“Your husband is going to fall off his chair when he sees this bill,” quipped the saleswoman as she rang up my purchase.
This was in January of this year (not 1955, as you might have guessed), when I ventured to the mall to get dress clothes that my teenage son could wear to his winter formal. He had recently tested positive for COVID-19 and was isolating in his bedroom. So, I armed myself with his measurements and set off to find options for him to try on at home: slacks, blazers, vests, shirts, and ties, in different sizes and styles. I wanted enough choices that at least something would fit him and – if I was lucky – maybe there would even be an outfit he liked. I intended to return 75% of what I bought, which is allowed by store policy.
Now, I’m not an extravagant shopper, I don’t make frivolous purchases, and I’m responsible with my finances.
I chuckled politely in response to the saleswoman, biting my tongue. Would she have made a similar comment if my husband was the one making a large purchase? I don’t think so.
No big deal, right? It’s certainly not, in the grand scheme of things. But subtle, small, seemingly meaningless comments and assumptions add up. They perpetuate long-standing stereotypes and make it harder to achieve equality.
I often get asked to recommend female panelists or conference speakers. I get requests to identify a woman scientist that can be added to a list of distinguished innovators. I get asked what it’s like to be a CIO and a woman. While I’m happy to promote exceptional women and to discuss work-life balance…the reality is that such questions would be both odd and socially unacceptable if we switched the genders around.
The feminist satire account manwhohasitall on Twitter has some eye-opening takes that drive this point home. Here’s a favorite: “My friend is a history teacher. She’s compiling a list of great historical figures and she needs a male to add to the list. Suggestions?” Another: “I have absolutely no problem with male ‘experts’ on panels, as long as they are genuinely experts and not just taking up a valuable space because they are men.” Or this one: “I’m interviewing a male investor about what it’s like to be an investor at the same time as being a man. What should I ask him?”
Despite some signs of progress (a woman U.S. Vice President! 124 female self-made billionaires!), the situation for women has, in many ways, gone backwards in recent years. According to the United Nations’ detailed report from late 2021, “The pandemic is clawing back limited progress in the past 25 years on expanding women’s rights and opportunities, including for economic participation and political voice.” Results are devastating for the poorest and most vulnerable populations across the world, but even the richest nations are impacted.
A recent photo from the 2022 G7 summit is striking: seven men in dark suits. This is the first time in 16 years that a woman is not among the leaders of the world’s wealthiest democracies. Some journalists called the assemblage a “boys club.” This group leads the countries that dominate global trade and finance. It’s attempting to tackle the world’s biggest challenges – from the climate crisis to the war in the Ukraine to inflation. And its elected leaders are all men.
The COVID-19 pandemic set women in the workforce back. In most countries across the Americas, Africa, Europe, and Asia, women in the labor market suffered more than men. In part, this is because those sectors hardest hit during the pandemic (such as leisure, hospitality, and food service) were those with a high share of female employment. At the same time, women took on more childcare responsibilities and household duties, scaling back working hours or leaving the workforce entirely. In the United States, women accounted for 63% of all job losses. While men regained all lost jobs by January 2022, there are nearly two million fewer women in the U.S. labor force than there were pre-pandemic. The situation is even more stark for women of color. It’s a business imperative that we address the systemic issues that are holding back half the population.
So, let’s just get back to the way things were pre-pandemic, right? No – that’s not a good solution for women either. A recent Harvard Business Review article “Women Can’t Go Back to the Pre-Pandemic Status Quo” details the challenges of burn-out, stress, and inequities that pre-date the pandemic, and the need to drive a reset now. Many women are having to re-learn how to juggle family and work responsibilities as business travel resumes. Mass “return to the office” initiatives threaten to exacerbate disparities further, as women value and require flexible work practices. The book How the Future Works provides data-based insights and practical steps for enabling diverse, high-performing teams to do their best work.
The workplace isn’t the only place women are struggling. The recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade means that there is no longer a constitutional right to an abortion in America. States are free to restrict access to doctor-recommended, life-saving, or elective procedures. Eight states now have outlawed abortion and others are expected to restrict rights. The decision divides the nation – separating the haves and have nots, endangering the health and safety of people who can become pregnant, and curtailing women’s rights.
The decision – leaked a few months ago – has caused massive anxiety, consternation, and dialogue among my circles. For my entire life I’ve known nothing of a world “pre-Roe.” I grew up in a country where a woman’s right to seek medical care and make choices for her own body were just that – her choices. Sometimes hard, heart-wrenching, and traumatic choices – but her choices nonetheless.
As a mother of two healthy children, my husband and I were excited to expand our family. I waited until early in my second trimester to tell my boss at work that I was pregnant, only to learn the devastating news soon after that the fetus I was carrying had abnormalities that were “incompatible with life,” with no chance for survival. The medical procedure I had – recommended by my doctor and performed in a hospital – was not a difficult “decision,” as there was no decision at that point that would have changed the outcome. If this ruling had come then, I might have had to carry that fetus to term. I would have had to limit travel, miss work, and stall my career. I would have felt my belly grow for another 25 weeks and endured the risk and pain of labor, only to leave the hospital empty handed and traumatized. Instead, my body healed and within a year I was pregnant with my third child.
So, when I see the dearth of women in leadership roles, witness the outsized impacts of COVID-19 on women in the workforce, hear about the loss of federal protections, and experience seemingly minor inequities…I fear that my daughter now has fewer rights than my sons, that she has less freedom than I had growing up, and I worry that we are going backwards.
All of this is to say…many women are struggling right now. We’re not hopeless, we’re resilient. We’re not giving up, but it’s a particularly tough time. So, what do we do – as managers, colleagues, confidants, and friends?
Listen. Acknowledge the emotional toll of the current environment. Check in on colleagues. Offer an ear to those who are comfortable talking about issues and concerns. Wherever possible avoid “political” debates at work, but it is appropriate to talk about how your peers or employees are feeling, what’s weighing on their minds, and how you can help.
Provide Support. Providing support doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with or endorse a position. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement of the challenges and stressors that are present today – some new, many long-standing. Empathy and understanding go a long way toward helping others feel seen and heard.
Take Action. There are actions we all can take to move the ball forward toward gender equality. Invest in career development programs for women – such as skills building, talent rotations, and mentorship. Conduct diversity, inclusion, and bias training for employees and managers. Ensure pay equity. Support flexible work options. Commit to diverse slates and equitable practices in hiring and leadership selection. Take a stand if someone is being overlooked for opportunities. Speak up if you see inappropriate behaviors. And lead by example.