Being a woman in business is hard - because the world makes it that way
Recently I had a short rant on LinkedIn about women-focused business topics. It got more of a response than most of my posts and got me thinking about why it resonated. And given that it's Women's History Month this month, I thought I could be forgiven for indulging in a little woman-centric navel-gazing. I'm not going to start talking about the divine power of the feminine, because I don't really understand what that is, but I am going to think about some of the challenges that women face and why being a woman in business is a brave thing.
Caveat - I am a cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, child-free, middle-class, white English-speaking European woman in the USA, and as such, I speak from my little corner of privilege. I know there is a whole additional dimension for women of color, the queer community and other groups further from the white (add all the other descriptors), male norm, but I don't feel qualified to address that well. I may put my foot in it through ignorance, in which case, feel free to call me out, and I'll try to learn and do better next time! Also, I'm mainly going to talk about trends I see in Western, predominantly Anglo cultures, so this is context-specific.
If you're a man reading this and already feeling attacked, please don't. But maybe next time cut the women in your life a little slack, they probably have it harder than you.
My original rant went like this:
"Why are so many "Women's" business seminars about "slaying self-doubt" or "overcoming imposter syndrome"? There's a whole industry out there purportedly to help women who feel they aren't good enough, but they don't help, not really.
They victim-blame and make it seem like it's the woman's fault for feeling insecure when the reality is, she has probably been told her whole life that she can't have it all, and shouldn't be trying to do what she's doing. It feeds an unhealthy narrative that businesswomen are insecure. It might be true for some, but some men are also insecure.
Sometimes doing something is hard (like running a business and having a child) because it's a hard thing to do, not because you're weak or not good enough. Why can't the seminars be on: "How to overcome prejudice against working mothers and tactics to fight toxic masculinity when pitching new business"? Why is the problem always the women's?
The truth is, the problem is rarely the woman's, it's just that it's easier to make it her problem than admit that there is a problem with the status quo, because many people (including successful women), benefit from the current paradigm and have no interest in seeing it changed.
My next thought was, why does it feel so hard for women? Here are some of the other challenges I see, any of which can be the straw that breaks the camel's back. These are in no particular order and I'm sure there are lots more I've not thought of.
Victim-blaming is the norm
Victim-blaming is deeply embedded in our cultures. A young woman was murdered by a London policeman recently. Massive national outcry ensued. However, the conversation also rapidly became around how women should protect themselves in the streets and not trust lone police officers. Like we don't already worry every time we walk down the streets by ourselves at night. And is it any wonder, if we are struggling with something, that we don't want to admit it because we're afraid we'll be told it's our fault.
Weaponizing of resilience
"Just be more resilient" - This phrase makes me SO angry. Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness. It is something to be cultivated and practiced. But my resilience (or lack thereof), is not an excuse for your appalling behavior. Just because I can pick myself up after my house burns down, doesn't mean it was OK that it burned down in the first place. Telling someone that the problem is that they lack resilience is just another form of victim-blaming.
Women in business are held to different standards from men. Women in politics are held to different standards from men. I arrived in the USA just in time to dive into the 2016 election and Clinton vs Trump. The level of misogyny in the discourse around Hillary Clinton's candidacy astounded me. If you are a woman running her own business, you are held to a different standard to men, particularly if you have children. If you're a woman, you know this and I don't need to labor the point. Maybe in a couple of generations, it will be different, but it's our reality right now.
The reality gap
I'm a Millennial and our generation was taught that there isn't a limit to the number of seats for women at the table. I know that this wasn't the case for our mothers or even many Gen Xers. We came into the workforce bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and it was a shock how few women held the top seats in big companies. We thought that we could just be bright, work hard and inevitably succeed. And then we encountered reality. We also encountered male-centric industries where, while paying lip service to gender equality, the reality was very different. I've spent my career in the communications/marketing industry (which is very female-heavy, particularly in the junior ranks), but even we knew that if we wanted to win the big business, we needed a few (male) "grey hairs" in the room to give us credibility. Even if we wheeled those men out for the pitching and they never worked on the account again.
The invisible, unpaid labor of women
Around the world, women carry out at least two and a half times more unpaid household and care work than men. That's caring for children, the elderly, the infirm and doing all the housework. And I bet many of those women also have jobs. As the UN says, "Women’s unpaid work subsidizes the cost of care that sustains families, supports economies and often fills in for the lack of social services." I read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In and the main thing I remember from that book is that she had a partner who was very involved with the housework. Good for her. BUT it is disingenuous to say to other women who don't have that kind of support, that they too can succeed if they just "Lean In". It's complete rubbish. The unpaid labor of her husband and the peace of mind that brought her was instrumental to her success.
Now I'm going to take a bit of a left turn. When I studied French and German at university, we had to write essays in French in a particular structure - la dissertation. It goes intro para, thesis, anti-thesis, and concluding paragraph which would take the argument further. This is me reaching further.
Struggle makes us strong
The world is unfair and it's hard when you're on the side that seems to have it worse. But what if that's your superpower? What if your regrets, frustrations, anger, disappointments, are the things that are going to make you great? We can use them as fuel to change the world. It hurts when life gives you lemons, but that's when you make the best lemonade. So get angry, get frustrated, don't accept the deal offered to you, and go change something. Maybe that's trite, but that's all I've got right now. The world is an unfair place and either you fight it, or you get beaten down by it. I choose to fight.
So if you're a woman succeeding in business, or running her own business, good for you, because you're doing a hard thing. And don't forget to help up the next generation of women so they can do better than us.