Women’s leadership: The gendered workplace

Photo courtesy of someecards.com

Photo courtesy of someecards.com

My extensive journey into the depths of intersectional feminism has proven to be both an incredibly personal and enriching experience.  I found myself thrown into the intricate realm of gender and sexual politics as I attempted, and failed, to find validation within the (often) jaded and white feminist Tumblr community. Despite these shortcomings, I adamantly set out to find and develop my own perspectives and attitudes based on evidence and statistics, not in an arrogant attempt to prove skeptics wrong, but to, as an example, hopefully not be a part of the alarming 71% of men [that] believe that if women try as hard as men, women will have equal success as men.  

This isn’t to say that I am personally excused from a long history of ignorance as a privileged, white, cisgendered male, but to rather shine a light on the multitude of rewiring required to produce a society of equal opportunity. Leadership of all kinds is in turn undoubtedly necessary to bring intersectional feminist and equality movements to realization. What I have learned is that leadership is an umbrella term, a multi-faceted construct transcending a single definition and speaking to the guiding of one’s self through the many complexities of our social, political, and economic landscape. What it truly means to be a leader is different for everyone; the real question is how can I be a leader in my own life?

The disturbing statistics and realities involved around single mothers and women in poverty are something that struck a nerve with me, as I personally have experienced being raised by a single mother struggling to make ends meet. Growing up as a part of the new generation of young men who have been raised by full-time working mothers, I was exposed to the very real circumstances of gender inequity at a young age. The Canadian Women’s Foundation provides a real insight into the lives of working mothers:

“Canada’s lack of affordable childcare—and the lack of workplace policies such as flex-time and caregiver leave—often forces women into career choices that severely limit their earning power. That’s why many women refuse overtime and promotions, and select careers that promise to be ‘family-friendly.’ Women’s domestic responsibilities also make it harder for them to return to school or attend training sessions that could advance their career”.

In my own childhood, my mother had to work exhaustive hours in an inequitable work environment just to support my brother and I throughout our youth. Highly qualified women such as my mother are forced to sacrifice high-level career paths and settle for part-time, seasonal, contract, or temporary jobs. Unfortunately, most of these jobs are low paid, with no security, few opportunities for advancement, and no health benefits.

This is something that had proven very true for my mother. She often chose administration positions with flexible yet demanding hours for the ability to be a part of our everyday lives. By forgoing the expense of childcare she was given a career with no real chance of growth or progression. As if being a woman trying to forge her own career wasn’t already challenging enough, women who leave a partner to raise children on their own are more than five times likely to live in poverty than if they stay with their partner. According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, evidence shows abused women sometimes stay in abusive relationships because they know that leaving will plunge themselves and their children into poverty.

As I entered into my adult years, I wished that there had been more support available to my mother, more laws and policies placed to protect her autonomy and her career. Ultimately it is the resilience and perseverance of my mother and countless other women living in, or just above poverty — that make them not only leaders of themselves and their families, but also leaders in fighting for change.

But this in itself is not enough; women cannot be left to just persevere through these adversities placed upon them in the workplace and at home. It is not just policy changes and social programs that are desperately needed to secure gender equality, but also the attitudes of both men and women within these workplaces that need to change.

It is no longer relevant for men within the workplace to say ‘I respect the women in my life’ or ‘I give all women a fair chance.’ As Ilene Lang states in “Women Take Care, Men Take Charge: Stereotyping in U.S. Business Leaders Exposed”,  we as humans “unintentionally respond to people in ways that elicit from them the very behaviors that confirm our stereotypes.”

All attitudes and opinions aside, the fact is that women have low representation in trades and other traditionally male-dominated professions. In 2012, women held just 11.8% of construction jobs, 19% of forestry, fishing, mining, oil, and gas jobs, and 30.5% of agricultural jobs.

90% of millennial women agree that gender discrimination is an issue in the workplace today but only 57% of millennial men do. 78% of millennial women expect gender discrimination to negatively impact their career and only 14% of millennial men consider it an issue. With these statistics in mind it is obvious that not only are women not set up to be successful within the workplace, but attitudes placed against them by male coworkers are detrimental to the progression of their careers.

The prevalent issue within these workplaces is the discriminatory treatment of women with children or women planning to take a maternity leave. Although Canada is one of very few countries in the world with a (somewhat) legitimate maternal leave policy, the repercussions of leaving the workplace for any given amount of time is disparaging to the progression of a woman’s career. As women with children had almost a six-year difference between their actual and potential work experience, while women without children had a disparity of just above one year. The cause and effect of such disparity is represented by absenteeism, in that women leaving the workplace to take care of children or other family members will probably not return to their position if there is no incentive or chance of promotion. As a result, it would seem that companies that are hiring for higher stake positions would be less likely to hire women when they are to assume that they will at some point leave for an extended period of time to have children.

With these evident deficiencies of resources and means to be prosperous, how is a woman then expected to be a successful leader within a company if she is up against not only her fellow male co-workers but also herself? A lack of confidence has been attributed to the shortage of success in women, but when a woman is assertive, efficient and authoritative, she is ostracized for being too “bossy, rude and bitchy.”

Photo courtesy of Canadian Women's Foundation. 

Photo courtesy of Canadian Women's Foundation. 

This all poses the question, how can women maintain a healthy work and life balance? The answer is that there is no balance, no happy medium, and no formulaic equation on how to be both successful at home and at work.  As Anne-Marie Slaughter states, “it is time for women in leadership positions to recognize that although we are still blazing trails and breaking ceilings, many of us are also reinforcing a falsehood: that “having it all” is, more than anything, a function of personal determination.”

To take everything that I have learned and to say that I am ahead of the game would be false; being educated is far different than practicing tolerance and making an active change. Changing one’s attitude is an everyday process, as we are constantly rewiring ourselves to think and speak differently than how we were raised. No one is perfect, and we must allow for people to make mistakes and to learn from their ignorance. It is no longer realistic to go through life as a privileged individual reiterating the mantra, “If it’s not happening to me, it isn’t happening at all.” Leadership is about constantly challenging this norm, and finding the courage to say, “I’m not happy with the ways things are.” I have come to realize that being a true leader is not speaking for those who do not have a voice, but rather speaking for oneself so as to be heard loud and clear, and having the courage to defend one’s values and identity.

Leadership is relishing in the small victories that we win everyday, and not letting our failures deter from our success. The most valuable lesson a person can learn is that we are our own advocates for change, our own activists for the rights of humanity, and our own leaders in our own lives, so as not to stomp on the voices and experiences of those who were not born into a life of privilege, but to aide and fight alongside them when they ask for it. I want to be a voice of change, whether it’s standing up for myself and learning to be assertive, or knowing when it is not my turn to speak. I want to respect others, as I want to be respected, and value the identities of all people, regardless of their background. I want to live a happy life where I can be who I am, surrounded by a mosaic of cultural diversity and people whom can coexist with integrity, respect, and decency.


Editor: Amber McLinden, current@vamp.media