GenderTraps© in Today’s Workplace

Every woman knows that workplaces are not perfect. Nor are they ideal settings in which the majority of the “alert” awake hours are spent. No, what is perfect is usually a fantasy, a myth, a fairy tale or a line in a romance novel or movie. You know the part — it’s where everyone lives happy ever after. Nice, but not real.

Women know what reality is. It’s a far cry from perfect. Reality includes the flaws, hiccups, potholes and landmines of life. In the workplace, millions of women (and men) sidestep, hop over, crawl under and plow into the divots of their environments. Some are self-created, some are passed on by assumptions by both work and gender generations, and some are forced. I call them GenderTraps.

GenderTraps are situations, conditions or stratagems that will inhibit, encumber or catch women and men in their workplaces. Sometimes, they are blatant and bold; other times, they are subtle and seductive. They range from miscommunications, to sabotage, to management chaos to being changeophobic. Identifying and exposing these toxic conditions and behaviors are the first steps in dealing with unacceptable behavior in your workplace.

For many years, I have been asking women and men to tell me about their experiences within their workplaces. Previous responses that encompassed national surveys and phone interviews have been published in my books, Woman to Woman, The Confidence Factor and The Briles Report on Women in Healthcare. Those books, in turn, generated more questions by the women and men who purchased them or heard me speak.

As a speaker, consultant and researcher of women, I have been keenly aware of the problems that women are dealing with –salary disparity, juggling family and work, miscommunication, sabotage, prejudices and inept management — over the past years since beginning my quest as a professional speaker full time in 1986. My audiences ranged from 50 to 5000. All I had to do was ask them what their concerns were … and they talked back. Verbally and in writing.

Many times, I have been ahead of the wave, spotting and identifying problems women face. The results from the GenderTraps survey deeply discounts the media hassle around the glass ceiling and sexual harassment that has consistently captured the media’s headlines. Women across the nation said, “Pay us — pay us equally and fairly for the work we do. The hell with 60%, 70%, 80%, 90% of what men make! If we are qualified and do the work, pay us 100% — no more, no less.”

If women were paid equitably, many of the biases and prejudices that they encounter would disappear. If women were paid equitably, the world would be a better place. At work, in relationships and at home. 

Change in the Workplace

The workplace of the nineties is different from the eighties. Companies are still downsizing, and growing at the same time; technology is screaming ahead. What skills are valid today, are invalid next month. We are moving at such a fast pace, that many are gasping for air. Granted, research shows that we can mentally take in more information, learn more tasks and skills. But, the emotional side of learning is almost totally ignored. 

Physically and mentally, many can move faster. Emotionally, many aren’t able, can’t, to jump ahead at the same pace. The end result is that one ends up being out of synch — with ourselves, society and the workplace. Our “sped up” environment fuels the growth of the GenderTraps.

What Women Say About Their Workplace

In the past few years, the media has pursued the story line that the biggest problems that women encountered in their workplaces were sexual harassment and the glass ceiling. Honorable mention went to child care. I began to ask questions of the 5000 women. Specifically, I asked what were their “Top 3” problems they were encountering at work. 

Some of the responses, I expected; some surprised me; and some amazed me. Responses, such as:

* Out of 1270 written survey responses, only 21 women identified sexual harassment as a “Top 3” problem.

* Only 26 women identified the glass ceiling as a “Top 3” problem.

* Only 11 percent of all working women were in mid-level and above management. 

* A majority of women are not interested in upper level management positions. Instead, they want to get paid equitably.

* Women still try to do it all.

* It is not uncommon for women in management to pass over other women or to measure their value and production differently than they do a male employee.

* The animal feeder at the zoo makes more than the average day care provider.

* The “F” word is one of the workplace’s dirty secrets; a woman who is fat will be discriminated against more than if a man is fat in the same situation.

* Sabotage from women toward women has significantly increased substantially since my first survey on working women published in 1987..

* Prejudice in the workplace is the number one problem women face today.

Two years ago, the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor released the results of Working Women Count. Over 250,000 surveys were received. In addition, 1200 phone calls were made to verify some of their results. The Working Women Count survey is consistent with the results of the GenderTraps survey.

Most women responded with three problem areas, some with more, some with only one or two. These workplace problems that women encountered were identified as GenderTraps.

Results of the survey used in the book GenderTraps (McGraw-Hill, 1996) are representative of all types of workplaces, some being female dominated — the Velvet Ghettos — which would include occupations in the healthcare field, teaching, banking, retail, childcare, waitresses, cosmetology, flight attendants, clerical-secretarial, public relations and government to name a few, as well as positions in industry, finance, and manufacturing. Workplaces included both these with an even mix of men and women — marketing, sales, finance, manufacturing — and workplaces that are definitely male dominated — engineering, science, architecture, construction and advertising. Homemakers have been included in the total responses. All women work; some get a paycheck; some don’t.


The number one trap identified by the 1270 respondents was Prejudice — 63% said it was the key trap in their workplace. Within the prejudice umbrella is discrimination, racism, sexism, ageism and lookism. Among the respondents who identified prejudice as the top trap, two-thirds said that the prejudice they encountered was directed toward discrimination and sexism, with the remainder split between racism and ageism. Lookism surfaced from the 130 personal interviews. Several respondents also reported than reverse discrimination as a factor. 

Hundreds (800) of surveys had comments about discrimination, sexism, racism, ageism and lookism. No one wrote “lookism” specifically. This was identified when comments were probed about weight, height, dress, hair and youth (as opposed to being terminated because of age). Whatever “ism” one could think of, the GenderTrap respondents had experienced them. 

Prejudice is what is in our mind; it is an attitude, an idea and opinion that is often held in disregard of any facts that may contradict it. So, with prejudice as the attitude, discrimination, sexism, ageism, racism and lookism all are actions resulting from the attitude. Prejudices can be directed toward gender, race, cultures and generations. 

Everyone has prejudices; no one born with them; they are learned and developed as you grow up. Because someone is prejudiced does not mean they have to discriminate, be sexist, racist, etc. 

Sexual Harassment and the Glass Ceiling Take a Back Seat

One of the actions that results from the prejudicial umbrella is sexual harassment. Few of the 1270 respondents placed sexual harassment or the glass ceiling in their top three problems that they encountered in the workplace. Surprisingly, only 21 respondents indicated sexual harassment was a problem, and 26 respondents indicated that the glass ceiling was one of their problems. 

I was intrigued by the incredibly low number (2 percent for each) who stated that sexual harassment or the glass ceiling was a major problem. Several of the respondents didn’t specifically say sexual harassment or the glass ceiling. Rather, their written responses were interpreted as such, i.e.:

* Crude remarks were routinely made about women’s body parts and functions. * Dr. told grossly descriptive jokes to deliberately embarrass staff. * I’ve been with the same company for 21 years — there has never been a female VP or officer.

In the 130 follow-up interviews, respondents were asked if they had encountered, observed or were aware of situations that did involve sexual harassment or the glass ceiling. The majority said they were definitely aware of the problems surrounding these two issues, but, in their workplace lives, neither sexual harassment nor the glass ceiling had priority over other areas that they felt were far more important.

Although sexual harassment and the glass ceiling are missing as specific traps in the top three, it is important, though, to acknowledge that they are real, and of concern to both women and men. Numerous studies and reports show that a significant number of women in the work force have experienced some form of sexual harassment.

I believe that the lack of significant responses on those two highly publicized areas indicate that today’s women in the workplace view racism, sexism, discrimination, ageism and lookism as well the other traps identified from the survey, as more ongoing and recurrent in their everyday work lives. The glass ceiling is an important issue, but to fewer women. It is also essential to recognize that not every women is propelled to seek upper or senior management levels. This is particularly true of the Generation Xers, the under-30 group who indicate their druthers are not to work the 60 hours a week that their mothers did. 

What women in the workplace are saying is that they want to not be discriminated against and be paid fairly and with equality NOW — upper and senior management can wait. Over 50 percent of the respondent had a college degree. Thirty-one percent were taking additional courses to expand their skills in the workplace. In the post interviews, many of the women at all levels stated that being in charge was not a primary objective for them at the present time. At a later date, they would reevaluate their career options.

Knowing something happened, but being unclear as to what the exact action was, was experienced by many — they had experienced either racism, sexism or discrimination or possibly a combination. Ageism is discrimination based on age. Discrimination is to make a distinction in treatment or show partiality. Sexism then, is discrimination based on sex or gender, and racism is the practice of discriminating racially as in segregation. Lookism is discrimination against how you look. 

Lookism is primarily the discrimination against overweight people. Many interviewed respondents referred to the “F” word…Fat. Lookism is far more widespread for women. One woman wrote, “I gained 60 pounds after being put on steroids. When potential employers saw my resume, interviews were set up immediately. When I arrived for the appointment, I would be told, ‘I don’t think you are right for us.'”

Complaints about ageism included a nurse who said that because of her age, she was no longer allowed to do private duty for infants — she was only 60! Another said, because she was 55, not only did she lose her job, she wasn’t given any chance of interviews of others from the various employment agencies and corporations that she contacted. 

If she chooses, she can seek legal recourse. It’s a matter of who pays for it. Which, is a bind for many women when they are illegally and blatantly discriminated against. If they have the funds, it is easier to proceed. If they can get an attorney to take a contingency case, they can proceed. Even if they can, the question surfaces…should they? These suits take enormous time and energy — mentally and physically. It becomes a matter of which battle you want to take on.

Many of the respondents felt there was discrimination between full-time vs. part-time employees, as well as employees who had children (70 percent had children) and employees who did not have children, and employees who had an educational degree vs. one of years of experience. 

Several women reported that jobs had gone to men because they –the men — were the assumed “breadwinners” and had to support a family. One language instructor reported that she was discriminated against by the Hispanic population because she was not a “native” speaker of Spanish, although she had grown up in a bilingual family and had advanced degrees in Spanish. 

Healthcare workers stated that when there were male nurses, that managers would make excuses for them and didn’t reprimand them when there were valid complaints made, allowing for special favors and treatments being granted. In addition they reported that male doctors would listen more to a male nurse, that to a female nurse, which fits the definition of sexism. 

An insurance agent wrote that she was content and successful in her own business today. Prior to that, she was hounded for 3-1/2 years to leave another agency even though she was in the top 10 percent of the revenue producers. Her crime? She was the wrong color — she was black. 

Many reported that they believed that their promotions were blocked because they were the wrong gender, and several felt that there was discrimination against women who were disabled. Some said that they feel a backlash has surfaced since the Disabilities Act was put in place when President Bush was in office. Employers are finding excuses not to hire them, or to keep them because of added costs required to bring workplace sites to code. 

Sexism flourishes in the workplace. Women reported that they experienced condescending attitudes as if they were in a lower class vs. managers, usually male, who were in a higher class. In male dominated environments, such as engineering, there was more likely to be equality in pay, at least initially. 

Several women stated that the women in their workplace were forced to work in an open, bullpen environment, while the men, even when they weren’t managers, got offices with doors that closed. Women from different industries (i.e. defense, finance and transportation)responded that not only were they perceived as less intelligent, but that bosses, female or male, would ask advice and input from the male staff, often ignoring the female staff. 


The second highest area identified was communications. Thirty-six percent of the respondents stated that communications, or mis- or non-communications, were in their top three traps in the workplace. These communications problems could come from bosses, from co-workers and support staff. Communications were verbal, at other times, non-verbal. 

One respondent reported that she felt like an “idiot” when pertinent information was not relayed because co-workers didn’t have the skills to verbalize or prioritize what needed to be passed on. Another reported that coworkers and bosses delivered “zingers” in their communication style/constant put-downs. 

Common complaints were that communications were poor to nil in the workplace, the lack of any reasonable communications lead to a continuation of conflicts and that the communication styles were different, not only different between males and females, but between the cultures, with a series of does and don’ts –unfortunately few communicated what the do’s and don’ts were until after the don’ts had occurred. 

Some reported that communications were so poor within their workplaces that task forces were formed to identify what kind of styles of communications were used within their team. One respondent wrote that she resented the lack of communications between members of her team that complicated her job and consumed precious time that could have been better spent doing other things. Many of the women said that not only do men and women but also races and cultures use the same set of words with totally different meanings. All felt that it was difficult, if not impossible to perform their jobs when communications are incomplete. 


Previous studies, revealed in my books, Woman To Woman: From Sabotage to Support, and in the Briles Report on Women in Healthcare, focused on sabotage and undermining behaviors among women in the workplace. Woman to Woman focused on women in the general workplace.

In 1987, Woman to Woman revealed that over 53 percent of the women responded that they had been undermined by a female co-worker. In The Briles Report released in 1994, a study was completed on women who worked in the healthcare field. Seventy-one percent of the respondents stated that they had been undermined and sabotaged by female coworkers; this represents a 34 percent increase over the 1987 women-in-the-general-workplace study. 

In the written survey for GenderTraps, 33 percent of all respondents reported that sabotage — being undermined by another woman — was the third biggest trap encountered in their workplace today. Common complaints that were heard included: taking credit for another’s work; being told that she was doing a great job by a supervisor, and then, when the annual evaluation came around, it was substantially lower than what had been verbalized throughout the year; accessing another’s computer, and altering or destroying personal work; and, taking another’s work and submitting it in national competition without acknowledgment or credit of the originator. In one such case an award was won, and no one, including the creator, spoke up about the injustice that had been done. 

Other complaints include workplace sabotage due to sloppy and unprofessional practices, not taking responsibility for jobs and letting the team down. Complaints were aired about coworkers and bosses and the overall toxicity that many are experiencing in the workplace of the nineties. Gossip continues to be headliner for destruction and old complaints of cliques, envy and jealousy continue to weigh heavy in the workplace.


The fourth trap dealt with management — too much, too late, the wrong kind, the lack of, the wrong concepts, and the wrong people. Twenty-seven percent of the respondents said that management was one of the top traps in the workplace. In today’s workplace, the Peter and Patty Principles are alive and well. 

Many of the respondents reported that they had experienced bosses and co-workers, both male (Peters) and female (Pattys) who had been promoted above their level of competencies. The women resented training and covering up for individuals who weren’t qualified or skilled to handle the tasks required.

Too many men and women advance into management without the proper qualifications and credentials, and have, unfortunately, stayed there. Common complaints include: the impression that upper management was nothing but the good old boy network; that management lacked communication skills; management treats the employees as if they are children and management is the parent; management is done by intimidation; communications stop at the upper management level, and employees are supposed to be telepathic in order to determine what is supposed to be done. 

Total Quality Management — TQM — was on the thoughts of many of the respondents. They felt that it was a nice concept, but many of their managers never followed through with it. The result is that they didn’t count, and that they felt belittled and their sole purpose was to support upper management exclusively. A few of the respondents used the term “zinged.” They had been zinged by their managers either with misconstrued information, or communications. 

Many reported that they had been given a title that conveyed some kind of management function but it had no authority, and yet they were expected to solve whatever problems were out there. After 18 months of terrorism on her job, one respondent finally “took it and shoved it,” and found another job where put-downs and innuendoes weren’t practiced. 

A large number of respondents said that they were interrupted and talked over in meetings. At times they were accused of not being team players because they would disagree with their boss or manager. Several of the women in the survey reported that when they had been promoted into management, or considered for management, that loud voices were heard from men in the organization in statements and accusations or reverse discrimination — they were being considered or promoted just because they were women. Their response was that they had the proper credentials and degrees and the experience, just as any manager would need to have for whatever the position would require. 


Unfortunately, Pay inequities are alive and well in today’s workplace. Nineteen percent of the respondents said that salary inequities were a top problem for them. These inequities were reported from women with jobs as widely and varied as that of a jail house cook to directorships and senior management. In healthcare fields, nurses reported that some had received as much as a 30 percent pay cut in 1994. 

A survey respondent who worked in a payroll department stated that male laborers with few qualifications earned more than the clerical females who were expected to do much more complex duties. A programmer reported that a salary increase was given to someone who had not been employed as long as she had, with less qualifications and fewer responsibilities. 

Many of the women reported that the promotions they had received had a dual edge to them. The good news was that they were promoted into management positions, positions that had previously been held by men. The bad news was that even with the same credentials and titles, they received several thousand dollars less than their predecessor.


Juggling family and work, were the key problems for 17 percent of the respondents. The superwoman concept still haunted many of them, some stating they felt indispensable, both financially and emotionally, rarely finding time to take a breath. Women who are married and had children found criticism from single women regarding healthcare coverage and other benefits. One woman even wrote that the single woman didn’t care about the future of humanity. 

Women who had children late, i.e. post 40, felt they were particularly caught. Many had achieved high visibility, recognition and success within their specific occupations, and yet, when they had children, both men and women assumed they would no longer be interested, much less capable of maintaining their career tracks. The end result was that they would have to work doubly hard taking on extra tasks. Many resented the fact that they would have to prove themselves again when they had done that in their 20s.

Finally, day care was a big concern by a great number of respondents. Women addressed multiple issues both from the day care provider, as well as the day care consumer. From the lack of centers, to the lack of quality of personnel, to inconvenient site locations, to high costs and to company politics when sites were assessable through workplaces. Several of the respondents were directors of day car centers and offered problems and solutions from both sides of the street.


According to numerous studies, most people would rather die than speak to a group of people. And most feel the same about confronting another. Twelve percent of the respondents stated entering into a conflict or confrontation was one of their top three problems in the workplace. 

I believe that future surveys will report a higher percentage in this area as more recognition and awareness of women’s aversion to confronting and dealing with conflicts surfaces. Women, as girls, are not taught to engage in conflicts. Conflicts are normal, in the workplace as well as your personal life. The real problem occurs in how they are managed. 

Some respondents reported that when they were in a conflict or a confrontation was needed, they quit — give up, walk away –instead of confronting the issue. Many reported that they had problems with women and men who had passive-aggressive personalities. They found it difficult to confront them when they were more likely to be covert and manipulative in their actions/reactions. 

Management and confrontation appear to be dual problems. Several of the women reported that their managers refused to talk about a problem when it surfaces, taking the position that tomorrow was another day, or next week or next month. As if it would go away.


Apathy is indifference, lack of emotion or just plain listlessness. Complacency is contentment and smugness. Change is anything that makes a difference. Today’s workplace exudes change. Where the buzz words for the early 90s were downsizing and right sizing; the mid-90s has embraced “delayering.” Same thing, just sounds different. 

Technology is moving so fast, that it can be overwhelming just keeping up with the vocabulary, much less what it all does. When change is fast moving, it is not uncommon to dig your heels in and say “enough.” Where faxes were the in thing in 1994, they were passe in 1995. E-mail was hot. The virtual office and working from home is in. The computers of today can run circles around those of just a few years ago.

Women who are caught in the apathy, complacency and the resistance to change trap, feel lost. Eleven percent of the survey respondents stated that apathy, complacency and change were their top three problems that they encountered in the workplace. 

Several of the women wrote that apathy leads to nowhere. Many indicated that they had become careless and lazy in their profession, not stretching and reaching and continuing learning new things. Some said that because of the management chaos they had experienced, they had lost all respect and had given up on their aspirations. 

With workplace reorganization, there appears to be little or no accountability or follow through. The result was they found themselves not working at the professional level that they had envisioned. Instead, they had turned into procrastinators, had developed a woe-is-me martyred complex. They even learned helplessness and hopelessness. 

The good news is that several of the respondents felt that the downsizing and the massive reorganization of the past few years was a wakeup call. They had to get reinvolved in their careers by taking more classes, expanding their credentials for whenever the inevitable happens. Respondents felt that the dramatic changes from the reorganization and downsizing had turned co-workers into complainers. They were unwilling to make rules for themselves and unwilling to correct situations that were correctable. 

Both women and men wrote that the rapid growth of the ’80s had trapped them into a false sense of security, that they felt immune to any upheaval that could come their way.


Sabotage is defined as: 

The undermining and destruction of personal and professional integrity; malicious supervision; damage to personal and professional credibility. Any of which can lead to the erosion and destruction of one’s self-esteem and confidence. It can be delivered intentional or unintentionally and done either overtly or covertly.

When sabotage occurs, it is assumed that it is done by another. Many of the respondents indicated that they were masters at self-sabotage. Ten percent stated it was a major problem for them in their workplace. 

My definition of self-sabotage is:

The undermining and destruction of personal and professional integrity, malicious supervision, and damage to personal and professional credibility, and caused by one’s own self. Any, of which can lead to the erosion and destruction of self-esteem and confidence.

Self-sabotage includes negativity, having low self-esteem and confidence, not being able to handle criticism, having an aversion to risk, having a bad attitude, being narrow minded, being careless, carrying personal problems to work, blaming others for problems, being immature, not following through, passing the buck, being moody, avoiding negotiations, as well as any conflict or confrontation, and being caught in the “should ofs,” “ought toes” and “if onlys.” Self-sabotage also generates the terrible toos: too nice, too agreeable, too naive, too quiet, too overworked, too afraid, too dependent, and too guilty.


The final trap that surfaced was power. Although the number of respondents who indicated that power plays were in their top three problems, it is substantially lower in terms of the percentage of respondents than the other traps. Three percent of the respondents indicated that it was their number one problem in the workplace. 

Respondents wrote that women are not handling their new found power very well. Women bosses put pressure on them just because they are women to support specific causes that were supposed to be for women. It didn’t matter if they agreed or disagreed with the position. 

Many women stated that if they appeared to be too assertive or competitive, the odds are that they would not get the promotion. They would be passed over because they were a woman if the decision maker for the promotion was a woman. A number of the respondents reported that women bosses had a different set of criterion for women from the men they managed. Women bosses were inclined to be less supportive and responsive to other women because the supervisor did not want to appear to have gender favorites. The Queen Bees, the Princess Bees, and the Phantom Bees are active in today’s workplace.

Does Age Matter?

A final probe looked at age and the GenderTraps. All ages agreed that prejudice and communications were the highest ranking problems. Some variations surfaced with sabotage. Respondents under 25 placed it fourth (43 out of 1270 respondents), the remaining placed it a strong third, right behind communications.

Those over 25 years of age felt that management problems were a strong fourth, those under 25 placed it as the fifth biggest problem. It is not unusual to have these areas flip-flopped. Women over 25 are more likely to speak-up when management goes astray — they have had more years to evaluate the good and the bad.

Money and Family/Balance were mixed. Those under 25 put pay inequity as their third biggest problem and family/balance as their fifth. The 26-35 years of age group put pay inequity as their sixth and family/balance as their fourth biggest workplace problem. The 35-45 years of age respondents put pay inequity as their fifth major problem and family/balance as their sixth; those over 55 also ranked family/balance as the sixth major concern.

Concerns about family, balance and money will be directly related to lifestyle and family demands. If children are in the picture, family and balance take priority; If none, money and balance are priorities.

The remaining traps pretty much fell in order across the ages –confrontophobia, apathy and complacency, self-sabotage and the misuse of power.

Summing Up

The survey and from GenderTraps(c) represent today’s working women. The surprising exclusion of sexual harassment and the glass ceiling from the Top Ten Traps is a wake up call to the media, business and women’s groups.

Too much media hype has been directed toward the glass ceiling issue, when the majority of women are really stuck in the muddy bottom. There is no denying that sexual harassment exists. But, when women view the other problems and traps of their workplaces, it dims in comparison for most.

These GenderTraps offer a candid view of women at work — their problems, their fears, their solutions and their aspirations.