Once again the issue of equality and respect for women in the workplace is making its way into the headlines. I’m inspired by the new vitality in the hopeful younger generation regarding the issue because I have been quite tired from the lack of progress for women over my 30 year career.
Sexism is deeply ingrained in our culture, our families, our religions, our politics and our history. Not one of us is completely free of gender bias. However, we are not powerless to overcome it. Once we become conscious of our own assumptions, beliefs, thoughts or knee-jerk reactions, we are then able to change them.
1. Men Are the Breadwinners
In a recent discussion regarding a proposed candidate for an open position at my firm, a colleague asked me if the candidate really needed to work. In response to my puzzled look, my colleague explained, “I think her husband makes pretty good money”. I have never heard someone ask if a man “really needs to work” despite the fact that the Pew Research Center reports that women are the breadwinners for 40% of all households with children in the U.S.
2. You Don’t Look the Part
When people ask me what I do for a living and I tell them that I am a lawyer, a common response is, “You don’t look like a lawyer.” I assume the image people have in their mind is a crotchety gray-haired man when my response of “Aren’t you glad?” gets a laugh. This is an outdated view, of course, since the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession reports that about half of law firm associates are women in their 2017 A Current Glance At Women in the Law.
3. Working Mothers Want to Stay Close to Home – Part One
Many years ago, I was watching Oprah interview Christiane Amanpour, the world-renowned journalist. Christiane had been reporting from terrorist locations around the world, usually in the midst of heavy fighting. I remember Oprah asking Christiane who took care of her infant son when she was reporting from these far off places. It was as if Oprah could not fathom who, other than a baby’s mother, could be the caretaker for a child. Christiane answered by reminding Oprah that her baby had a father.
There seems to be an unspoken rule that in order to be a good mother, your career should take a back seat and that you must always be within arms-length of your children to service their every need. Fathers, however, do not seem to be subject to this same rule. In fact, men who pour their energy into one area of life, their career, are given credit for being successful in two areas of life: career and family. Women, meanwhile, are assumed to be falling down on one of these jobs if they are excelling at the other.
4. Working Mothers Want to Stay Close to Home – Part Two
A good friend of mine is a pharmaceutical executive. An exciting and unique opportunity had arisen to send a couple of his team members to Congo to train local workers in administering therapies. My friend admitted that he assumed that working mothers on the team would not want to go, since they would not want to be away from their children. He did not make the same assumption about the working fathers.
I’m glad my friend was able to be so open and honest about his assumption. He is a good guy. Some might even argue that he was being supportive of women by trying to accommodate those on his team with young children at home. However, he now realizes that his well-intentioned behavior should have been directed to all of his team members, without regard to gender.
5. Women Can’t Have it All – But Men Can
The refrain “Women can have it all!” began as a way to send girls the message that they no longer had to choose between having a family or having a career. The implication was that they could have both – just like men could.
Here is the problem with that assumption. Work/life balance is not just a women’s issue. You see, men have never “had it all” either. This is because nobody – man or woman – can be in two places at one time. Life is busy and juggling all aspects of it is difficult for anyone. Neither gender is spared this struggle.
Unless we really stop and ask ourselves what sort of sexist beliefs are still coloring our perspective on men and women in the workplace, the concept of equality and respect for women in the workplace isn’t going to budge from where it is now.