I have always had a fierce drive for financial independence. When I was a girl child in the 1950s and 1960s, I remember reflecting on my mother’s traditional suburban life as a homemaker and being horrified by her lack of independence. Although she was living a life that met society’s expectations, she often told me stories about dreams she had abandoned to be a wife and mother.
I became an active feminist in the 1960s and 1970s as part of the second-wave feminist movement. In some ways, what being a feminist means to me has never changed: being committed to making life better for women—all women. At the same time, my understanding of what feminism means has morphed and evolved over the years and is not the same as in the 1960’s and 1970’s. At that time, we white middle-class second wave feminists thought we were fighting to improve the lives of all women, but we were clueless about the issues of women who were not white, straight, and middle class. This cluelessness inflicted serious damage on the credibility of feminism, for good reason. Some of us, myself included, were slow learners.
I have the good fortune to travel to mainland China two or three times a year. As a practicing organization development consultant and trainer for more than thirty years, it is a thrill for me to share my knowledge and experience in China by teaching leadership and consulting skills workshops to Chinese professionals. I have been fascinated with China ever since I taught English there in the 1980s when the country was newly opened to Western tourism and commerce after being closed to the West for decades. I continue to marvel at the changes that the Chinese have accomplished since my first visit over thirty years ago. I have seen the country evolve from a backward Third World country to a First World global power. But, to my surprise, one thing that has not changed is discrimination against women in society and the workplace.
As a consultant and coach for more than thirty years, I have heard too many painful stories from female clients about feeling unsupported and even undermined by other women at work. When I decided to research this dynamic for my book, New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together, I found that these feelings and experiences happen for a reason: organizations actually set up women to feel competitive with one another. This happens when women see very few other women in senior leadership positions. As one of my research participants explained:
A new study by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey finds little progress in advancement for women in the largest companies. This study of 132 companies employing 4.6 million people includes a review of the pipeline data of the companies, a survey of HR practices, and surveys of 34,000 employees about attitudes on gender, job satisfaction, ambition, and work-life issues.
Key Findings: The Current State
First, let’s take a look at key findings from the study:
- Women remain underrepresented at every level. For every 100 women promoted to manager, 130 men are promoted. This disparity begins early and grows larger with only 20 percent of SVP roles held by women, which results in very few women in line to become CEO.
Not long ago, a prominent neuroscientist noticed an announcement for an upcoming neuroscience conference. Apoorva Mandavilli of the New York Times reports that this scientist, Dr. Yael Niv of Princeton University, also noticed that “none of the twenty-one speakers were women.” She was upset because she had been pushing for greater inclusion of women scientists as speakers at conferences for years. To top it off, the organizers of this conference were women. This event pushed Dr. Niv and about twenty of her women colleagues to take stronger action to create change.
Sexism and racism are two forms of systemic injustice where people are treated unfairly by a network of social institutions because they belong to a certain social-identity group. For example, much has been written about the gender-pay gap and obstacles to promotion for women in many fields. In addition, the Black Lives Matter movement has raised our awareness of the higher rates of incarceration and killing of African Americans by police and the judicial system than is true for Whites. Gender and race are not the only social-identity categories where discrimination occurs, of course. Let’s take a look at some recent studies on how sexism and racism can be harmful to our health. (Be aware that these findings probably apply to other marginalized groups, such as the LGBTQIA community, as well.)
Examples of sexism are rampant in the United States as demonstrated in our presidential contest, sexual harassment scandals, and other public-sector examples like the gender-wage gap. Let’s be clear—both women and men can hold sexist attitudes about women. Sexist attitudes usually include negative stereotypes that create barriers or unfair double standards for women. I have written about many ways that internalized sexism makes it difficult for women to support strong women leaders in my book, New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together. Below are some examples of sexist attitudes currently on display.
The commercial aviation industry remains one of the toughest and least accommodating for new mothers. Annalyn Kurtz of the New York Times notes that “pilots are exempt from a provision in the Affordable Care Act requiring employers to accommodate new mothers.” Perhaps because only 4 percent of the 159,000 certified commercial airline pilots are women, and only a portion of these are childbearing age, the issues of paid maternity leave and accommodation for breast-feeding are not priorities for union collective bargaining efforts. Many male pilots are also not supportive of fighting for these policy changes on behalf of their female colleagues because they do not see the policies as important. For these reasons, female pilots have begun to join forces to pressure their male colleagues and unions to support demands for paid maternity leave and alternative work assignments so that women can keep their jobs and support their families during pregnancy and while nursing newborns.
“Sisterhood is not enough; men must be involved in efforts to equalize workplace culture,” writes Peggy Klaus in the New York Times. Klaus goes on to quote Belinda Parmar, head of the tech consultancy Lady Geek, as saying, “gender equity is not a ‘women’s problem,’ it’s a society problem.” I could not agree more, and we need to do more to change workplace culture.