A Woman’s Work…and Life

As I have said in the past, long runs often prove to be a time of reflection for me. I have written plots for books, blog post themes, and figured out how to save the world from a zombie apocalypse, so it is no surprise to me that the recent U.S. Presidential Debate stayed in my head throughout the week and popped up during my long runs this weekend. (NOTE: this post is not about running, although it kept going around in my head during the run.) After the debate, there were comments about how while Secretary Clinton was prepared, there were times she looked smug.  Isn’t it good that she prepared? If she acted like Donald Trump, people would call her unhinged and crazy.  There have been comments about her attractiveness and likeability.  WHY?  Why does a 68-year old grandmother of two need to be attractive?  Mr. Trump is not very good-looking but you do not read a bunch of press headlines talking about his orange face and crazy hair. These questions and double standards are now a part of the national debate stage. Like or dislike them based on the issues they represent, not the gender. The debate (and election writ large) this week and subsequent editorials, press and social media reinvigorated an issue my girlfriends and female coworkers have discussed, and care about deeply, since we entered the workforce – the gender divide and bias that still exists in modern society.   

The double standards that exist not only in the work place, but in life itself, and how you may not even recognize when you are on the receiving end of that bias because it has been accepted so readily in the past.  Luckily the issue has been getting increased attention in the last few years – from Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, to the Sony email scandal about the pay disparity between male and female actors, to famous actresses pushing back on only being asked who they are wearing on the red carpet, to the recent Washington Post article on the #amplification strategy White House women used to make sure they were being heard, and the sheer volume of times Donald Trump interrupted Secretary Clinton in the debate, not to mention Reince Priebus making statements about how Secretary Clinton should smile more.  The bad news is that it is still a topic in need of discussion. The good news is we have people like Chelsea Handler with skits like the following“Men, Please Stop Telling Women to Smile”

On my long runs this weekend, I could not get this topic out of my mind.  In running and athletics, you are only limited by the effort you put into your goals, yet that same sentiment does not permeate all aspects of a woman’s life and work.  Plus, it is hard to know how to navigate the gender bias as women are sometimes held to a higher standard (e.g., oftentimes in business women get promoted based on experience whereas men often get promoted on potential) and other times to a lower one (e.g., young girls around the globe are kept out of schools and expected to stay at home).  It should not surprise anyone that this divide is playing out at the National stage during this election, but it still saddens, angers and unnerves me. Why am I,as a woman, supposed to smile? Why, as a male, does one have the right to tell me to do so? Why do some of the most intelligence and powerful women at the White House have to create a strategy to amplify their voices because they found them pushed aside or talked over by male coworkers?  The answer is they should not have to do so, yet the issue remains.  In fact, I just read a 2016 McKinsey & Co and LeanIn.org study on “women in the Workplace,” which focused on corporate work; however, I truly believe the results highlight the issues women face in any type of work and life. The key points I got from the report were:

  • In corporate America, women fall behind early and continue to lose ground with every step…and this is even more pronounced for women of color;
  • On average, women are promoted and hired at lower rates than men, so far fewer women become senior leaders;
  • Women are underrepresented at all levels;
  • There is an uneven playing field where women face a workplace skewed in favor of men and a steeper path to leadership; and
  • Women are negotiating as often as men (YAY!) but face pushback when they do.  They are 30% more likely than men who negotiate to receive feedback that they are “intimidating,” “too aggressive,” “bossy,” or (my add) labeled as a bitch.

A number of my female friends and colleagues work in the very male-dominated world of federal employment and defense and we have spoken numerous times in the past on the exact points made by the McKinsey & Co and LeanIn.org report. In fact, in a conversation with my friend, Rita, we were talking about her experiences in corporate America and how she has a mentoring team of women to support, bounce around ideas, experiences and challenges, and she said it would be great to hear about my experience as a female int he male-dominated field of Defense and government.

When I think about my experiences, and that of my colleagues, I can identify times when our work lives were more difficult, or the expectations different, than that of our male coworkers.  The requirement to always be above the par…to not do things that could impact how I was viewed or negatively impact someone’s opinion of me. The double standards within the workplace were sometimes recognizable and others not as much.  There is the expectation that I, as a female, would not be too showy but also not drab or mannish, because it would be commented upon and used against me. The double standard of a woman’s personal life, family, home, and responsibilities or even entering into a relationship with a coworker, and how it is fodder for conversation. We have heard the phrase “one and done” regarding work place relationships – meaning you have one chance to date a coworker because if you try for more you will be negatively labeled with the S*** word.  And you never want to be labeled “one of those girls.”

I have never experienced outright negativity although I have seen it or realized later on I just witnessed such bias.  One of the best examples in retrospect is what I have called “Bro vs. Chick.”  No, not “Bro vs. Ho,” but something a bit more insidious.  This is something my girlfriends and co-workers in government and I have acknowledged when discussing our experiences overseas and back in the U.S. A number of times I heard other women say they felt lucky because the guys treated her “like a bro” and they pitied the girls that were treated like “chicks.” I think about this statement a lot, because I too, had felt lucky to be treated like a “bro,” or “lil sister” to be protected vice a “chick.” Mainly because being treated like a chick meant you were not being taken seriously…that it was not your work that was getting positive feedback but how you looked and if you were a good distraction.

In retrospect, I never minded being treated like a bro because it meant I (1) knew my work was being taken seriously, (2) felt safe, and (3) was not worried about being talked about behind my back and in a negative way that could impact my career.  I would also feel sorry for the young women treated like chicks, or as I now realize, as OBJECTS. Being treated like a chick by male colleagues meant that in their minds, she was not a coworker whose work was to be respected, but a female who was meant to be ogled.  Totally uncool, right? The young, inexperienced professional was happy to not be placed into the chick category, the older, wiser me recognizes that while it was better to fall into the bro lane, that is NOT how a work environment should ever be. Male or female, the work they do should be the standard by which they are held. Why should we have to feel LUCKY that I was not treated like a professional woman???

Over the last two years, I had the honor to work for amazing and powerful women who know that work environments like the one I described is harmful to every person in that organization and we should be lifting each other up at every opportunity.  These are the same women who created a unique and fantastic strategy to level the playing field in a world full of men.  My eyes are wide open and so should the worlds’. I believe in my civic duty to vote.  Our country has fought too hard throughout history to give the people a voice.  I will not tell anyone what they are supposed to do with their vote and voice; however, I will ask that as we analyze each candidates’ policies, programs, and words, we do not let our opinion be swayed by a gender bias…or bias in general.  Recognize that this is still happening today and that all men and women should fight against it.  What is a woman’s place in work and life?  ANYWHERE she wants to be!

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