Our National Disregard for Families

Politicians and employers like to talk about the importance of “family values,” but the pandemic has revealed that families are not really valued at all. Two recent policy decisions in New York City, described by Deb Perelman of the New York Times, offer an example of the complete lack of regard for working families by our nation’s policymakers and employers:

  • Schools will be reopened on staggered schedules to allow for social distancing in the schools, in some cases meaning that a child attends school one week out of every three.
  • Yet workers are supposed to return to their “normal” work in offices.

Perelman points out that the clear message here is “you can have a kid or a job. But you can’t have both.” In other words, Perelman states that the economy has declared working parents nonessential. She suggests that the real attitudes about families, deeply embedded in our culture, are that

  • Only one parent should be working (not the mom)
  • A working mom is selfish
  • Two working parents are bad for children
  • Offices reopening before schools, day care, and camps do is not the problem of government or employers

Allyson Waller writes of a case where a working mother was fired because her young children were making noise during business calls while she was working from home due to the pandemic. Waller cites Joan C. Williams, a law professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law, as saying she expects an explosion of cases involving discrimination against mothers. Waller cites research showing that in two-parent households in early April

  • About 44 percent of women said they alone provided childcare
  • 14 percent of men reported that they alone provided childcare

Because of societal attitudes and the disregard for working families by policymakers, women who are still employed run a high risk of being forced out of the workforce or into part-time jobs with long-term damage to their careers. In a previous blog post I cited the work of Patricia Cohen and Tiffany Hsu explaining that “the impact [for working mothers] could last a lifetime, reducing their earning potential and work opportunities.” Cohen and Hsu point out that reopening will compound the problem when women have to leave the workforce or move to part-time work because of a lack of childcare. They note that women could experience long-term consequences in their careers because of the following:

  • Women who drop out of the workforce to take care of children often have trouble getting back in.
  • Historically, wage losses in an economic crisis tend to be much more severe and enduring when they occur during a recession. Workers who lose jobs now are likely to have less secure employment in the future.

The authors cite Betsey Stevenson, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan, as saying, “We could have an entire generation of women” whose careers are damaged.

We need to demand that our leaders and employers do a better job of taking working families, especially working mothers, into account.


Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

The Rape Kit and the Invisible Woman Who Invented It

It has never been easy for women to report being raped to the police. In the early 1970s, I was one of many women in my community who volunteered to be rape crisis advocates for the state and local police departments. The police were supposed to notify us when a woman reported being raped, and they were not supposed to talk to the woman without one of us present. This agreement came about when feminist activists created a scandal by publicizing, as reported by Pagan Kennedy of the New York Times, that the following were common practices at the time:

  • Police, often all men, isolated a rape victim in a room and interrogated her to determine whether, in their opinion, she was lying—in other words, to revictimize and retraumatize her.
  • Police training manuals in the 1970s declared that “many rape complaints are not legitimate” and that claims of rape were often attempts to get revenge against unfaithful lovers.
  • Officers routinely asked women what they had been wearing, whether they had behaved in a provocative manner, and whether they had enjoyed the sex.
  • In cases of sexual violence within a family, it was still legal in every state in America for a husband to rape his wife and, accordingly, marital rape was not considered rape at all by law enforcement.

At about the same time that I was a rape crisis advocate, a woman I had never heard of before reading Kennedy’s excellent reporting was also focusing on the problems of sexual assault not being taken seriously. Her name was Marty Goddard and, as Kennedy reports, Goddard “began a revolution in forensics by envisioning the first standardized rape kit. . . . The kit is one of the most powerful tools ever invented to bring criminals to justice.”

But the story of Goddard’s invention, her subsequent invisibility, and the scandal of the discovery between 2009 and 2015 of a backlog of 400,000 unprocessed rape kits all over the country contain a common thread: a woman whose invention was stolen by a man who took credit for it, thereby making her and her life’s work invisible, and an invention devoted to keeping women safe that was unfunded, hidden away, and ignored by the masculine legal system. Both were eventually made invisible.

Goddard devoted her life to trying to fix a criminal justice system that did not believe women by creating a system that provided scientific proof, protected evidence, and held men accountable for assaulting women. She was advised that her invention would not be considered or implemented in her home town of Chicago unless she got the support of Chicago police sergeant Louis Vitullo, who was the head of the microscope unit in the crime lab. Goddard presented him with a prototype and a written description of the rape-kit system. He screamed at her for wasting his time and threw her out of his office—and took credit for her idea. Still committed to getting the rape kit put into practice, Goddard had to agree for him to name the kit after himself, with no mention of her as the inventor, to move implementation forward. She founded a nonprofit, raised money to produce the kits, trained hospital personnel in how to use the kit, and in 1978 delivered standardized rape kits to twenty-five hospitals in Chicago. By 1982, New York City adopted Goddard’s system because “its effectiveness was demonstrated in Chicago” as many convictions were achieved.

Goddard died in 2015 before she could learn that in 2016, the Justice Department committed $45 million to tackle the backlog of untested rape kits. In the intervening years when police were dumping the untested kits into warehouses, rapists walked free to rape again. As soon as testing of the old rape kits began, new convictions were achieved.

As with the #MeToo movement, women must keep fighting to be believed and taken seriously by law enforcement. The old attitudes are not yet gone.


Photo courtesy of Sgt. Rebecca Linder on Wikipedia Commons (PD)

The Shecession: The Long-Term Impact of the Pandemic for Working Mothers

As everyone knows by now, the number of people unemployed in the United States because of the pandemic is staggering, the highest since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Alisha Haridasani Gupta, writing for the New York Times, notes that for the first time in decades it is predominantly women of color who are the face of the unemployed. For this reason, some suggest this should be called a “shecession,” compared to the recession of 2008, which was called a “mancession” because more men were affected. In this pandemic

  • Women account for 55 percent of the 20.5 million jobs lost in April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics
  • The unemployment rate for adult women is 15 percent and 13 percent for men
  • Black women are unemployed at a higher rate of 16.4 percent, Hispanic women at a rate of 20.2 percent

Gupta explains that the main reason for the higher numbers for women is that the industries hardest hit by the pandemic are leisure, hospitality, education, childcare, and some parts of the healthcare system. These industries were staffed by a high proportion of women of color before the mass layoffs. The jobs in these sectors are also traditionally underpaid and undervalued, leaving less financial cushion to fall back on—especially for single mothers.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been hard on everyone, especially working mothers and, write Patricia Cohen and Tiffany Hsu, “the impact (for working mothers) could last a lifetime, reducing their earning potential and work opportunities.” With schools and day care closed, married women in heterosexual relationships carry up to 70 percent of the burden of childcare and homeschooling and are more likely to lose a job. Cohen and Hsu point out that reopening will compound the problem when women have to leave the workforce or move to part-time work because of a lack of childcare. They note that women could experience long-term consequences in their careers because

  • Women who drop out of the workforce to take care of children often have trouble getting back in
  • Historically, wage losses in an economic crisis tend to be much more severe and enduring when they occur during a recession. Workers who lose jobs now are likely to have less secure employment in the future

The authors cite Betsey Stevenson, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan, as saying, “We could have an entire generation of women” whose careers are damaged.

Cohen and Hsu note that other countries offer comprehensive support for families—like Germany, France, Canada, and Sweden. In these countries a significantly larger portion of women were in the labor force than was true in the United States before the pandemic. Economists hope that the increased pressure on families because of the pandemic will force structural and cultural changes in the United States that could benefit women in the long term, such as

  • Better childcare systems
  • More flexible work arrangements
  • A deeper appreciation of the demands of managing a household with children
  • More gender equality in the home and labor market

Let’s hope these changes can come about quickly as part of helping families through this pandemic. Women and families are suffering.


Photo by Claudia Wolff on Unsplash

Why We Need a Feminist Domestic and Foreign Policy: New Research

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that “women’s work,” or the care economy, is essential work. In a recent article, I wrote about the essential infrastructure workers whose jobs were deemed too important to be halted in the pandemic but who are also usually underpaid, undervalued, and unseen. These roles are also overwhelmingly filled by women and, specifically, women of color. Lyric Thompson and Gawain Kripke of NBC News report that a growing number of policymakers in the United States are calling for a domestic “feminist response” to the pandemic. Representative Jackie Speier, D-CA, explains that a feminist policy response means “treating women as the essential workers they’ve always been” by providing

  • Economic security with a fifteen dollar per hour minimum wage
  • Hazard pay
  • Universal paid family and medical leave
  • A robust safety net
  • Subsidized childcare
  • Domestic violence prevention funding

New research, reported by Thompson and Kripke, calls for a feminist foreign policy as well. This report shares a reason why female leaders appear to have more success in fighting the pandemic: the female leaders emphasize “empathy, human dignity and care rather than pitting the formal economy against the goal of saving lives.”

Thompson and Kripke note that the new research, based on a broad review of feminist policies in other countries, a global summit of government leaders, and consultation with activists in forty countries, refines the global picture into a tailored vision of what feminist foreign policy would look like. Here are the key points from their findings. A feminist foreign policy would

  • Call for a feminist economic recovery, similar to what the state of Hawaii has done, that prioritizes the care economy and the health and well-being of the most marginalized: indigenous women, women of color, incarcerated people, aging women, domestic violence survivors, and LGBTQIA+ people.
  • Reconceptualize the idea of “national interest”—a shift from prioritizing military security, profit, dominance, and competition toward putting people’s health and personal safety, peace, and inclusion first. It’s an approach that invests in public health around the world, lifting up and caring for the most marginalized, and it emphasizes collaboration and learning.
  • Emphasize the importance in the international arena of cooperation and care, including restoring funding to the World Health Organization, reinvesting in the UN Family Planning Program, leading global efforts to respond to gender-based violence, returning to the Paris Climate Agreement and making new commitments to go beyond those goals, consciously supporting female farmers, and investing in the indigenous women who organize communities to salvage ecosystems and foster resilience.

Having a domestic and foreign feminist policy approach is possible. Thompson and Kripke note that several other countries are in the process of implementing policies that require equal numbers of women and men in leadership positions and taking women’s rights issues into account in matters from trade to immigration to diplomatic engagement and aid programs. It’s possible in the United States too.


Photo by Graham Ruttan on Unsplash

Charity Adams: The First Black Woman to Lead American Troops Overseas

In this era of the murder of George Floyd and the attention his death has brought to structural racism in this country, the story of Lieutenant Colonel Charity Adams offers a glimpse into structural racism in the 1940s in the United States Army to remind us how far we have to go. Christina Brown Fisher, of the New York Times, notes that in 1942, the newly created Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp (WAAC, later shortened to WAC) accepted “40 black women into its first officer-candidate school.” Charity Adams, a twenty-three-year-old African American graduate student, decided to drop out of school to join the army and become the first black woman ever commissioned in the corps. She witnessed the active engagement of Jim Crow segregation in the army in many instances, including at her graduation from officer-candidate school when the candidates received their commissions in alphabetical order. Though her name was Adams, she should have gone first but all the white candidates crossed the stage before her name was called.

In 1945, Fisher writes that Adams was placed in command of a newly created battalion of 855 black women known as the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. The posting of the 6888th to England during the war was an experiment resulting from “years of unyielding pressure from civil rights activist, including the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.” The War Department reluctantly agreed to trust a unit composed entirely of black women with an overseas posting and a monumental task. They were expected to fail, but instead, as Adams wrote in her memoir, the battalion Six Triple Eight proved to “be the best WAC unit ever sent into a foreign theater.” The Six Triple Eight was assigned the task of sorting a backlog in England of seventeen million letters and packages for American soldiers scattered across Europe. The battered troops needed to hear from home to maintain their morale. Adams was given six months to clear up the backlog, but the Six Triple Eight got the job done in three months.

Adams fought Jim Crow segregation in the army to protect her troops. She stood up to a general who tried to replace her with a white officer by telling him, “Over my dead body, sir.” He backed down. She stood up to the Red Cross, who tried to provide a segregated hotel for Six Triple Eight members on leave in London to prevent black service women from socializing with white soldiers. At the encouragement of Adams, nobody from the Six Triple Eight ever stayed at the separate hotel and stayed in only integrated hotels.

Fisher notes that despite enormous sacrifices during WWII by black soldiers overseas, it was not until 1948, after the war, that the military was officially desegregated. She points out that another two decades would go by before the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were passed into law in the 1960s. It was five more decades before the Six Triple Eight received any formal recognition in 2019. Even when Adams died in 2002, she was initially denied an honor guard at her funeral by the army until a general from the air force stepped in to honor the first black woman ever to lead American troops overseas. Racism is not over in the military.

The story of Charity Adams is inspiring and frustrating all at the same time. The United States military is just one of the many institutions in this country where structural racism still exists and throws up roadblocks for black Americans and other Americans of color. We have to keep the pressure on for change in all our institutions to root out structural racism.


Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration (PD)

Forgotten Women in History

Some time ago, a woman coaching client asked me to name women in history who I admired. She was looking for role models and inspiration. I could name one or two, but I was basically stumped. I promised myself that I would read more about women in history so I could share these role models with others. Here are a few fascinating women I had never heard of before reading about them who have inspiring stories:

Eunice Foote (1819–1888)

John Schwartz writes that in the 1850s, Eunice Foote, an amateur scientist and activist for women’s rights, made a remarkable discovery about greenhouse gases that might have helped form the foundation of modern climate science—had the paper she published on her research not been lost and forgotten. Her paper was presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science—but it was presented by a male scientist. Roland Jackson, a scientist and historian wrote, “Foote does seem to have been the first person to notice the ability of carbon dioxide and water vapor to absorb heat, and to make the direct link between variability of these atmospheric constituents and climate change.” Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist who is currently working to bring recognition to Foote’s work, asks us to imagine what Foote might have accomplished if she had been born today and not had to contend with the limited horizons available to women of her time.

Lillian Harris Dean (1870–1929)

Amelia Nierenberg writes that Lillian Harris Dean drifted into New York City from Mississippi in 1901 after the end of slavery, penniless. She saved her first five dollars while working as a maid in New York and used it to purchase a used baby carriage, a fifty-nine-cent tin boiler, and a charcoal stove. Dean sold traditional Southern meals from the baby carriage, an early version of a food truck, to other African American transplants like herself for whom the food brought familiarity in a strange place.

Dean built a name and a fortune as a culinary and real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist. She died one of the wealthiest women in Harlem with a fortune of about $5.5 million in today’s dollars.

 Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899)

Rosa Bonheur, described by Molly Moog of the Saint Louis Art Museum, was a critically acclaimed French painter in the mid-1800s in France. Bonheur became one of the most admired painters in Europe of contemporary subjects such as horses and other animals. Empress Eugenie of France awarded Bonheur the Legion of Honour in 1865, reflecting the Empress’s conviction that “genius has no sex.” Moog notes that in the 1850s Bonheur was one of only a dozen women in France to receive a legal permit to wear men’s clothing. Her trousers allowed her to enter spheres generally forbidden to women, enabling her to study animal musculature at the Parisian horse fair and at slaughterhouses, sketch outdoors, and ride comfortably.

Irene E. Karl (1915–2006)

A recent photo of five women published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asked, “Do you know who these women are?” This search for the women’s names was part of an effort during Women’s History Month to correct the historical lack of recognition women have endured in the sciences. The photo, taken in 1942–43, showed one Dr. Michael Somogyi, a physician and biochemist at now Barnes-Jewish Hospital, with five women in white lab coats. While Dr. Somogyi was identified in the picture, the five women were labeled as “five female laboratory assistants.” Within seventy-two hours after the photo was published, one of the women, Irene E. Karl was identified by her daughter.

Joe Holleman of the Post-Dispatch writes that Dr. Irene E. Karl was a renowned biochemist who was a pioneer in identifying and understanding diabetes and sepsis (blood poisoning) and was an authority on muscle metabolism. She graduated summa cum laude in 1937 from the University of Wisconsin—the only woman in a class of four hundred. Then she went on to become the first woman in school history to earn a doctorate degree in a science, biochemistry.

Rebecca Ortenberg, social media director of the Science History Institute in Philadelphia, first posted the photo. She explains, “Women scientists are often invisible in the historical record, even when they’re staring right at us.”

Thanks to all those who made the four amazing women featured in this article visible to the rest of us.


Photo by Geoffrey Datema on Unsplash

What the Coronavirus Lockdown Reveals about Parents Who Work

The coronavirus lockdown has pulled aside the curtain between family life and work life for women and men with children. Claire Cain Miller, writing for the New York Times, notes that parents, especially mothers, are expected by employers to keep family caregiving a private matter, not to be discussed or allowed to interfere with work responsibilities. During a recent consulting project at a large corporation, senior women shared with me in focus group discussions that “we have learned not to mention our families at work. Having a family is seen as a barrier to promotion, so we don’t mention them, even to each other. As women, we do each other a disservice not to talk about family challenges. We should share how we deal with them, but we don’t talk about this.”

The realities of family life are now on full display during the lockdown as women and men try to work full time from home while dealing with homeschooling, housework, and childcare. Just yesterday, during a business Zoom call, the three-year-old child of my client demanded attention “right now” and crawled into her mother’s lap in the middle of our call. She was very cute and an example of how it is no longer possible to hide the realities of family life.

The pandemic lockdown has also revealed the unequal distribution of labor in heterosexual couples. Claire Cain Miller writes in another article that while both women and men are doing more housework and childcare, a new poll by the New York Times of 2,200 Americans who work full time at home with children found the division of labor is not any more equitable now than it was before:

  • Of those polled, 70 percent of women say they’re fully or mostly responsible for the housework during lockdown, and 66 percent say so for childcare.
  • About 20 percent of men say they are fully or mostly responsible for these tasks during lockdown. Only around 2 percent of women agree.

Past research has consistently shown that men often overestimate the amount they do. In one humorous and enlightening example reported by Motoko Rich about this same problem in Japan, Rich gives the example of one couple where the man in the couple believed and declared he was doing a fair share of domestic chores during the lockdown. His wife then produced a meticulous spreadsheet showing her 210 tasks compared to his 21. He got more involved.

Miller further explains, “The additional time that women typically spend on domestic work, particularly child care, has significant consequences outside the home: It is a major reason for their lower pay and stunted career paths.” During the pandemic, research shows that women are doing less paid work when both parents are working remotely full time, which may have career consequences. In an article by Caroline Kitchener in the Lily, she notes that women in academia are submitting 50 percent fewer papers for publication during the lockdown, which “threatens to derail [their] careers” when institutions decide who to grant tenure to. At the same time, submissions for publication from men have increased more than 50 percent as they rely on women partners to do homeschooling and housework.

Will anything change after COVID-19 for working parents now that the challenges of family life are more visible? Miller notes that “unlike people in other advanced nations, American parents have little structural support.” She suggests that perhaps employers and the federal government will “recognize the need for things like paid leave, affordable child care, predictable schedules, reasonable hours and remote work.” Miller cites Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings, as saying, “The idea that if you want to be perceived as professional, you have to make believe like you don’t have children or other responsibilities? That’s certainly over for the time being, and I’d be surprised if it ever comes back in quite the same way.” Let’s hope not.


Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

100 Years Ago: When Women Won the Right to Vote during a Flu Pandemic

This is the year, 2020, when we should be celebrating one hundred years since women won the right to vote. Actually, it was only white women who won the right to vote in 1920 as the white suffragists turned their backs on black women suffragists to get the votes of Southern senators. That is a shameful chapter in our history that I wrote about in a previous article. But my point today is based on an interesting piece in the New York Times by Alisha Haridasani Gupta about the parallels between 1920 and 2020.

All the big celebrations planned for 2020 to celebrate the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 have been canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Large gatherings and celebrations cannot take place this year as we battle this virus. Gupta points out that the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 also had a direct impact on the women’s suffrage movement. The campaign to secure women’s right to vote had built strong momentum in 1918, which, Gupta notes, was “quickly dissipate[d] in 1918 as the country shut down public gatherings and ordered people to stay home” to fight the Spanish flu pandemic. In fact, the Nineteenth Amendment came close to passing in 1918 and had the backing of the president, Woodrow Wilson, but fell two votes short of passing in the Senate. One of the key reasons it failed in the Senate was because Southern senators were afraid of black women being able to vote. Gupta cites the work of Elaine Weiss, author of The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote. Weiss explained that the Southern senators objected because they held “the idea that if black women can vote, they might think they’re socially equal too and then the whole premise of white supremacy is eroded.”

Forced to abandon public rallies and campaigning, the suffragists “burned up the telephone lines and sent letters and took ads in newspapers,” according to Weiss. They were fighting for the election of senators who would vote for women’s suffrage. Indeed, they defeated the antisuffrage lawmakers and voted in new prosuffrage ones. The next year both the House and Senate approved the Nineteenth Amendment, and it was ratified as a constitutional amendment in 1920. Weiss notes that the suffragists persisted and “used all the tools of democracy . . . to change the system.”

Here we are in 2020, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic in a very important election year. We can learn from our foremothers about not letting a pandemic stop us from working to save our democracy. If they could make phone calls and write letters to get candidates elected who supported their cause, we can too. Let’s get busy. November will be here before we know it, and there is no need to let the current pandemic keep us from being engaged.


Photo courtesy of State Archives of North Carolina Raleigh, NC (The Commons)

Women Lead More Effectively in Pandemics: Four Leadership Traits Men Could Learn from Women

The COVID-19 pandemic offers us a global case study in leadership, and women are proving to be significantly more effective leaders. Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, writing for Forbes, notes that “there have been years of research timidly suggesting that women’s leadership styles might be different and beneficial.” She points out that we have some very clear and measurable examples of those differences and the beneficial outcomes of the leadership styles of seven women who are heads of state. Here is the data from the European Centre for Disease Control as of May 19, 2020:

Country Leader No. of Deaths

(as of 5/19/20)

Denmark Mette Frederiksen 548
Iceland Katrín Jakobsdóttir 10
Finland Sanna Marin 300
Germany Angel Merkel 8,007
New Zealand Jacinda Ardern 21
Norway Erna Solberg 233
Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen 7

Now compare these numbers with the United States under President Donald Trump: 90,353 deaths (as of 5/19/2020).

Wittenberg-Cox cautions us not to dismiss these results just because some of these countries are small: Germany is large and leading other large European and North American countries in keeping cases and deaths low. Wittenberg-Cox offers these leadership lessons from the seven woman leaders listed above:

Lesson #1: Telling the Truth—Angela Merkel of Germany stood up early and calmly and told her citizens that the virus was very serious. Testing began immediately, and Merkel was transparent about the testing results.

Lesson #2: Decisiveness—Tsai Ing-wen, the leader of Taiwan, was among the first and fastest to respond to the virus. In January, she introduced 124 measures to block the spread and never had to resort to lockdowns. In fact, she sent 10 million masks to the United States and Europe.

Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand locked her country down early and was truthful and concise with her citizens about the danger of the virus. She continued to add restrictions when other countries began lifting them.

Lesson #3: Use of technology—Iceland, under Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, offers free testing to all citizens and utilizes a thorough tracking system. Consequently, she has not needed to lock down or shut schools.

Sanna Marin, elected in Finland in December 2019 as the world’s youngest head of state, leads the way with the use of social media influencers to spread fact-based information to help manage the pandemic.

Lesson #4: Empathy and compassion—Mette Frederiksen, prime minister of Denmark, and Erna Solberg, prime minister of Norway, pioneered the idea of using television to talk directly to the countries’ children. By responding to the questions of children and explaining why it was okay to feel scared, they demonstrated empathy and care rarely seen from leaders who are men. In fact, Wittenberg-Cox notes that all the women leaders showed empathy and compassion when communicating with their citizens about the pandemic.

“Now,” writes Wittenberg-Cox, “compare these leaders and stories with the strongmen using the crisis to accelerate a terrifying trifecta of authoritarianism: blame-‘others,’ capture-the-judiciary, demonize-the-journalists . . . (Trump, Bolsonaro, López Obrador, Modi, Duterte, Orban, Putin, Netanyahu . . . ).” Wittenberg-Cox suggests that the seven women leaders profiled here offer lessons in leadership traits that “men may want to learn from women” for the health of the planet and her inhabitants.


Photo by Jan Kaluza on Unsplash

The Maturing of #MeToo

I have long been worried about a backlash against the #MeToo movement that could make things worse in the long term for women who experience and report sexual harassment and assault. I have worried and talked with others about the need for us to develop a consensus about what the consequences should be for a broad range of sexual harassment behaviors in the workplace, the military, and on college campuses. The #MeToo movement has been vitally important for empowering women to call out the degrading and harmful treatment that they, and some men, have experienced from people with more power—usually but not always men. People who are targets of sexual harassers often experience fear, depression, loss of confidence, and/or damaged careers.

Let’s be clear—sexual harassment is still a huge problem. Here are two examples in the United States:

The problem is that, until now, the only consequence for people accused of sexual harassment during #MeToo has been removal from their jobs without an investigation, as happened with Al Franken in the United States Senate. Legal proceedings against egregious offenders like Harvey Weinstein have been rare. While removal and sometimes arrest are warranted for the most severe behaviors, such as rape and assault, a whole range of behaviors can reflect sexual harassment that is less severe, and we do not have a spectrum of appropriate responses for holding people accountable for those behaviors. The short-term backlash for women’s careers from having only one response—removal—is already happening. Various research shows that

  • In 2019, 60 percent of male managers in the United States reported they are “uncomfortable engaging in commonplace workplace interactions with women, including mentoring,” which is a 14 percent increase from 2018.
  • Over one-third (36 percent) of men who are uncomfortable explained that they are “nervous about how it would look” or of having their intentions misunderstood.
  • In addition, research by Sylvia Ann Hewlett found that two-thirds of male executives hesitate to hold one-on-one meetings with junior women. This is problematic because women have to be sponsored by leaders to succeed, and leaders are still mostly men.

Jeannie Suk Gersen, writing for the New Yorker magazine, notes that the #MeToo movement burst forth in 2017 to reveal the widespread sexual exploitation in many forms experienced primarily by women. She makes the case, using the accusations against Joe Biden by Tara Reade, that this case may be a pivotal moment for #MeToo, “which marks its more mature reckoning with its deeper goals.” In other words, we and #MeToo may finally be ready to develop a more nuanced commitment to due process. We may be ready to come to an understanding of the range of behaviors, from mild to severe, that can be inappropriate and constitute abuses of power. We can develop a range of consequences that can be applied to those behaviors to hold abusers appropriately accountable and create safe work environments where women can speak out and prosper.

It is not my intention to take a side in the Biden versus Reade allegation but rather to take a position for expanding our commitment to fair processes for all concerned and for appropriate consequences for bad behavior. Gersen writes that a key slogan associated with #MeToo, “believe women,” was never intended to be taken literally because that would be an “idea . . . untenable for a social-justice movement that cares for truth and nondiscrimination.” Gersen notes that Biden himself said that “believing women means taking the woman’s claim seriously when she steps forward, and then vet it” or do a thoughtful investigation. I agree with Gersen when she says, “‘Believe women’ stands for the imperative to listen respectfully and investigate thoughtfully. It is not about the right to be believed, much less automatically vindicated, but essentially a right to be heard and to have one’s claims examined with care. We should also see that #MeToo means calling out sexual misconduct while also accounting for the moral and practical balance needed in states of not knowing.”

In the case of Joe Biden, Tina Tchen, the CEO of Time’s Up, makes the case that “you have to look at the whole picture. I would assess these candidates on their character, on the policies that they promote and put forward, and the leadership abilities that they have.” I believe we can create fair processes. It’s time to do so.


Photo by Nastuh Abootalebi on Unsplash