Labor Day honors the workers of America, but when we fail to value all of our workers, everyone loses.
Labor Day is a “tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” But female workers, especially women of color, do not earn the recognition or respect that men do.
Our perceptions can make it harder for women to succeed in the workplace than it is for their male colleagues. We tend to overestimate men’s competence, whereas we underestimate women. So, we may think of Mark as a more effective sales rep than Maria even though Maria brings in more revenue.
Women are expected to be warm and nurturing, but we think of an effective leader as strong and authoritative. As a result, a female leader has two conflicting jobs. A woman who is authoritative may be perceived as bossy or shrill. But if she leads in a collaborative way, her colleagues may see her as weak. For many women, this is a no-win situation.
In fact, men and women aspire to positions of leadership for somewhat different reasons. Studies show that men care more than women about financial rewards and helping their company to succeed, whereas women are more concerned than men about serving as role models for people like themselves.
It’s true that we need leaders who care about the bottom line. But we also need leaders who want to help workers succeed. And we need ways to value what those leaders are doing, because the success of an organization depends on a thriving workforce as much as it does on a healthy profit margin.
We don’t do a good job of measuring and rewarding the work of helping others. Not coincidentally, that kind of work is associated with women. Professions that involve “caring,” such as nursing or child care, are paid less than other fields that require comparable levels of education and skill.
But early childhood education offers a superb return on investment. Estimates suggest that every dollar spent on universal early childhood programs would yield more than $8 in benefits. A Fortune 500 company that successful would be the most sought-after investment in the country, and its CEO would earn a huge bonus. He wouldn’t be worried about holding down a second or even a third job so that he could put food on the table.
How should we respond to those who say that women should stop complaining and just get to work if they want to succeed, or that women and people of color have an easier time getting ahead?
First, perceptions do not always reflect reality. A 2018 study showed that nearly half of men and a quarter of women said that women were well represented in senior leadership positions at their companies when just 1 in 10 senior leaders were women.
Second, we need leaders whose words and actions make diversity everyone’s responsibility. This is just good business. A Harvard Business School study found that companies whose workers had diverse backgrounds and experiences were 45% more likely to increase their market share and 70% more likely to capitalize on new markets.
Diversity is good for the bottom line, because more diverse groups make better decisions. We process information more thoughtfully when we hear a range of opinions than we do when everyone in a group shares the same views. When there are many perspectives at the table, we do our jobs more effectively, we make better decisions, and we earn more money.
How we talk to one another is also as important as what we talk about. When women speak, they are more likely to be interrupted than men are. Over time, being interrupted takes a toll. It becomes more difficult for women to participate in group decision-making. They may feel that their input is not important. They may even dread coming to work.
Changing these patterns does not happen by itself. But until we change them, we are missing out on good ideas and committed workers. When everyone’s work is valued, we are all richer for it.
Deborah Beck is an associate professor of classics at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle , Corpus Christi Caller Times, Abilene Reporter News, San Angelo Standard Times, San Antonio Express News, and the Austin American Statesman.