Sexism at work

Professions and pay

The perception that women and men have different skills is part of the reason they are concentrated in different professional fields. While women are over-represented in care and pre-primary education, men dominate politics and fields related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics[1].

Such horizontal gender segregation is partly responsible for the gender pay gap, as fields dominated by men tend to be more highly paid than those dominated by women. Even when women are concentrated in a certain field, men will have more opportunities for promotion, take more senior posts and earn higher salaries[2].

Computer programming used to be dominated by modestly paid women
Computer programming used to be dominated by modestly paid women

Gender stereotypes linked to the value of work are partly to blame, with salaries in a profession going down when women enter and rising with the entry of men: computer programming was once the preserve of modestly paid women, but started to gain prestige and become lucrative once men entered the profession[3].

The five occupations across the EU with the largest skills shortages, such as information and communications technology (ICT) and nursing, are dominated by one gender and are projected to require increasing numbers of workers over the coming years[4].

Women earn 16 % less per hour than men.

Source: EIGE Gender Equality Index 2020[5].

The application process

People do not need to believe in gender stereotypes for them to have an impact. At work, the effects of sexist expectations can already be detected during the application process.

Women are more likely to deselect themselves if they do not fulfill 100 % of the required criteria, while men need to meet only 60 % of criteria before applying for a position[6]. While this has frequently been interpreted as evidence of women’s lower levels of confidence, follow-up research suggests it is more likely tied to the fact that women are socialised to follow rules and understand the selection criteria to be final[7].

Women also apply in lower numbers to jobs advertised using adjectives associated with masculine stereotypes[8]. In one design company, when a job advert for the same role was changed from focusing on ‘aggressiveness and competitiveness’ to focusing on ‘enthusiasm and innovation’, applications from women jumped from 5 % to 40 %[9].

Women apply in lower numbers to jobs advertised using adjectives such as ‘aggressive’ and ‘competitive’.
Women apply in lower numbers to jobs advertised using adjectives such as ‘aggressive’ and ‘competitive’.


One study found that when selecting candidates for stereotypically masculine positions, such as that of police chief, evaluators tailored their criteria to favour whatever qualities the applicant of the preferred gender happened to have[10]. Being family-oriented, for example, only gained importance when a male candidate possessed this attribute.

The impact of evaluators’ unconscious bias in this study was lower selection ratings and compensation offers for women than for men[11] .

Performance assessment

Evaluators can tailor selection criteria to favour the qualities of the applicant of the preferred gender
Evaluators can tailor selection criteria to favour the qualities of the applicant of the preferred gender

Women have been found to receive less feedback than men (even though they ask for it in equal measures). The feedback they do receive is less likely to be constructive and more likely to be critical and vague[12].

One study found evaluators more frequently described men using task-orientated adjectives, such as analytical and competent, and women using relationship-focused adjectives, such as compassionate and enthusiastic[13].

Personal story

“My manager never feels comfortable during my performance review. He told me that team members found me ‘emotional’ but without any specific way I could improve.”

Bettina, Legal Translator, European institution 

Such disparities in evaluators’ assessments are the result of biases forged throughout various workplace interactions. For example, when men are present in a team, women are evaluated as less competent, less influential and less likely to have played a leadership role[14]. In addition, while men might receive a status boost when voicing ideas in the workplace, women might not[15].

Task allocation

Women have been shown to more frequently volunteer for and be allocated tasks that do not contribute to promotion, such as serving on a committee or planning a party[16]. Women from minority backgrounds are particularly affected[17].


Both women and men interrupt women more frequently than they do men.
Both women and men interrupt women more frequently than they do men.

Women speak less in meetings – in particular when they are in the minority – taking up only 25 % of the time[18]. Both women and men more frequently interrupt women than they do other men[19].

Caring responsibilities

Once employed, stereotypes continue to impact workplace norms and practices, as well as employee behaviour. This can be seen in formal and informal expectations around who is responsible for unpaid care work.

Although around 77 % of men aged 20–49 are eligible for parental leave in the EU (actually a higher share than women), only about 10 % of men take advantage of this right[20]. Care responsibilities keep 7.7 million women in the EU out of the labour market[21].

Women still take on the lion’s share of caring responsibilities and tend to use flexible working arrangements to achieve work–life balance, while men frequently use such arrangements to increase their work commitment[22].

44 % of people in the EU believe the most important role of a woman is to take care of her home and 43 % believe the most important role of a man is to earn money[23].

Once women become mothers, they are perceived as less competent than women without children, as well as less competent than they were before becoming a mother[24]. Any kind of family formation, be it getting married or having a child, involves a financial penalty for women and an earnings boost for men[25].

79 % of women cook and/or do housework each day, compared to 34 % of men[26].

Women’s disproportionate responsibility for care work and the real and perceived effect this has on their work commitment is another contributor to the gender pay gap.