The Workplace Still Demands Uncomfortable Adaptations from Women. What Should Women Demand in Return
For many women in the workplace, we still experience the need to strategize, accommodate, adapt, provide education or additional unpaid labor on things like DEI or culture change initiatives, and try to interpret and navigate the feedback we receive that is often quite different from what our male colleagues get. A recent Fast Company article outlines the new research that reveals the 30 critiques holding women back from leadership that most men will never hear. In this article, three female PhDs say their research demonstrates that practically any characteristic can be proclaimed problematic to question a woman’s competence and suitability for leadership (1). And recent research also points to the likeability paradox for women, the idea that women are rarely perceived as competent and likable at the same time.
In addition to the uncomfortable adaptations of the workplace itself, we often feel we are walking a tightrope between the demands of work and home. Add in the reality that many of us will have primary caregiver roles at some point while we’re already giving so much to our careers, and we can feel stretched pretty thin some days.
There's one really important thing we need to understand. If work doesn’t feel like it quite fits who you are if you’ve ever been told you’re too much or not enough, doubted yourself, or wondered, “Is it just me?” the truth is, if you are a woman or woman-identifying person, the world you’re living and working in today was not built by or for you.
Let me say that again. You’re living in a world that wasn’t built by or for you.
The workplace was built by and for men. From the get-go, women have always worked; that’s not the issue. The issue was that women’s work didn’t count. The domestic, caregiving, food service, and other traditional work that women have done, and continue to do, remains largely unpaid and excluded from even our current economic models. The workplace was built for men, specifically men who had someone at home, a wife, mother, sister, or housekeeper, who would take care of everything except the day job.
Times have changed, and now women make up 48% of the workforce (2) outside the home, so the workplace is no longer the domain of men. However, most of the systems and structures of the workplace haven’t changed at pace. Work still runs much the same way even though we know that the lives of women and many men these days look very different. There is no longer a stay-at-home person to maintain the household and raise a family. In most households, both adults work full-time, which means that the other full-time job – running a household – is done in second and third shifts, and most of it is still done by women. Women in Canada do 50% more housework (3) than their male partners; globally, women do 2.5 times more (4).
If the world of work was not built for women in general nor for women in leadership, how do we not only navigate through it but at the same time change the very systems and cultures so that they become more inclusive for women and other equity-deserving groups? Because if we don’t change the systems and the culture, the number of women may continue to rise, but those women will continue to face the same challenges over and over.
The first thing we can do is make sure we understand the context of the workplace and our places in it. The more we educate ourselves on the history of work, of women in the workforce, and most importantly, the benefits of women in the workforce, particularly in leadership roles (5), the more we can speak to the inequalities and inequities we see. The biggest enemy of progress is maintaining the status quo. People will tell you that things are working just fine as they are, and you need to be armed with education and information to show them clearly that they are not. When someone tells me we don’t have women in leadership problems, I can ask why they think that in 2023 we just finally hit the 10% mark for women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. When someone tells me we have equality in the workplace, I can ask why women are still only paid $0.82 for every dollar a man makes in the U.S. and $0.89 in Canada. The reality is, yes, we’ve made a ton of progress, AND there is still a long way to go.
Once you are armed with information, choose your battles. The more we see inequity, the more we see it everywhere. It can be overwhelming, but we each can do something. It doesn’t have to be “big.” Pick a little corner of your workplace that you want to make better, more equal, more just, and get to work. You may need to challenge people; you will likely be breaking new ground. It’s not easy, but it can be incredibly rewarding. The truth is it will always be those who feel the inequities most acutely who are most motivated to do the work of changing them. Find that motivation for yourself and consider it your contribution to all the women coming with and after you.
And finally, do not go it alone. Find your allies, both women and men. You will need people who understand what you’re trying to do and why. You will need people to support you, speak up with and for you, debrief with you, and strategize about what to do next and how to approach it. One of the most important things we create in women’s leadership spaces is community. Leadership can be hard and lonely at times. But when you’re also trying to change systems that so many people have trusted, or been successful in, or benefited from well, that’s true leadership in my view, and it becomes something of a personal mission, a sense of purpose. Sure, it’s easier in the short term to just go along to get along, but I don’t know many women who work so hard to achieve a leadership role who don’t want to have a real impact.
If we want the world of work to change, it has to be you and me, imperfectly, one step at a time.
The World Bank, Labor Force Participation Rate, Female (% female population ages 15+). 2022.
Belinda Clemmensen, Women, Leadership & Saving the World: Why Everything Gets Better When Women Lead, Women’s Leadership Intensive, 2023