3 Overlooked Reasons Why Gender Equality Is Being Held Back

Women’s Equality Day celebrates the 19th Amendment, but we still have a long way to go to achieve a true balance.

3 Overlooked Reasons Why Gender Equality Is Being Held Back
Suffragettes celebrating passing of 19th Amendment. [Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images]

Ninety-six years ago today, the United States adopted the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote. In 1972, August 26 was declared “Women’s Equality Day” in order to mark that anniversary.


Nearly a half-century later, with a woman at the top of the Democratic Party’s presidential ticket, Susan Adams, a professor of management at Bentley University, asks, “How long will it be before the gender of a presidential candidate is a non-issue?”

It’s clear the country has come a long way on gender equality. But it’s equally clear that we still have a way to go to realize it fully. Here are a few less recognized reasons why.

1. The Home Front Is Still Seen As “Feminine”

Over the past 50 years, American dads have nearly tripled the amount of time they spend on childcare (to seven hours a week, up from two and a half), according to a report published in June by MenCare. But the chores they’re picking up aren’t necessarily lightening their female partners’ loads; Pew researchers recently discovered that women are spending more time on both childcare and housework than they used to.


Unsurprisingly, researchers have found that these imbalances have a lot to do with ingrained ideas about gender roles in American society. In a study released this week, sociologists at Indiana University and the University of Maryland find that nearly three-quarters of American adults believe “that the female partners in heterosexual couples should be responsible for cooking, doing laundry, cleaning the house, and buying groceries.”

That means there are quite a lot of women out there who believe domestic duties belong first and foremost to themselves. And on the flip side, the researchers write, “nearly 90% of our respondents thought that heterosexual men should be responsible for automobile maintenance and outdoor chores.”

So entrenched are these gendered notions, in fact, that even the researchers seem to have succumbed to them. In the study, which included a nationally representative sample of more than 1,000 adults, the (consequently overwhelmingly heterosexual) participants were given descriptions of same-sex couples, one of whom was more stereotypically “masculine” and the other more “feminine.”


While two-thirds said they thought the “feminine” partner should take on more housework, all of the subjects were primed through this exercise to assume (incorrectly) that LGBT couples mime straight gender roles. In other words, the scientists wound up indulging in the same pattern of thinking they were hoping to study–pointing up just how deep-seated these gendered beliefs seem to be.

Adams, who’s published research on female leadership, sees the spillover of these long-held stereotypes in the workplace. She notes how they’ve come through this election cycle, where Clinton’s “stamina” and “strength” have been questioned alongside her pantsuits and her voice. “But this is true for women in any position of leadership,” says Adams. “By societal norms, women can’t be too assertive or brash, though both can be great tools for delivering results.”

2. Women Aren’t Filing Nearly As Many Patents

A much-less reported aspect of the well-documented gender pay gap are the relative rates at which men and women file patents. As Lydia Dishman recently reported for Fast Company, female inventors filed just 7.7% of new U.S. patents in 2010, the latest year for which there’s data. That’s five times the percentage who did so in 1977, but it’s still a pretty slender slice of the pie.


There are a number of likely factors behind the disparity, a large one is the gender gap in STEM fields. According to a study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), the comparatively few women who are inventors tend to file patents in female-dominated fields like jewelry (26.7% of all patents) and apparel (25.3%). It’s typically when women belong to a group of inventors, the report found, that they’re better represented in other fields, like chemistry and pharmaceuticals.

Limited access to funding and smaller professional networks may be holding more women back from patenting, IWPR’s analysis suggests. Since venture capitalists prefer to put money behind patented products, fewer women patent-holders may mean less financial backing. And the relative shortage of female VCs at the top of the entrepreneurial food chain may mean fewer influential relationships for female inventors to leverage.

3. 11% Of U.S. Employees Don’t Believe In Equal Pay

In a report published last March, Glassdoor found that 89% of U.S. workers believe men and women deserve to be paid equally for the same job. But that means that a not-inconsiderable 11% don’t.


One reason why it may be worth paying just as much attention to this minority is because of the sizable majority, detailed above, who see household chores and child care as “women’s work.” In other words, these two findings unavoidably coexist on the spectrum of Americans’ attitudes about gender and the relative values of certain kinds of work.

That’s sometimes easy to miss in the ways equal pay is covered in the press and championed by businesses and advocacy groups. This week Glassdoor highlighted nine U.S. companies that have publicly committed, through various means, to closing the gender pay gap within their ranks–all of which earned high satisfaction marks from their employees on Glassdoor. In no particular order, they include:

  • Salesforce
  • Delta Air Lines
  • Apple
  • Spotify
  • Johnson & Johnson
  • Dropbox
  • Facebook
  • Boston Consulting Group

(Here’s where you can find Glassdoor’s take on why these employers made the cut.)


For its own part, the Obama Administration has promoted an “Equal Pay Pledge,” inviting private-sector employers to do their own part to narrow the pay gap.

In the meantime, though, advocates may not want to lose sight of the people and businesses they still haven’t won over. Just last year, for instance, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued 10 oil companies operating in a dozen states on gender-based pay discrimination. And according to a joint congressional report published by Democratic legislators in April, the gender pay gap varies dramatically by geography, from a roughly 10% low in the District of Columbia to a 35% high in Louisiana. On average, the report found that earnings disparities yawn widest in the states with the weakest gender anti-discrimination laws.

All of which is to say that the gender pay gap, like gender equality writ large, remains as much a political issue in 2016 as a cultural one. Our compensation laws, our patenting system, and our approaches to housework and childcare certainly influence how Americans understand gender. That’s why Adams says effective change should begin with children. “We need to set expectations when children are young that anyone–boys and girls of any race and background–can be leaders, and as they grow up, we need to support their advancement equally,” she suggests.


But these findings, taken together, hint that the reverse is likely true, too: that the progress that’s still left to be made is an accurate reflection of our evolving and sometimes contradictory ideas about gender–and that what we haven’t achieved is just as good a measure of where we are as what we have. The day that American society–all of it–genuinely believes in gender equality, it will already have achieved it.

Says Adams: “As a society, we will be much better off and closer to gender equality when men can be kind and supportive, women can be more directive in executing leadership, and girls around the country can visualize themselves as president.”

About the author

Rich Bellis was previously the Associate Editor of Fast Company's Leadership section.