Corporate Culture Needs to Change for Women to Thrive
This is a topic that is a) close to home, and b) I’m super passionate about. Why? Because I am a woman, I am ambitious, and I have learned to survive in the corporate business world for over 12 years.
If you ask 10 different women whether sexism still exists in the workplace, you will undoubtedly get a resounding “YES.” But, if you ask any working woman for examples of what they've experienced and the effect a male-dominant work culture has had on them, you’ll get a lot of fuzzy answers and attempts to steer the conversation in another direction. I know that in the past, that’s what I would have done! 🙋
In 2018 (almost a whole year ago!) The Muse reported that 35% of women working in corporate jobs have experienced some sort of sexual harassment. I am one of that 35%. Men hold 68% of all management positions to women’s 38%, and the stats get bleaker as you get higher up the chain of command. The reality is that all of this probably isn’t news to you. If you are a professional woman, I bet these stats seem disturbingly accurate, not blown out of proportion. If you sit down in any corporate boardroom with senior management and bring up the topic of gender equality or the need for women to be better supported and better paid, you’ll get a lot of eye-rolling and underhand comments about "how jobs aren’t given out because of gender, but work experience," and how "women already have equal opportunities" (in this can-do-no-wrong company and a room full of mostly men).
For me, discrimination based on my sex has been so prevalent and frequent in my life that overcoming the regular encounters has become part of my day-to-day. Overcoming is as easy as breathing for me now, but it wasn't always this way. In my first job as a server in college, my manager tried to hit on me when I asked for better work shifts. Then he cut my hours for being “difficult to work with” when I turned down his advances. This is the reality most working women face. Whether overt or implied.
I was forced to learn at the young age of 13-years-old that if I wanted to avoid exploitation from certain men (I definitely don't want to lump all men into this), I would need to be okay with being called a bitch, a tease, even a slut--in an effort to save their reputation when I turned down the advances.
But for some reason, in the innocence of my twenties, I thought workplace sexual harassment and sexism were just par for the course. I mean, all of my friends had similar stories--if not worse! Shouldn’t I be grateful that he just hit on me?
Fast forward to my first corporate job, and I felt I was finally going to escape the inappropriate behavior that women are forced to endure in the restaurant business--but no--within months I became increasingly aware that at the corporate level the attacks were no less severe, just more normalized, and more complex. The most disheartening discovery though was that the attackers were often women. And their attacks were brutal!
Why are women so hard on each other in the corporate workplace?
I have a few theories of my own on why women feel compelled to propagate paranoia and sexism in the workplace. And while I’m sure you’re waiting to hear my opinions with ‘bated breath,’ 😉maybe we should take a look at some of the data out there on this subject.
In 2018, Today.com reported that a recent Psychology Today study reported that the women surveyed reported more rudeness and poor behavior from their female colleagues than they did from their male counterparts. Disturbing, don’t you think?
In 2012 I gave birth to my first child; a beautiful little girl named Nikayla. At the time, I worked in the marketing department of a mid-sized corporation. I was awarded 6 weeks of maternity leave that was mandated by the state (my company offered no additional paid leave). But what I COULD do was use the rest of my company vacation time and sick leave, which would give me three months with my brand new little baby. I took all of the time I could (three months). And still; going back to work and leaving my three-month-old in someone else’s care is to this day one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.
Pardon me while I go on a tangent here. How is it that in almost every developed country except the U.S. (see Switzerland, England, Italy’s policies), mothers can be home with their new babies for up to a year and still keep their jobs? How is it considered acceptable that a woman should leave her child after SIX WEEKS (the mandated time in many states), and go back to work? These state policies (with the exception of California where mothers get up to six months of maternity leave) is a topic that I cannot even begin to address in this post--and believe me, I want to discuss how our country can better support parents. The point of sharing this background with you is to set the stage for what I like to describe as ‘Institutional Sexism.'
Full of tears and angst about leaving my three-month-old baby and heading back to work, I entered into a new phase as a female professional. A stage of corporate institutional-sexism-- directed explicitly at new mothers. Being a new mother of a very young child, I had zero experience with the corporate politics and expectations that I now know are the status quo. I was still breastfeeding, and I needed to pump every two hours and bring my supplies to work. While on the surface, the company supported nursing mothers, there was no infrastructure in place to REALLY support us. I was forced to pump every two hours in a supply closet (at rotating times with 5 other moms). The storeroom had an open roof, which opened into the accounts accounting department--staffed by men and women. If you’ve ever used a breast pump, you know that they are NOT quiet. So every two hours, five days a week was forced to pump in a teeny-weeny little room, filled with boxes, and the knowledge that the whole department could hear me. In retrospect, I should have asked for a better space or made more a stink. But you learn quickly in the corporate workplace to ‘keep your head down and get your work done.’ So I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to be ‘that difficult person.’
Truth be told, it really wasn’t that big of a deal to me, until a few months passed. One day I made a passing comment to a female coworker about the comedy of the space, she glared and me and responded, “Oh, are you still doing that (breastfeeding)? “I moved my kids to formula after four months so that I could get more work done.” That was the first time I realized how much, WE WOMEN, are continuing the cycle of sexism. Who cares if I am still breastfeeding? That’s my right as a woman, mother, and should be my right as a professional and employee, but corporate culture in the U.S. does NOT support parents' needs or responsibilities. It DOES support women working AGAINST other women to get ahead. It DOES promote a culture of toxic competition, instead of mentorship. It does support mothers’ marginalizing their personal needs and the needs of their children to work more hours. This practice needs to change if we are ever going to see all women leaders flourish. Not just the moms who are willing to work themselves to the bone.
Why are corporate rules set up for working moms to fail?
If you’re a mom who works a full-time job, then the following story is going to sound familiar. It was the third time in a month one of my kiddos had been sent home sick from school. I was right in the middle of a meeting when I got the call. Feeling a mix of angst over whether or not my child was alright, and like a terrible employee because I was leaving the office, yet again, for a family emergency; I announced the situation to my team. While there was a bunch of ‘oh, no’s,’ and ‘wow, that’s terrible’s,’ resentment and lack of understanding in the room was palpable. That night after being in doctors offices all afternoon, comforting a sick child in the evening, and handling the rest of my parental duties, I opened my computer--at 10 pm--to finish the tasks I had left undone by my sudden departure. With bloodshot eyes and endless yawns, I read through the onslaught of assignments and requests that ‘NEEDED’ a response before the next day. Could I have waited? Probably. But I would have paid the price, by staying late on Friday or experiencing some other punishment dolled out by the corporate infrastructure. So I worked until 11pm, crawled into bed at midnight, and was woken up at 1am, 2am, and 4am by my sick kiddo who wasn’t able to sleep. Was I back at work at 8am the next morning? You betcha.
Why do companies (even with all of the data we have today) create work cultures that continually force working women and moms to choose between neglecting their children and self-care, or neglecting their job? Shouldn’t there be a way to make both universes work together so that moms (and dads) can keep their careers without sacrificing everything else?
The disconnect that corporate culture today presents to women who dare to want to be a LEADER a MOM and a PROFESSIONAL, or both is cruel and unsustainable.
I know, I know...some of you reading this are going to say something like:
“Well, when I was working my way up the ladder, it was even harder. So stop complaining!”
My two cents: Just because the workplace is no longer as cruel and abrasive toward working women and mothers, doesn’t mean that we now have a system that is marginally okay. Women, like men, should be able to gain employment based on their experience and expertise, and feel safe in their work environment!
“Moms just need to decide whether they want to have a career or have kids. It’s unfair to ask for both!”
My two cents: Men are allowed to work and have a family, and there is no requirement that they choose one or the other. Some men and some women will want to stay home with their children and allow the other person in the partnership to carry the financial weight. But more and more, American families need both parents to work, just to make ends meet. Is it fair to ask those couples NOT to have children, or NOT to get to spend any quality time with their children? Can’t we find a better way?
“This is just how a job goes. Anyone, man or woman, in this position would need to follow these same rules and requirements. Deal with it or quit!”
My two cents: Why would a company rather deal with the cost of losing and re-hiring an employee, over the prospect of working with that person to find a schedule that fits their life. Especially if an employee has experienced a significant life change--like having a child. If businesses would work to keep their talent happy and within a structure that works for their lives, I bet productivity would go up, and employee turnover would go down. What a concept!
Better work conditions and culture for working women and moms so that they can thrive in their careers is something I am passionate about fostering. It saddens me to see peers--amazing, talented, and dedicated women--either working themselves into the ground or leaving their day-jobs because the requirements placed on them are absolutely unreasonable.
Here are a few ways the current corporate culture is NOT supporting women:
Women are paid less than their male counterparts in the same or equivalent position. This isn’t news, but not enough companies and leaders and doing anything to solve this disparity. Aside from the hard evidence of the gender pay gap, I personally have been paid less than a peer who was male on two different occasions, and so have many of my female friends.
Women are not given equal opportunity to advance. This opportunity gap is well documented. But, which companies are making an effort to change this disparity? I can’t think of hardly any!
Women are not awarded enough time for maternity leave. When I had my second child, I only took two weeks off of work. Granted I owned my own business at the time, but still; there was not a government-funded way for me to take more time and not risk losing my clients. Three of my work colleagues over the last ten years have only taken six weeks off because their family couldn’t afford for them to take more time. This needs to change so new moms can get the critical time they need with their newborns.
Working moms are expected to work long hours in the office. This is an unspoken rule in many corporations, but still consistent from what I have experienced and seen. Women who have children need more flexibility in order to thrive!
Women suppress other professional women instead of fostering their growth. The fact is that we women are making the corporate workplace more sexist and oppressive by our own behavior. How will women leaders ever grow and thrive without support from their female counterparts?
So what can we collectively do to help foster change in an environment that is abrasive and unwelcoming to young women, new mothers and mothers with young children?
Read part two of this blog series, and find out how we can better support working women and moms.
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