7 Things Women Are Expected To Justify At Work
by Eliza Castile
Young asian woman, creative professional or office worker enjoys time at home. Work remotely during ...
staticnak1983/E+/Getty Images

It can be hard for women in the workplace to get across how deeply gender — or more accurately, cultural expectations tied to gender — influences their careers. Unless someone is out there experiencing it every day, taking home lower paychecks and justifying things at work that men never have to, sexism is easily brushed off as a thing of the past. After all, women can become CEOs these days, and at least we're not living in the Mad Men era of housewifery and being asked to sit on our bosses' laps, right? ...Right?

It's safe to say nobody (or at least, most of us, hopefully) wants to return to the inflexible gender norms of the mid-20th century, but to claim we've moved beyond sexism simply means you're not paying attention. Workplace sexism a particular problem; not only does it affect women's financial independence, but it also tends to be systemic and by extension, harder to root out.

As any woman can tell you (and as last year's presidential campaigns showed), women are expected to walk a tightrope between femininity and masculinity. If we show too much ambition, we're power-hungry; if we express an interest in having children, we're passed over for promotions on the assumption that we'll be giving up our careers. All this builds up to create a decidedly unbalanced playing field. Research has shown that small acts of sexism, like sexist jokes or judging a woman's appearance, are just as harmful as more overt manifestations like sexual harassment or handing better assignments to male employees.

With that in mind, here are seven things women are expected to justify at work that men simply aren't.


Displays Of Emotion, Particularly Anger

Expressions of emotion are often seen as a feminine quality, and that winds up influencing how women are seen in the workplace. In a 2008 study, researchers found that displays of emotion are interpreted differently depending on whether they were shown by a man or woman; anger was seen as positive in male employees, yet undesirable in their female coworkers. "Women’s expressions of anger – because they run counter to social expectations – can decrease rather than increase women’s status and perceived competence," researchers wrote.


Childcare Decisions

Although we've come a long way since the days when women were overtly expected to put their husbands' careers first, male breadwinners are still seen as the norm. As a result, women's personal decisions are heavily scrutinized at work in a way that men's simply aren't, especially when it comes to having children. If a woman mentions she wants kids, people are oddly comfortable with interrogating her about her career plans.

The strangest part is that no answer is correct. If she stays home, she's either yielding to a sexist system or "taking the easy way out" (because apparently caring for kids is "easy" in some people's books, even though parenting is a full-time job). If she heads back to work, though, she's failing her children. In fact, research has shown that the "motherhood penalty" is so strong, it affects women who haven't even had children.

Meanwhile, having kids actually helps your career if you're a man, according to research. Something is very wrong with this picture.


Life Goals

Women are also often expected to justify their life goals in a broader context. If you don't want a family, people assure you you'll change your mind later, or you'll end up sad and alone. (PSA: It's possible to have a fulfilling life with or without a partner and children.) If you do want a family, you're criticized for the reasons mentioned above. It's an endless cycle of catch-22s.



It's no secret that ambition is encouraged in men but swiftly put down in women, to the point where single, heterosexual women have been shown to keep their dreams to themselves to seem more appealing when dating. Furthermore, high-achieving women are described quite differently in performance reviews than high-achieving men.

As Danielle Paquette wrote for the Washington Post, "A woman’s likability in the workplace... isn’t tied to her knowledge or boldness or ability to lead, studies show. She is rewarded for projecting warmth, but penalized for appearing power-hungry."



Much like school dress codes, workplace attire tends to be far more restrictive for women than for men. The guidelines for men tend to be along the lines of "no denim" or "collared shirts," while women receive suggestions for everything from the length of their skirt to hair care. Far too often, women are expected to justify their decisions about their appearance in ways their male coworkers aren't.


Non-"Feminine" Interests

It may be 2017, but women are still heavily underrepresented in jobs typically coded as "masculine," like those in STEM fields. This gender gap owes its existence to a number of factors, but it begins with discouraging girls from expressing non-"feminine" interests. Later on, women who make their way into male-dominated industries tend to be more stressed out, and persistent sexual harassment has been named as the primary reason women leave STEM jobs. Basically, being a woman with traditionally "masculine" interests is a rocky road — even though gender is a social construct, not an inherent quality.



Far too many studies have shown that women are often perceived as less competent than men, especially when they're seen as "forceful." If that's not infuriating enough, a 2011 study found that wearing makeup — but not too much — makes women seem more likable, trustworthy, and competent. Hits you right in the feminism, doesn't it?