Women and the workplace: the journey to full equality

Anyone who has been watching or reading the news knows that there has been a lot of talk this year about sexism and assault of women.  One event that is likely seared in many women’s minds was the light sentence meted out this year to the Stanford University student after being found guilty of sexual assault.   Most women have experienced some kind of harassment from men, sexual or otherwise.  We endure it, we tell our friends about it, sometimes we report it, and often it feels like the system is unfairly tilted against us.    I wanted to take a moment to reflect on what it’s like to experience harassment.  First I’d like to share my own story with you.

For every woman who has been diminished by a man, this is for you

Over twenty years ago I had a job interview for what turned out to be a big career move.  At the time I was a single mom, newly divorced with two tiny children, one an infant, and the other a toddler.  I can’t remember the man’s name but I remember his face as clear as day, as well as what he asked me.  He had curly hair, wore glasses, and was slightly balding.  The question was:  “how will you be able to work full-time with two small children?”  I felt the word bubble come out of my mouth and float above my head.  Inside it were the words “you can’t ask me that question you bastard, it’s illegal.”  But I didn’t say this.  I needed this job.  I had to support myself and my two children.  I was not receiving any child support and was unlikely to get any help from their father.  So, instead I said, “if I couldn’t do the job I wouldn’t be here.”  This silenced him.  The rest of the interview went well and I got the job.

His words cut through me like a knife.  It diminished me with its suggestion that somehow as a woman I could not be a serious job holder, that having children meant that I would be running home to wipe runny noses instead of completing an urgent project or giving a briefing.  He implied that my womanhood defined me in a way that would not be a good fit for the workplace.  This conversation also reminded me that this perception held power over me, the power to decide if I could hack it, or if being a mother meant I was somehow held lacking.  Years later I worked with another man like him.   During a business trip with two male colleagues, I remember meeting our clients at breakfast in the morning.   They asked me where I had been the evening before when they had all gone out for drinks.  My male colleague had purposely excluded me.  I will never forget that feeling of embarrassment when confronted with the simple truth that my workmate didn’t want me along because I was a woman.  He had the power to leave me out, and used it to eliminate me from the gathering, erase me completely.

“It has been said, ‘time heals all wounds.’ I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone.” 
― Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy

I  am now middle-aged and my children are grown.  I have forgotten many things.  I can’t remember the name of my first grade teacher, or the street address of my first home, or even names of restaurants I love.  Memory is funny that way.  But I do remember when I fell in love with my now husband, and I will never ever forget that conversation during the job interview.  It is burnt into my memory as one of the seminal moments in my life.   I had to decide between standing up for myself and letting the comments wash over me without a response.  I was judged because of my gender.  Would he have asked me that question if I was a man?   i doubt it.

In my experience, the men pursued careers and took risks, and asked for raises, and got to go on business trips.  Their wives stayed home and held down the fort.  When you are a single mother this situation is magnified.  I was creative in finding caretakers for my children so I could go on out of town trips that enhanced my career prospects.  I raised my hand without hesitation when these opportunities came up and took care not to talk too much about my children lest I be seen as on the “mommy track.”  I was fortunate to have a wonderful colleague who was generous with her time and friendship and watched my children for me.

Why are these thoughts coming to mind now?  Listening to all the women talk about how they were harassed and groped in years past brought it all back.  Are things better now for our daughters?  I’ll have to ask them to find out.  For me and my contemporaries being a women in the workplace was often frustrating and always challenging.   Do you aim for a feminine look or cover up your sexual being?  Short skirts or long?  Makeup or no makeup?  Assertive or quiet?  Outgoing or modest?  Lead or follow?  How many of you have been called aggressive or pushy when these traits were rewarded in your male colleagues?  How many times were we passed over for a promotion by a man who embodied these “non-feminine” traits?

So what is my point?

It’s this:  despite living in the 21st century, American women are still victimized by men.  They are subject to discrimination, subtle and not so subtle, in the workplace and elsewhere.  We carry these burdens in our guts and on our backs like so many scars, some deep and some shallow, but all painful.  Many of my generation learned to dress and act like men to be taken seriously by them.  We helped pave the way for things that they take for granted.   We grappled with our femininity in the dangerous minefield in the path to equality.    I hope and pray that young women today will have an easier time than we did, their mothers and grandmothers.    Now we have more choices, more options, and more protections.  Yet there is much more work to be done.  We still lack a prominent role in business and in the Congress.

The journey is not over yet.

We  have less than twenty days left until the election that to some of us is about what kind of a place America will be for women.   To all my sisters out there I say to you, let your voices stand against unfairness and inequality, and stand firm when you come face to face with unfair treatment.  Rise up and let us take our rightful place.  Mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends:  let’s get to work!

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