Women With Disabilities Face Significant Financial Inequity in the Workplace. What Can Be Done?

Women with disabilities are often doubly penalized—for being women and for being disabled.

Despite the many enormous challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past few years, women have continued to make important gains in corporate America. A Women in the Workplace study conducted by McKinsey & Company in partnership with LeanIn.org shows that women's representation across all levels of the corporate pipeline improved in 2020. It did so amid a global pandemic that presented unique challenges for women, who are typically tasked with caregiving.

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Still, according to the report (which is the largest analysis of its kind on women in corporate America and includes feedback from 423 participating organizations employing 12 million people), those gains were minimal. We continue to work in a world where for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 86 women are promoted. As a result, men outnumber women significantly at the manager level, which means there are far fewer women to promote to higher levels.

The eye-opening report also reveals some particularly unsettling facts about women with disabilities in corporate America. When it comes to professional advancement and satisfaction, women with disabilities face an even more challenging career journey—and as a result, their long-term success and financial security suffer.

Here are a few of the highlights on that front, per the new report:

  • While nearly half of women overall think promotions at their companies are based on fair and objective criteria, only 35% of women with disabilities feel that way. In addition, 23% of women with disabilities think having a physical disability has played a role in missing out on raises, promotions, or chances to get ahead.
  • Less than 30% of women with disabilities say they've advanced their career in the past year, compared to more than 40% of women overall.
  • The challenges faced by women with disabilities have been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the increased stigma they face when working flexibly: 23% of women with disabilities feel judged when requesting or taking advantage of opportunities to work flexibly, and 27% worry that doing so would hurt their careers. This is significantly higher than the share of women overall who hold these same views (14% and 18%).
  • Women with disabilities are more likely than women overall to experience microaggressions that undermine them as professionals. They're about 1.5 times as likely as women overall to have their judgement questioned, as well as to hear others make comments about their emotional state.
  • Women with disabilities are more burned out than women overall—52% of women with disabilities, compared to 42% of women in total. In addition, 46% of women with disabilities have considered downshifting or leaving their careers, compared to 33% of women overall.

With these statistics in mind, we asked experts to provide tips regarding how women with disabilities might respond to such realities in their professional lives. Here are some of the key takeaways.

Achieving promotions and career advancement

Addressing the career advancement challenges faced by women with disabilities in corporate America is a daunting task. One approach may be to engage in collective advocacy, Jes Osrow tells Health. Osrow is the co-founder and COO of The Rise Journey, a group that helps empower organizational cultures to be more inclusive, diverse, equitable, and accessible for all employees.

"Women with visible or invisible disabilities in the workplace need to advocate and step up for each other, especially if someone doesn't necessarily feel comfortable stepping up for themselves," says Osrow, who is also a strategic advisor for Chronically Capable, a digital talent marketplace and community that connects disabled professionals with inclusive employers. "Create some type of coalition to support one another."

What might this look like in practice? Osrow suggests it can involve elevating a person's name in meetings, as well as speaking up and making the case when some employees deserve a raise. "This also means getting coworkers without disabilities involved when they can step up and become an active ally in the workplace, too," adds Osrow.

Addressing raise and salary inequities

It's hardly a secret that women face challenges when it comes to pay equity. This is particularly true for women with disabilities. To help address this, Osrow advises not to share your current salary during the interview process for a new job.

"Instead, specifically research what the role you are applying for should be receiving," Osrow explains. "You should practice asking for a range that correlates with that number. But never reveal your current pay, because you are likely underpaid and undervalued, and therefore it is not appropriate to give that number because it is not an accurate reflection of your value." It's advice that could be applied to all women, too, not just those with disabilities.

Responding to microaggressions, bias, and questioned judgement

Women with disabilities should not accept microaggressions as a standard work practice. If you're experiencing them, inform the person who is committing the microaggression and ask them to stop, Robert Bird, an attorney and business law professor for the University of Connecticut School of Business, tells Health.

"Sometimes a gentle correction may be all that is necessary," says Bird, who has been teaching employment law focused on gender and disability for more than 20 years. "However, if these gender or disability-based microaggressions continue, women with disabilities should not hesitate to inform their supervisor or human resources of this conduct, as it may be the basis of illegal discriminatory activity by the company."

This response takes courage—and it may also take time to establish the habit of responding in a proactive manner when such affronts occur.

"It is important to train yourself to respond to microaggressions, questioning comments as they occur to prevent further misunderstandings and opportunities for resentment to simmer," Erika Rasure, PhD, an assistant professor in the online MBA in financial services program at Maryville University in Missouri, tells Health.

The easiest way to approach this kind of situation is to ask the person who said it for clarification: "What did you mean by that?" suggests Rasure.

Bird points out that it's critical to document everything you're experiencing in a work environment. "If a woman with disabilities is experiencing gender or disability-based microaggressions, she should commit details of the incidents in writing," says Bird. "This includes what happened, when it happened, under what context the microaggressions occurred, who committed the microaggressions, and who was present when it happened. That way, a systemic pattern of misconduct can be shown to her employer (or a court if necessary) that such aggressions were occurring."

Kelley Simoneaux, a disability lawyer and accessibility advocate who became a T-12 paraplegic at age 16 as a result of a car crash, tells Health that women with disabilities need to make it a point to be visible.

"Much of the pushback is because people do not see women with disabilities in the community, being employed, and living life outside of the home," says Simoneaux, who founded The Spinal Cord Injury Law Firm in Washington, DC. "There needs to be more visibility to disability. I want people to see me rolling down the sidewalk on the way to work, rolling into court, or rolling through Capitol Hill to advocate for the disability community. Until this visual is seen, accepted, and embraced, the systemic undercurrent of unintended bias towards women with disabilities will perpetuate."

Dealing with burnout and the desire to downshift your career

Burnout affects so many women in the workplace. This reality causes women to leave their jobs behind, change careers, and pass on opportunities. For women with disabilities who are experiencing burnout, Simoneaux suggests looking for employers who do a better job of offering meaningful work-life balance.

"A person should not have to choose between being successful in a job and their wellness. These ideas can coexist," says Simoneaux.

Finding the right fit professionally and understanding a potential employer's values before you take on a job can help ensure a healthy, happy work life.

Know your rights

In addition to following some of the tips above, it is critical that women with disabilities understand their rights under the law, experts advise.

For instance, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law that prohibits discrimination against a qualified person with a disability. Illegal discrimination can be based on any term or condition of employment, such as hiring, firing, promotion, transfer, or benefits of the job, explains Bird.

"The ADA also requires employers to provide a reasonable accommodation to disabled persons in order for them to perform the essential functions of the job," says Bird, who recommends the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website as a useful government resource for learning more about your rights as an employee.

Michal Strahilevitz, PhD, director of the Elfenworks Center for Responsible Business at St. Mary's College in California, also urges women in this situation to become familiar with their rights, as well as with any non-profit organizations that can provide support.

"Depending on where you live, there are advocacy groups focused on supporting the rights of people with disabilities," Strahilevitz tells Health. "Getting the support you need as well as knowing your legal rights is critical, whether you're being mistreated due to your disability or for any other protected reason including race, religion or sexual orientation."

Ultimately, Strahilevitz and others say, the onus should not just be on the individual with a disability to fix the situation and bring about change. The responsibility lies with everyone.

"Whether you are currently disabled or not, every single one of us could become disabled in the future, as could our loved ones," Strahilevitz says. "It is up to all of us to work hard to improve the situation, particularly for disabled women who are double penalized both for being women and for being disabled."

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