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Overcoming obstacles

Support for women means support for families and society

Women, wearing face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19, participate in a demonstration in front of the Finance Ministry on the occasion of International Women’s Day, in Rome, Monday, March 8, 2021.
Alessandra Tarantino, Associated Press

Women’s History Month celebrates the accomplishments of outstanding women. The figurative — and even literal — mountains they climbed, the glass ceilings they’ve shattered and the imprint women have left on society.

Yet even as we celebrate women, it’s easy to forget that many of the obstacles they had to overcome still exist today and can prevent women from further progress. And as the past pandemic year has shown, with the mass exodus of women from the workforce, neglecting to fully include and consider women hurts everyone.

Strengthening women strengthens families. Lifting women lifts society.

Consider: The past year has prompted couples to further delay having children, only adding to the world’s declining fertility rate. Virtual education during the pandemic has put pressure on families — and most often women — to care for the education needs of children while balancing (or giving up) employment. And women in the lower income levels have been most affected by needing to physically be at their jobs, or lose a paycheck.

Opinion writers Aubrey Eyre and Savannah Hopkinson take a look at the policies and cultural setbacks that still impact women today and what can be done to address them, both now and in the future.

Aubrey Eyre, 2019
Aubrey Eyre, 2019
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

In 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 57% of all women participated in the labor force, yet hold only 7% of all Fortune 500 CEO roles. What factors are still holding women back from climbing the ladder? How does it differ from industry to industry?

Aubrey Eyre: While there are several structural factors that contribute to holding women back in their efforts to move up the corporate or professional ladder — the nine-to-five workday, inflexible time-off policies, penalties for maternity leave and wage gaps are just a few that immediately come to mind — cultural factors can in some ways be even more limiting. The fact that women who hold positions of authority in business are often viewed negatively is one such factor.

According to research from the Journal of Applied Psychology, women who succeed in traditionally male-dominated fields are often viewed in a negative light and criticized for their work in a way that women who are successful in more traditionally female-dominated positions are not.

Whether we like to admit it or not, outdated stereotypes continue to play a huge role in the way that we interpret the world around us and when it comes to women in the workforce, those unspoken assumptions about what roles women should or shouldn’t have create active biases in both men and women.

The idea that some roles or professions are better suited for men has become deeply ingrained in the American labor force over the course of many years and it will take purposeful changes to move forward.

In a compelling Deseret News investigation of the wage gap in Utah three years ago, writer Sara Israelsen-Hartley noted the following: “Data from the National Women’s Law Center show that women ’make up two-thirds of the over 23 million workers in low-wage jobs,’ making $10.50 an hour or less. On the other end of the spectrum, women make up less than 13% of employees in each of the 10 highest paying jobs, with only 5% of women ending up as chief technology officer or vice president of engineering, where salaries are $190,000 or above.”

If we are to challenge these norms, the way we view who is capable of what work and what they should be compensated needs further action.

Savannah Hopkinson, 2019
Savannah Hopkinson, 2019
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Savannah Hopkinson: The phrase “it’s a man’s world” is accurately applicable here. The structure of business and the workplace are most conducive to men because it was created to suit their needs at the time. Men worked outside the home while women labored at home. This original division of labor was a result of necessity.

As time went on and technology improved, women found themselves with more time to pursue work outside the home as well. And in some periods, such as World War II, their work outside the home became the primary need. Yet the system didn’t change.

As the numbers show, many women are in the workforce, but there’s more to the story. In some states, like Utah, women are nearly twice as likely to work part time. This is often by choice, but that choice can be constrained by factors like child care or school hours. Choices are not made in a vacuum — they are made in the context of institutions and their rules, both written and unwritten.

Women should have the choice to pursue life at home or a career, and they should have equal opportunity for success in both spheres.

Other factors regarding choice to work are less structure related, and instead result for lingering societal and gender expectations. The motherhood penalty, gender pay gap and how women are perceived as leaders also have a large impact on the success of women at work, regardless of the industry.

When it comes to remedying these issues, whose responsibility is it to make the changes? What have industries or companies done to address policies or outdated systems that disadvantage women?

AE: I have an analogy for this one, so bear with me.

In Christopher Nolan’s 2020 movie “Tenet,” the characters perform what is called a “temporal pincer movement.” Essentially, by bending time, they are able to approach their problem from both before it started as well as after it culminated with the two sides meeting in the middle to eliminate the threat.

And when it comes to remedying policies that disadvantage women, a similar tactic should be utilized. Perhaps we could call it a “hierarchical pincer movement,” as responsibility would need to come from both the top down and bottom up.

Realistically, the responsibility for remedying issues falls on nearly everyone in the present. Companies or organizations need workers who are being disadvantaged to speak up about those disadvantages and bring them to the attention of their leadership. Whether the policies are formal or informal, like not offering child care support or simply passing over a qualified candidate for a promotion because they have been out on maternity leave, companies should be actively seeking to create a more balanced and equitable work environment for women.

At the same time, leadership should constantly be seeking to better meet the needs of those they lead by seeking feedback and taking action to resolve issues as they arise. Prioritizing children over career or career over children is a false choice. The focus should be on strengthening children and families and strengthening career opportunities. This approach can lead to creative support for women and solutions for businesses.

Amber Sappington, head of data and analytics at fintech giant Finastra, recently discussed in an interview with the BBC how her company is working to create an environment for better equality both within its own workforce and the industry as a whole.

After setting the lofty goal of having 50/50 female and male leadership within the company by the year 2030, the company has also set about researching the potential harms of algorithmic biases and how to reform them. Their efforts represent a positive example of how companies can begin reshaping their overall systems to create a healthier balance at the highest and lowest levels and all throughout their workforce and services.

SH: One lesson from the past year of social justice conversations that’s universal is that the oppressed can make their voices heard, but the changes must come from those in power.

That’s not to say all women are oppressed, but that it’s not the woman’s job to be responsible for leading every opportunity for change.

Stay-at-home mothers have asked for support for years, but conversations about their unpaid work and invaluable contributions to society remain largely ignored, with only the recent pandemic shining greater light on the issue.

Statistics show that women, especially women of color, are disproportionately affected by biased policies or culture in the workplace. One study showed that one-third of women who scaled back to part-time work, for example, cited inflexible hours and and rigid schedules as the primary reason.

Family and child leave policies, and policies about nursing mothers need to be examined. Governments should also look at policies around occupational licensing and the Fair Labor Standards Act should also be examined, since studies show they tend to negatively affect women.

Although women at work may feel comfortable making those comments and pushing back on certain issues, there are others who don’t out of fear for their jobs or perception of being “difficult.”

When it comes to making meaningful, inclusive changes, leaders must actively look at where there is room for improvement and constantly ensure that equal opportunities are given; that women both at home and at work are viewed and treated equally.

It means retraining, changing perspectives and finding the ‘male ally’ that will advocate. It means stopping and listening to those who do speak up. It means paying attention to who is in the room.

Those who are in positions of power must not wait for those who do not have power to call them out.

Harvard Business Review recently discussed the issue of running inclusive remote meetings after only 35% of respondents said they felt they were able to make contributions and reports of women not having their voice heard during video meetings.

Women don’t just deserve to be in the rooms where decisions are being made, they deserve to be heard in those rooms.

How do assumptions about gender roles in both the public and private spheres continue to influence policies and cultures and reinforce discrepancies between men and women in the workforce?

AE: According to Claudia Geist, an associate professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Utah, gender inequality and the disadvantages women face are in large part due to the fact that the “default person” in society is “assumed to be a heterosexual man.”

When policies, regulations, practices and norms are established, they are often built on the idea of a neutral or default person. But a default person doesn’t actually exist, Geist said.

Because people are diverse and complicated, more work needs to be done to accommodate that diversity in our policies and practices. The assumptions that someone’s gender dictates their responsibilities or preferences is difficult to overcome because those ideas have been culturally ingrained as a supposed norm.

As Geist put it, “it is difficult to overcome societal expectations, even if your own preferences are different because it can lead to uncomfortable situations.” The earlier we can account for a variety of preferences for a variety of people, the better balanced our systems will be.

When it comes to reforming the policies and practices that cause discrepancies, it’s less about getting women through the door than it is about creating an open door that would allow for whoever wants a chance to move through it.

SH: When women at Cambridge University were asked if and how gender had affected their careers, answers varied but the consensus was clear: It did.

From being overlooked in meetings or for promotions due to motherhood to finding that many are simply surprised a woman could “do so well,” gender norms and assumptions are the root of some of our biggest blind spots.

Those blind spots at work can have a big effect on the rest of society. Take the Apple credit card, which had to undergo an investigation for gender discrimination after it was reported that women seemed to be getting lower credit limits than men with all the same data. It turns out that our blind spots can cross over into our technology, proving that there are still many places where women’s voices are forgotten.

When women break the norms for what is expected of them, it tends to cause feelings of insecurity and bafflement. What to do with a woman who is outspoken, opinionated or assertive? Why is the term ‘bossy’ or ‘shrill’ only used to describe women, when those same qualities in a man are seen as leadership?

When a woman breaks the norm, it seems nobody is sure what to do with her. That hesitancy and insecurity can lead to women being seen as dangerous instead of an asset.

Failing to use a valuable asset hurts everyone, not just women.

Women have been hit the hardest by the economic crisis following the COVID-19 pandemic. What changes can be made to ensure the future of the workforce is more equitable?

AE: The U.S. is isolated as one of the few developed nations that doesn’t provide guaranteed paid parental leave and, as a result, the onus for balancing those responsibilities is most often shouldered by women. And as we’ve seen during the past year, those discrepancies have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

As Reshma Saujani, founder of the nonprofit Girls Who Code and sponsor of the Marshall Plan for Moms, stated in a recent Deseret News webinar, mothers and women can no longer be relied on as “America’s social safety net.” The U.S. is long overdue for implementing paid family leave across the board, along with more affordable child care and equal pay. But both Saujani and Savannah Hopkinson advocated further for recognition and compensation for the incredible amount of unpaid labor that mothers do. And I agree.

Moving forward, policy changes are needed to raise the level of economic considerations and implications that the work of women and mothers are treated with. Additionally, cultural and social changes that better acknowledge and value the work that women and mothers do in the domestic sphere. The fact is, just because labor takes place in the home doesn’t mean it doesn’t have vast economic and cultural ripple effects.

If government and corporate leaders are willing to take the time to listen to women and mothers and then work to meet their needs within the both the workforce and domestic spheres and actually implement policy changes that give greater consideration to the long-term benefits of family and child focused labor and responsibilities, America will be on track for establish and new and improved norm.

And I think we can all agree that such an improvement is needed.

SH: The system as we know it has been strained to the point of breaking with the unforeseen circumstances of the past year. This has given us the opportunity to start anew and foster a society that is welcoming, encouraging and fair to all.

Yes, the task is daunting. But it’s not impossible. It means tackling it from both the top and bottom with societal and policy changes that value women as individuals, mothers and employees.

It has sparked conversation around family allowances, such as Sen. Mitt Romney’s Family Security Act and the anti-poverty measure in the latest stimulus package.

Many companies, and even countries, were slowly moving toward changes that would be beneficial to everyone — remote work, paid maternity leave, family leave and flexible hours. Now we can just hasten the process and implement changes that will make the devastation from the next health and economic crisis distribute a little more evenly. Or maybe even prevent it from being so devastating in the first place.

I dislike the term “finding your voice” when applied to women. It isn’t about finding it — we have always had a voice. One does not find their voice. They use it.

All we need is for others to listen.