The Cost of Success for Women: Perspectives from a Male Ally

After reading a recent article by Sendhil Mullainathan in the New York Times, I understood what my black colleagues mean when they say that having white allies gives them room to breathe. What are allies? The North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO) offers these helpful definitions:

  • Allies validate and support people who are different from themselves.
  • Allies examine their own prejudices and privileges and are not afraid to look at themselves.
  • Allies act to be part of the solution.
As a white woman, I have spent much of my life thinking and talking and writing about how women need to work together to push for change to improve the lives of women. Mullainathan, a professor at Harvard, writing as a male ally about the part men play in creating challenges for successful women, gives me room to breathe. Even when women manage to buck societal barriers and become successful, Mullainathan reports on the unseen costs of success for women:
  • A recent Swedish study of gender differences found that the divorce rate increased for successful female political candidates, but not for male candidates. The authors acknowledge that this study, like most, focuses only on heterosexual partners.
  • Women who become CEOs divorce at a higher rate than men.
  • Another study found that women who received Oscars in Hollywood for best actress were more likely to divorce, which is not the case for men who won for best actor.
  • When the wife in a couple earns more than her spouse, she spends more time on household chores than her husband and is more likely to end up divorced.
Other researchers concluded that to a significant extent, “women are bringing personal glass ceilings from home to the workplace,” installed by spouses who cannot tolerate their success. The author steps forward as an ally when he notes that if sexism is so widespread among other men, he himself is probably sexist. “Fixing these problems is my responsibility—and the responsibility of other men, too.” He suggests that men need to
  • Engage in introspection and become aware of their attitudes and behaviors
  • Ask questions of the women in their lives and listen to their pain-filled answers
  • Identify behavior changes they can make and encourage other men to do the same
When I read this article, I immediately felt and thought, “I can breathe!”   Photo courtesy of Ryan McGuire (CC 1.0)]]>

A New Way for Women to Support Each Other: Social Media

Women have always found ways to help each other survive racism and sexism in the workplace by meeting informally outside of work for validation and support. This support might be in the form of listening to and understanding stories of mistreatment; sharing tips for how to deal with discrimination, salary negotiation, and work-life balance; or sharing the names of sexual predators to increase a woman’s ability to protect herself at work. Women across the decades and occupations have always benefited from this type of support in safe spaces such as living rooms and coffee shops. But the rise of the internet has opened important new forms of safe space. Julie Creswell and Tiffany Hsu of the New York Times explain that the internet has become a clearinghouse for complaints. The recent outpouring of sexual harassment complaints against high- profile individuals has heightened awareness of sexual harassment and opened a floodgate of untold stories as women discover that they are not alone in their experiences of inappropriate behavior. Long unvoiced or ignored, pent-up complaints of inappropriate behavior are pouring out into public and private online forums. It still remains unsafe for most individuals to lodge formal complaints with human resources (HR) departments whose primary interest is protecting powerful people and the legal interests of organizations. Individuals are still at risk of retaliation or of being ignored, but the large number of women (and men) coming forward makes it safer. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) notes that outrageous and unchecked behavior has been going on for so long that fewer than two in ten female harassment victims ever file a complaint for fear of retribution. Creswell and Hsu note that current public forums and invitation-only online support groups include the following:

  • Tech Ladies, an invitation-only Facebook group
  • #HelpASisterOut, a forum for advice on how to file a complaint or learn about a company’s culture
  • Blind, an app for anonymous chats about the workplace
  • BetterBrave, an online guide to resources for sexual harassment victims
  • SheWorx, an advocacy group for online entrepreneurs
Creswell and Hsu explain that social media platforms yield results for sexual harassment victims who are ignored by their HR departments. For example:
  • When Susan Fowler of Uber published her blog with accusations about sexual harassment by her supervisor that had been ignored by HR, she got action, including the firing of the company founder.
  • Two women at YouTube reported Andy Signore for sexual harassment to HR and nothing happened. When they went public on social media, he was swiftly terminated.
There is a downside, of course, to anonymous online allegations, which can spread quickly and damage reputations with no chance for the accused to defend themselves. We do need just and fair processes—for everyone. Women haven’t had them. We are now in a period of realignment where the pressure may be back on for organizations to take women’s complaints seriously and to put effective policies and procedures in place that protect women and work for everyone. We had good practices in place in the 1990s after Anita Hill brought the issue of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas out into the light of day, but then they were replaced by corporate lawyers with arbitration clauses in employment contracts and nondisclosure agreements that do not protect victims of harassment. It’s time to get back to protecting women and men from harassment.   Photo by Donna Cleveland, CC BY 2.0.]]>