The Great Sexist Bake Off

Invisible Obstacles

My Lean In circle is a group of passionate, intelligent, ambitious, thriving women. We often discuss ways we can break through the subtle sexist obstacles in our workplaces. These walls, barriers or ceilings – glass ceilings, if you like – can be hard to see unless you put in your special ‘gender equality’ lenses and take a deliberate look.

What do you think is the biggest reason for gender inequality in the workplace? For women being paid less and being underrepresented in managerial and senior positions?

Perhaps it’s those career breaks, the years women spend not working. Or maybe it’s because women are more likely to take on part-time work, which is generally less well paid than full time employment.

Research by KPMG – hardly the flag bearer when it comes to equal representation at the top, in my experience – says it’s none of these. The main contributor to gender inequality in the workplace, they say? Pure and simple: discrimination against women.

There are negative, strongly held stereotypes about women’s abilities. And it’s not just those men in the corner office coming up to retirement age who hold them. At four years old, when children are asked to draw a scientist, roughly half will draw a man and half will draw a woman. By eight, about three quarters will draw a male scientist.


To bake or not to bake?

SEXISTAt my last Circle meeting we talked about baking. No, I hadn’t accidentally stumbled into a WI meeting. Should women, we asked, bring their home baking to work? It’s one of those little things I’d never given much thought before. But it could be one of those little things that contributes to perpetuating gender inequality and our internal biases.

When we play up our femininity and domesticity we are playing into stereotypes, so others hold us back. Worse, we hold ourselves back too. Joan C. Williams, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, points out that making cupcakes, taking the minutes in a meeting or making the tea all use up valuable time and mean that women miss out on opportunities. ‘The person taking diligent notes in the meeting almost never makes the killer point.’

A New York-based business coach makes the point more bluntly. When it comes to baking for colleagues, ‘it sends mixed messages about your performance and can do serious damage to your reputation and gravitas. The next thing you know, you’ll be donning an apron,’ says Ellen Lubin-Sherman. Ouch.

An unscientific poll of my friends showed that, for the most part, women think it’s cool to bring in your home baking – with one caveat – only if your male colleagues are doing it too. While yummy treats will be appreciated by men and women alike, take care not to bake (make the tea, take the minutes, etc.) because you feel it is expected of you as a woman.

What I love about Lean In is the way it gives me those special lenses, to see things anew. Now that I’ve spent some time mulling things over, I don’t think I’ll be bringing my lemon drizzle cake to the office any time soon – at least until a male colleague shares his own cake making skills (his wife’s baking doesn’t count). Ah well, more for me!


Research and Further Reading

‘How open minded are you?’; PwC

‘Gender pay gap: what are the causes?’; European Commission

‘Implicit Bias Awareness’; Berkeley Lab

‘Dispelling the myths: why the gender pay gap does not reflect the ‘choices’ women make’; The Guardian





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