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Highly educated women are more likely to say they earn less, were passed over for assignments or lost a jot because of their gender.

SALT LAKE CITY — Four in 10 working women say they have experienced discrimination in the workplace, from earning less to being treated differently from men because of their gender, a new report says.

The report also showed that Democrats and women with advanced degrees are more likely to say they have been discriminated against. But the number of people who believe sexual harassment is a problem in their own workplaces is roughly the same regardless of the respondents’ gender, education or race.

The findings released Thursday are the first to emerge from a large study Pew Research Center is conducting about women and minorities in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Researchers analyzed the answers of 5,000 men and women who participated in an online survey conducted in July and August, before the issue of sexual misconduct in the workplace broke into the national conversation.

The results show that women are twice as likely as men to say they have been treated unfairly at work because of their gender, and they are four times as likely as men to have been treated as though they are not competent.

Unequal pay for the same work was the most common form of discrimination. Close behind was women being treated as if they weren’t competent, and experiencing “repeated, small slights at work.”

The findings are a reminder that even well-intentioned people can discriminate in the workplace, said Susan Madsen, the Orin R. Woodbury Professor of Leadership and Ethics in the Woodbury School of Business at Utah Valley University, and director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.

“It comes down to biases. We all have biases, and most of them are unconscious biases, and we have incredibly strong biases on gender,” said Madsen, who was not involved with the study.

“We’re all socialized from a young age, especially in Utah but all places in the world, that men do certain things and women do different things," Madsen said. "We hire people who look like us, so if more men are doing the hiring, they’re going to hire men.”

Types of discrimination

Pew’s survey was conducted months before allegations of sexual abuse by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein launched the #MeToo movement and a cavalcade of other accusations across a variety of professions.

Men and women taking the survey were asked if they had ever been subjected to sexual harassment at work, and if they considered sexual harassment a big problem, a small problem, or not a problem at their workplace. About 6 in 10 people said sexual harassment was not a problem where they work.

While more than a third of both men and women said that sexual harassment is at least a small problem, women were three times as likely as men to have experienced harassment themselves. Twenty-two percent of women and 7 percent of men said they had been sexually harassed.

The researchers noted that the numbers are smaller than other polls have found in the wake of the Weinstein revelations. An October ABC News/Washington Post survey found 30 percent of women said they had been sexually harassed at work; an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll in November put the number at 35 percent.

Kim Parker, Pew’s director of social trends research and co-author of the report, said differences in wording could account for the disparate numbers, as well as the timing of the polls.

“There’s no question that this is top of mind for people right now, and that wasn’t necessarily the case in the summer when we were conducting this survey,” Parker said.

Aaron Thorup, Pew Research Center
Pew Research Center

Most of the report focused on eight types of discrimination that men and women report experiencing at work: earning less, being treated as though they are not competent, experiencing repeated slights, receiving less support from senior leaders, being passed over for important assignments, feeling isolated, being denied a promotion and being turned down for a job.

The third most common type of discrimination for women — feeling repeatedly slighted — was not defined, but Madsen said that's a common experience that is sometimes a form of “benevolent sexism.”

For example, she said a woman may not be invited to an after-work gathering that could be professionally useful because of an assumption she needs to be home with her children.

Other times, the slight may not so benevolent, as when a woman’s idea in a meeting is ignored until a man offers the same idea a few minutes later and then gets the credit, she said.

The effect of education

Some of the biggest divides in the report occur when researchers looked at the education of respondents.

“Women with a bachelor’s degree or more education report experiencing discrimination across a range of items at significantly higher rates than women with less education,” Parker and co-author Cary Funk wrote.

Fifty-seven percent of working women with a postgraduate degree said they had experienced some form of gender discrimination at work, compared to 40 percent of women with a bachelor’s degree and 39 percent of those who did not complete or attend college.

Roughly four-in-ten working women say they've experienced gender discrimination at work

And 29 percent of women with a postgraduate degree said they have been slighted at work because of their gender, compared to 18 percent of women with a bachelor’s degree and 12 percent with less education.

One explanation for those findings could be that highly educated women are more conscious of what constitutes gender discrimination and are more alert to abuses than less-educated women, Parker said.

But the differences could also be caused by gender segregation across professions, she said, noting that women who work in jobs dominated by women are less likely to report gender discrimination.

“Women working in engineering or higher levels of management that tend to be male-dominated are reporting those types of discrimination at higher rates. And obviously, postgraduate women would be more likely to be in these higher-level positions,” Parker said.

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While Madsen found the report discouraging, she said there are ways to address the problem of gender discrimination and that one strategy is for employers to adopt high-quality training about the issue. Too often, she said, companies offer training that is perfunctory and ineffective, but good programs that teach people about hidden biases can change a workplace culture, she said.

"It is discouraging, when you're someone like me who has been working in this area for a long, long time, to not see progress as much as we need to see, to really make changes," she said. "If we're going to be fair and equal and respectful of everyone, we need to learn more about unconscious biases."