate all complaints of harassment, have an escalation process and take corrective action.
  • Respect the language someone uses to define themselves, such as using someone's preferred pronouns. If you’re not sure how people identify, it’s better to ask than assume.
  • The gender binary impacts everyone—here are more ways you can be an ally and help challenge this at work and beyond.
  • Encourage your workplace to have mandatory harassment training if you don’t already.

What are we doing at Vena?
  • We have mandatory foundational courses on workplace harassment and workplace violence for the three regions Vena operates in (Canada, U.S. and U.K.).
  • We also have another course on the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act for Canadian employees.


Microagressions are everyday instances of thinly veiled discrimination against any marginalized or minority group. These microaggressions can be about race, gender, sexuality, age, mental health, marital status and more. Microaggressions differ from overt discrimination because they’re subtle, usually don’t have malicious intent and the person saying them may not realize their words are discriminatory.

It’s important to remember that impact matters more than intent here. Microaggressions can adversely impact people’s mental health, causing anxiety and stress and making people feel undervalued. Microaggressions can also perpetuate stereotypes and reinforce bias so when they’re committed against women+, compounded with other challenges women+ face in the workplace, they contribute to a toxic work environment. Notably, women who are the only woman in the office experience more microaggressions than women in groups with other women and more than men who are the only man in the office.

Examples of microaggressions:

  • “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?”
  • “Your name is hard to pronounce. Do you have a nickname?”
  • “What do your people think about this?”
  • “The way you’re overcoming disability is inspiring.”
  • “Oh wow, you’re having another kid?”
  • “You’re transgender? You don’t look it at all.”
  • “You speak English pretty well for a [insert racialized group here] person.”

How can you challenge microaggressions?
  • Talk about issues facing marginalized groups with people outside of those groups and in your own circles too.
  • Confront your own racist, sexist and other discriminatory actions or attitudes and don’t fall back on your guilt.
  • Be an ally to your marginalized colleagues and don’t be afraid to call out others who use microaggressions against them.
  • Encourage your workplace to have mandatory training about microaggressions if you don’t already.

What are we doing at Vena?
  • We don’t have a specific course on microaggressions yet, but we do have internal and external courses about diversity and inclusion, unconscious bias and respectfully communicating about culture.

Lack of Opportunities

Drake sings, “Started from the bottom, now we're here,” but for a lot of women+, it’s more like “Started from the bottom and we’re still there.” A study by McKinsey showed that about one in five C-suite executives is a woman and only one in 25 is a woman of color. They also found that “for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 85 women were promoted—and this gap was even larger for some women: only 58 Black women and 71 Latinas were promoted.”

Part of this could be because of unconscious bias that hiring managers have toward women and certain women of color. One experiment by two assistant professors at Harvard Business School revealed that “employers favor men not because they are prejudiced against women, but because they have the perception that men perform better on average at certain tasks.”

Unconscious bias
A set of social stereotypes you form outside your own conscious awareness about certain groups of people. Since these stereotypes or biases are unconscious, they influence your attitudes toward people from those groups without you realizing it. To overcome unconscious bias, unsurprisingly, you must become more conscious of your biases.

Another cause could be women not supporting one another because they are set up to compete against each other by poor hiring practices. For example, one study showed that after a company hired a woman for a senior leadership role, the chance that a second woman would join that rank dropped by 50%. In another study, corporate boards would hire two women and no more to meet a “satisfactory” level of diversity, which researchers called “twokenism.”

How can you challenge the lack of opportunities?
  • Amplify the voices of women+ in the room. For example, if you hear them voice an idea, echo their idea and give them due credit.
  • Give women+ more speaking opportunities. Both men and women tend to interrupt women more than they interrupt men. Have a “no interruptions” policy during meetings to avoid this situation.
  • Have a “brag buddy” who can speak to your achievements and you can speak to theirs in turn. Women tend to have a hard time talking about their own achievements.
  • Be open to mentoring junior-level women+ if you’re in a senior position.

What are we doing at Vena?
  • We’re piloting a mentorship program to pair mentors with mentees within their functional teams.
  • We have an employee resource group where women+ can elevate each other: the Network for Women+. They support, empower and recognize women+ at the intersections of race, ethnicity, class, age, sexual orientation and disability status in the tech community.

What Will You Choose To Challenge?

The gender pay gap, workplace harassment, microaggressions and lack of opportunities are just a day in the life of women+. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that this is where we are after hundreds of years of progress. But the sobering truth is there used to be a time when women couldn’t own property or vote. Less than a hundred years ago, women weren’t even considered persons in Canada. And it was only in June of 2019 that people could identify as neither male nor female on Canadian ID. We have indeed come a long way, but have so much further to go. Use this as a simple guide or a starting place for how you can choose to challenge yourself, the people around you and gender inequality and inequity as we move forward together.

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