For many professional women, the last five years have been an exercise in perseverance, bookended by movements at odds. We were told to lean in, to throw ourselves into the C-suite, and butt our way into all-male spaces. But in the process, many of us faced abuse, humiliation, and harassment at the hands of the men whose ranks in the boardroom we were meant to be joining.
From the outset of our careers, young women are expected to endure infantilization and exclusion all while advocating for better policies in the hopes that someday, things will change. If we've made little progress in shattering the glass ceiling or closing the wage gap, it certainly hasn't been for a lack of trying.
"I'm tired of the motivation stuff," Carol Sankar, global leadership consultant and the founder of the global executive leadership firm The Confidence Factor for Women in Leadership, told The Week. "I think we've been sold by this idea that business and motivation go hand in hand. I'm motivated. Now tell me what I have to do."
She gets at a huge problem in the movement to empower women in the workplace: The gatekeepers are still men, many of them white, and many unwilling to open the door to women, no matter how loud or persistent their knocking. "There just is no other way to say it," Sankar says. "Depending on what you're trying to achieve, you have to ask the person who sits in the seat you want."
Our culture often fails to challenge white men's unwillingness to make room for women or to examine their own perpetuation of broken, corrupt systems. We can't even get them to mentor young women post-#MeToo because, they say, they feel uncomfortable.
Meanwhile, women's desire to succeed is still seen as defiant, even met with hostility. Earlier this year, best-selling author Jessica Knoll wrote in The New York Times about her desire to be rich: "Success, for me, is synonymous with making money. I want to write books, but I really want to sell books. I want advances that make my husband gasp and fat royalty checks twice a year. I want movie studios to pay me for option rights and I want the screenwriting comp to boot."
Knoll's declaration of money-seeking ambition was scrutinized in all ways, from all angles. The essay, which merely displayed a kind of ambition that men are generally rewarded for showing, was controversial enough to be called a "scorcher." One man dismissed it as "an aspirational essay about why women should be able to be as vile and superficial as men," while organizational psychologist Adam Grant, who co-authored Option B with Sheryl Sandberg, wrote, "Let's hope women (and men) have more meaningful goals than getting rich." Tech executive Michael Folkson asked Knoll why she didn't focus more on her sexual assault in the essay. "I support women getting rich," he wrote, "but reducing sexual assaults seems just as important if not more."
All too often, the suggested solution for women who, like Knoll, want to get ahead, is to just "focus on the work," and they'll see results. This "if you build it, they will come" approach sounds noble. But so far, it hasn't proven widely effective.
Take, for example, the world of finance. In May, Glamour magazine included a piece on women's financial platforms and tech start-ups such as Ladies Get Paid and The Fiscal Femme — businesses that have sprung up as a way to carve out places for women to learn more about personal finance and safely discuss thorny issues. "For the last 25 years of my career, I've been watching women try to gain knowledge in the current male structure," certified financial planner Manisha Thakor told The Week. "It's not working, so now we're trying something else."
Trying, but struggling. While Glamour applauded these "women-specific systems," the magazine also acknowledged that it's tough to imagine how they alone will help break the cycle. For a woman to advance in an organization, she will likely still need support of senior colleagues — likely to be white, male, and possibly decades older than her — in addition to private support, usually from other groups of women.
Meanwhile, the same types of economic, social, and political discrimination that pushed women into these "women-specific systems" in the first place is breeding new problems: Male advantage prevails in the gig economy, and even in cryptocurrency, where more than 90 percent of bitcoin wealth is held by men. Women have the initiative and the desire, but men dominate even the new financial systems.
In her 2012 book Pound Foolish, author and financial journalist Helaine Olen dedicated an entire chapter to debunking myths around women and personal finance. In it, Olen recalls asking Linda Descano, then-founder and CEO of CitiBank's Women & Co., a membership service for women's financial needs, about the website's overall content and messaging. Specifically, Olen asks Descano: "Isn't pointing out that women earn less than their male counterparts ultimately a problem that requires more than simple acknowledgment of its existence?"
Descano said no. "We don't think in terms of political issues like that," she replied.
That ignorance amounts to self-sabotage. The one-size-fits-all professional advice we've become accustomed to often doesn't work, and most male-dominated industries that shoved out or silenced previous generations still aren't built for female success. Clearly, something has to change. As Thakor told The Week: "In order to have the power, we need to take it."
Professional women face an advancement path laden with quicksand: We experience more imminent burnout from trying to compete in a man's world, and sometimes the harder we fight, the less progress we make. But for every woman who gets fired for asking for too much, or criticized for being too nakedly ambitious, that's one more story for us to rally around. It's one more poke in the eye of the system, too — change usually doesn't happen quietly.