New research has explained why many Americans fail to see persistent gender barriers between man and women at work front. This research was conducted by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
The research demonstrates that the common American assumption that behaviour is a product of personal choice fosters the belief that opportunities are equal and that gender barriers no longer exist in today's workplace.
The study suggested that the assumption that women "opt out" of the workforce, or have the choice between career or family, promotes the belief that individuals are in control of their fates and are unconstrained by the environment.
"Although we've made great strides toward gender equality in American society, significant obstacles still do, in fact, hold many women back from reaching the upper levels of their organizations," said co-author Nicole M. Stephens, assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management.
"In our research, we sought to determine how the very idea of 'opting out,' or making a choice to leave the workplace, may be maintaining these social and structural barriers by making it more difficult to recognize gender discrimination," added Stephens.
In one study, a group of stay-at-home mothers answered survey questions about how much choice they had in taking time off from their career and about their feelings of empowerment in making life plans and controlling their environment.
As predicted, most women explained their workplace departure as a matter of personal choice - which is reflective of the cultural understanding of choice in American society and underscores how the prevalence of choice influences behaviour.
Overall, Stephens and Cynthia S. Levine, a doctoral student in the psychology department at Stanford University, noted that while choice may be central to women's explanations of their own workplace departure, this framework is a double-edged sword.
"Choice has short-term personal benefits on well-being, but perhaps long-term detriments for women's advancement in the workplace collectively," said Stephens.
"In general, as a society we need to raise awareness and increase attention for the gender barriers that still exist. By taking these barriers into account, the discussion about women's workplace departure could be reframed to recognize that many women do not freely choose to leave the workplace, but instead are pushed out by persistent workplace barriers such as limited workplace flexibility, unaffordable childcare, and negative stereotypes about working mothers," added Levine.
The study will be detailed in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science.