At major U.S. companies where just 10 percent of leaders are women, half of the male employees say that females were well-represented in the organization’s leadership, according to a recent study of corporate workers put out by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org.
In sum, just a couple token women can make it seem like society has solved the gender problem. Kind of like our one black president was seen as solving the United States’ race problem.
It’s hard to know exactly what a more gender-balanced world would look like. But there are some hints out there. Some lucky women end up with female mentors, who are unlikely to kiss subordinates on the mouth, or insist on a daily hug or chase women around their desks. Beyond that basic business, there can be something immesely empowering about working in an organization run by women.
Former Google executive Maureen Sullivan now works at Rent the Runway, where the leadership is overwhelmingly female. Women make up half of the board, 70 percent of employees, 62 percent of corporate employees and an astonishing 75 percent of the executive team.
“It’s been life-changing for me as a leader,” Sullivan told HuffPost this summer. She’s worked at progressive places before, she said, but this is different. “There’s just incredible empathy.”
Would a wealthy man have acted as swiftly as philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs did last week? Her organization, The Emerson Collective, had laid the groundwork to back a new magazine launched by Wieseltier. But after substantive reports emerged of his mistreatment of women who worked for him, she killed the project.
Over the past year, some of the more egregiously abusive, high-profile men got knocked off their perch: former Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, comedian Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein. Political journalist Halperin is now facing consequences, as well. More and more women are coming forward.
This is something to celebrate, but Teresa Boyer, director of the McNulty Institute for Women’s Leadership at Villanova, argues that it ultimately changes very little. Most women will go back to work, to school, to literally anywhere, and have to put up with a culture of bias, discrimination, harassment and worse.
It starts with the small things from the time we’re in diapers: Children are taught that boys are strong and adventurous, while girls are weak and need protection. In school, girls are pushed away from tech and science, punished for wearing the wrong clothes.
Later, in the work world, women get talked over in meetings, criticized more severely in performance reviews, paid lower rates than their male colleagues. They’re less likely to be promoted.
When women become mothers, while working, they’re penalized for that, too. The United States, run by men, does not offer any kind of paid leave. If a woman does manage to return to work, research has shown that her pay suffers. She’s less likely to be promoted — and her chances weren’t so hot to begin with.
Women in low-paying fields are especially vulnerable. Women who are paid by the hour at McDonald’s have reported having their breasts and butts grabbed, and listening to obscene comments about their appearance from bosses and co-workers.
In some workplaces, everyone stands by and stares at their feet as the boss acts inappropriately with female subordinates. Like at The New Republic.
Our male-dominated culture makes all of this somehow OK.
There’s a psychological concept known as “social proof,” which describes the situation in which someone you admire or see as similar to you does something, thus sending a message that such behavior is OK. Stefanie K. Johnson, an assistant professor at the business school at the University of Colorado Boulder explains that “If no one is doing anything about [harassment against women], it teaches you that it’s accepted and appropriate behavior. It’s modeling.”
Johnson even fears that the recent outpouring of anecdotes about harassment, assault and egregious behavior could serve as more social proof to some men. If everyone is doing it ― from editors to producers to presidents ― how bad could it really be?
All these behaviors, when added together, amount to a vast, nation-wide modeling: We are taught things about women and men that inevitably lead to these egregious outcomes.
There’s little doubt that women have become more willing to speak up. We wouldn’t know about Weinstein if several courageous actresses hadn’t shared their stories with The New York Times and The New Yorker. Their collective power took him down. A similar firestorm engulfed Roger Ailes after former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson sued him.
These are examples in which the behavior was so egregious and ongoing ― and the people involved so famous ― that eventually the protective bubble cracked. The stories seeped out, thanks also to more women reporting on sexual harassment. Sadly, however, these remain exceptions.
And though recent weeks bring renewed hope that we’re entering a more enlightened era, there aren’t any signs that the male power structure is collapsing anytime soon. Just look who runs our country.
Women aren’t on track to reach equality with men in the business world for about 100 more years, according to another Lean In study.
It’s going to be a long century.