Shikha Bhatnagar

Global Social Impact Consultant

Over seventeen years of programming, policy analysis, advocacy, and business development experience across sectors with stakeholders on critical global issues such as economic & political development, education, health, security, diversity & inclusion, and civil society (including women's rights). 

When Leaning In Backfires

It’s been happening more frequently around me.  As Sheryl Sandberg continues her “lean in” crusade and as other women continue to fight the gender wage gap, the confidence gap, and even the diversity gap, many in my network of strong women with many degrees and accolades are being shown the door, subtly and literally.  I’m not suggesting a correlation between the two tides – rather, I’m pointing out the irony.  It seems that while women are supporting each other like never before, even embracing feminism for the first time in at least a generation, the old boys’ club (and the women who pander to it) hasn't gotten the memo, and is instead reminding outspoken female employees who’s still in charge. 

I feel less alone.  For years, I thought of myself as a “troublemaker” for speaking up and resentful of an unfair system that rewards “yes men” and punishes “no women.”  I realize now, and take strange comfort in knowing that others are in the boat with me.  These are women who are passionate about their work, live with a high sense of integrity, and don’t believe in cutting corners for quick gains or profits. But, it doesn't make the situation any less infuriating.  In fact, it adds to the frustration that while women in the workplace are becoming more empowered, the circumstances in which they operate remain largely unchanged.  What good does leaning in do when the establishment shuts the door in your face in response, leaving you questioning your self-worth and worrying about how you’ll pay your bills?  How can we change the system?  And, how can we survive and thrive while we wait for the change to happen?

To be fair, some parts of the establishment are getting the shake-down and shaping up.  Many policymakers, women and men, who are relentlessly trying to make the system more equal for women by introducing legislation that curtails pay discrimination and promotes greater transparency in the workplace.  However, change has been slow. 

Women in the US are still making, on average, 78 cents for every dollar a man makes, studies show that there is a double-standard for performance reviews women receive, and apparently, we have to rely on karma to get a raise. Whether or not we speak up, we always seem to lose. What’s a girl to do? 

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, and I certainly don’t have all the answers.  But, here are just a few ways that women and their male allies can lead a sea change, while not drowning in the process.

·         Call out the bad actors.  The economy sucks – and the recovery’s been slow.  Jobs have been hard to find and employers seem to have the upper hand.  However, we’re living in an age where information is literally at our fingertips. Thanks to the internet, and employer review sites like Glassdoor.com (my personal favorite), current, prospective and former employees can review companies and organizations anonymously. Add your reviews, read feedback about potential employers, and encourage other women to do so as well.  Send the strong message to companies/organizations/CEOs that if they want to attract the best talent, they’ll have to start treating their female employees fairly.

·         Talk numbers.  Salaries are a sensitive matter. Some firms have explicit policies that prevent employees from discussing pay with one another. Even where there are no restrictions, discussing salaries is often considered impolite. This etiquette is outdated and has perpetuated a culture of pay discrimination.  In organizations where sharing salary is permitted, it’s not only important for women to be transparent with each other, it’s imperative.  Information is empowerment – it helps you become a better negotiator and call out discrimination. It’s standing up for your own worth – something that most men have no trouble doing.    

·         Know your rights.  If you feel that you’re being discriminated against in the workplace or were unfairly let go, know that there are laws out there that may protect you. Visit the Equal Employment Opportunity Act (EEOC) website for more information, where they have handy brochures like this.

·         Find your allies. Most people are followers, not leaders.  Most will not speak up when they see questionable practices by their organizations or firms.  It means that those who do speak up are often left feeling isolated, sometimes alienated by those colleagues who don't want to be seen with the loser on the playground.  (Workplaces really aren't that different from fifth grade.)  Find your allies – support each other through the bad jobs, the dismissals, the periods of unemployment. Share resources and leads, and lend your shoulder and ears.

·         Do your own thing. It is time to create our own playing fields – and women are doing it in droves. Entrepreneurship by women is on the rise, in the US and globally.  There are lots of grants, loans, and resources for women interested in starting their own businesses and organizations.  The U.S. Small Business Administration is just one of the many places that helps women-owned businesses succeed.

Most importantly, stay in the game. The transition period between women finally speaking up for themselves and the establishment hearing the message is painful for all of us who are or have been caught in the cross-hairs. But, fair treatment for women in this world has never been achieved by standing on the sidelines. Change will only happen when we’re on the battlefield, armed with information, allies, and not afraid of the collective power of our own voices.    

 More troublemakers needed.  

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