The 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women – the CSW58 in New York, has recently come to a close. For those of you who not familiar with the commission, this is part of UN Women – the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. This conference annually brings hundreds of women, girls, and men together from all over the world to discuss the way women and girls are treated, the inequities we put up with, the violence inflicted upon us, the unfairness and biases of the workplace, and in varying degrees, the lack of resources, rights, education, sanitation, childcare, and healthcare available to us.
In short, to put a spotlight on the lopsided, unbalanced and often antiquated way the world functions concerning women and our unique needs. And more importantly, what we, as a global society, can and must do to make things right.
No matter how good we think we have it – you’d have to be living under a rock not to know that women in neighborhoods, communities, and countries outside of our own personal comfort zone are suffering in unimaginable ways.
Gloria Steinem once said, “The truth will set you free – but first it will piss you off!”
When it comes to the true status of women globally – Gloria’s statement barely touches the surface. The following data have been rattled off before, but please read them again because this is information we should all be aware of.
Women represent at least 50% of the population, and do 66% of the world’s work, yet receive only 11% of the world’s income. It shouldn’t be surprising then, that 70% of the world’s poor are women and children.
Studies show that in the United States, women make up half of the workforce, but we’re still only making 77 cents on every dollar earned by men for doing the same jobs. And though we’ve got so many of us in higher education, and more than ever, women are vying for jobs at the top, we don’t make it all the way up those ladders, because at this moment in time, women head just 4% of our nation’s Fortune 500 companies – to be exact, 23 women are currently CEOs of those vaunted companies.
And think about this — mothers who are either the sole or primary breadwinners in 40% of households with children under 18, are also nearly two-thirds of the country’s minimum-wage workers. This is a huge percentage of women. How can they make ends meet? How can they “lean in,” “move up,” put their kids through college, and change their lives for the better?
These statistics – this truth, should really piss us all off.
By virtue of sheer mass alone, one would think women the world over would be further along in our human rights and gender equality goals. Yet, while women increasingly claim more positions in the technology, business, education, and medical spheres, we continue to struggle to make a significant dent when it comes to equal pay for equal work, family-friendly work policies, electing more women to political office, and quality, affordable childcare.
And I haven’t even touched on the horrifying reality of violence against women, which is epidemic worldwide; 1 in 3 of us will become the victim of sexual assault in our lifetimes.
The fact that we don’t have a clear, loud voice in the decisions made to govern us anywhere in the world – that we haven’t achieved gender equality in any nation – is a stark reminder that we need a different game plan.
And yes, I know. Thousands – I venture to say, millions of women are working on one.
Perhaps you’ve heard or read all of this before. The facts – the truth about the status of women has some good news to be sure, but overall, it can be sad, disappointing, and in some cases, completely unacceptable. It is gut wrenching, if you’re working on the ground with women and kids who are suffering. It’s frustrating if you’re trying to advance in a career, and find yourself continually hitting roadblocks, like facing unfair salary policies, an unyielding family planning environment, or a lack of affordable childcare. The problems can seem daunting, even insurmountable.
So, what can we do differently? Who or what is holding us back?
Well, there is a long list of the ‘whos’ and the ‘whats’ that keep groups like UN Women and The Feminist Majority Foundation busy around the clock and around the globe. But aside from the obvious list of challenges women face, i.e., poverty, violence, lack of education, resources, sanitation, protection, etc., there is one thing that should never be on that list – and that is, women undermining other women. We need to resist returning to our pubescent days, when ‘cat-fights’, jealousy, anger, and bad behavior toward one another was an unpleasant, but nearly ubiquitous part of growing up.
This may surprise you, but the ugly little notion that women can be dismissive, less helpful to their women colleagues, and less understanding about family time, comes up again and again.
Oh, it’s not as bad as it used to be – but based on what I’ve been told, and current research — it is still very much in existence.
But this idea of tripping up other women, of becoming ultra territorial once we hit the top suite, is an immature ‘lizard-brain’ survival behavior that women can no longer afford to exhibit, nor tolerate. We need each other up there at the top. And contrary to some fears, there is enough success to go around. Women should not be afraid that if we help other woman to achieve the next step up, that we’ll be kicked off the ladder. Of course, that means we cannot be going around kicking each other off of those ladders!
Women need to help each other in business and in life, not put up road blocks. Just as men get together to play golf, take lunch or dinner meetings, join professional groups to network, women need to find ways to encourage camaraderie and professional growth among their co-workers and colleagues as well. There are plenty of professional women’s organizations – we just need to make them even more accessible. These social situations may not be as easy for all women to organize and participate in, because many women typically have less dispensable time. There is, after all, that second job waiting at home – the children to take care of, meals, a house to clean, etc. But with that being said, we are masters of juggling, and there are lots of ways to network.
But the bottom line is, shake off the idea that we can’t help each other. Inside the ‘office’ we need to realize that we can take the gloves off, or at the very least, learn to fight within the ring.
With all the hurdles women and girls already face in life, we need to ensure that we each play a part in the solution toward gender-equality goals, and are not a part of the problem that keeps other women from attaining them.
We can develop creative ways to harness our collective inner strength, to help each other build confidence, so that we can each achieve our goals – so that all of us can develop a strong, unshakable sense of worth and validity in order to effect the changes we seek. Because clearly, nobody is going to hand us our dreams on a silver platter.
Tonia O’Connor, President of Content Distribution and Corporate Business Development for Univision Communications, started a Woman’s Leadership Council at Univision so that women within the company can gather for mutual support, to share best practices, and to refine their skills.
Ms. O’Connor told me about a personal experience she had years ago, when she was trying to juggle her family life, childcare, and growing in her career. She was working under a woman manager who was not so understanding about her family needs. A male manager, on the other hand, was much more supportive. That disconnect and incongruence in her expectations of a woman colleague shocked and offended Tonia, but motivated her to do things differently when she advanced in her career. Now she mentors young girls in high school and college because she knows from personal experience how important it is.
Just as we count on girl-friendships for camaraderie, companionship and advice in our personal lives, we need relationships like these with women in our professional lives as well.
For those women who have made it into top management positions, that platform is an excellent opportunity to mentor and shepherd fellow gender-mates through the ups and downs of a career path. Pass along the information you know. Don’t worry – you’re not giving up ‘state secrets.’ The newbies will still have plenty of challenges. But at least they’ll have the benefit of your wisdom along the way.
We need more women in business, in politics, in technology – in science, in education, in agriculture, in architecture, in biology, in investment banking, in every field you can name. There are plenty of young women in college now who could be ready to move into those positions, if they got some encouragement from someone like you!
When women are able to navigate in a less combative environment – not only do they thrive, the entire company thrives. Studies show that teams made up of both genders produce more innovative and effective products, and Fortune 500 companies that aggressively promoted women showed profits that were 34% higher than industry medians. We just need more women in the pool.
So, as you walk around your office, or whatever work environment you function in, be mindful of the women you encounter and be willing to support their efforts to grow. A nod of support from you just might be all they needed to boost their confidence, and help them reach higher, or work harder to achieve their goals. You’ll feel really good about yourself when you offer that support, because helping other women take the next step up will be a selfless act of kindness, and those acts of kindness are often the best kind.