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Women in the Workplace: What Has Actually Changed?

When I think about how women’s workplace roles have changed, I can’t help but think of the show Mad Men. Suit-clad misogynists, cigarettes dangling, eyeing up the (almost always) busty administrative assistants while asking them for a cup of coffee (or glass of whiskey) seem like a work of fiction. For so many women, though, scenes like this were once very, very real.

Fast forward sixty years, and we’ve come a long way from fetching coffee in pantyhose and pumps. Today, more than 10% of Fortune 500 companies are led by women, the most ever on record. In the 60s, only 38% of women worked outside the home. Today, that number is just under 80%.

This doesn’t mean the world is perfect and equal, far from it. The gender pay gap, which has hovered around 20% for the last two decades, remains largely unchanged. Moreover, caregiving for young children often undermines women’s employment, an issue affecting few of their male counterparts.

Seen doesn’t guarantee heard

There’s progress in participation, but is that enough? More women than ever are present in the workplace, which certainly counts for something. The persistent gaps in leadership and compensation call these advances into question.

There are many reasons why women’s achievement in the workplace is statistically lower than men’s. You could fill volumes of books with explanations for this repressive phenomenon, complete with empirical data, case studies, and anecdotal evidence. I’m not going to get into that today.

Women are certainly seen in the workplace more than ever. I’m curious whether women are being heard in the workplace at the same rate? Unfortunately, based on the data I’ve seen, I don’t think so.

Why? Because more presence doesn’t mean more attention, unless those present demand it.

Telling your story

Your story is at the heart of this matter. Self-advocating doesn’t come naturally to most women, and sharing your own narrative might feel attention-grabbing, boastful, and even selfish.

The last person you probably want to speak up for is yourself. So instead, you might speak up for our parents, partners, children, friends, and even co-workers. You want to shield them from harm and hurt, but what about you? Who’s protecting you?

I can’t help but think about oxygen masks on airplanes. They’re a great illustration of why you have to meet your own needs before reaching out to help someone else.

The sad reality is that rather than speaking your truth and asking for what you want and need, you likely stay silent. In the often perilous corners of your mind, you might believe that you don’t have what you want because you don’t deserve it.

The impact of negative self-talk

An honest conversation about women in the workplace would be incomplete without discussing the impact of negative self-talk. When you have the chance to stand up and share your story, do you take advantage of the opportunity or do you fall into the trap of negative self-talk? 

You might tell yourself that no one cares, possibly you’ll be judged for your choices, or that showing vulnerability might be an awful experience. Getting out of this thought pattern can be a significant challenge. 

In many ways, these feelings aren’t your fault. They’re the culmination of life experiences, societal norms, ingrained biases, or even your upbringing. But once you take on a limited view of your abilities, imagining life any other way can be difficult.

If you can’t muster the courage to imagine a different life, how on earth will you manifest it?

Advocate to advance

You will always be your own best champion. Advocating for yourself almost always requires fearlessly telling your story. Changing your inner narrative and knowing that given your achievements, quality of work, and scope of responsibilities, you’re worthy of the next big step is a negotiation within yourself. Actually achieving that requires persuading your supervisor, which is only possible when you believe it yourself.

You might think you aren’t up for the task, but you’re wrong.

The truth is, you already negotiate all day long. You bargain with yourself, your family, friends, pets, co-workers, contractors, bill collectors, and even other drivers on the road. These interactions matter, even though you might not give yourself credit for them.

If only you could see how often you negotiate, you’d have the experience and confidence to negotiate at work. All that’s left is to take responsibility and ownership of the fact that you do have this skill.  Be confident in your abilities and actively manifest the outcome you seek.

Negotiating more

Finding the confidence to negotiate in the first place can be difficult. Without a belief in yourself, you won’t have the courage to strike when the moment comes. Instead, you’ll wait for permission to discuss your role in the organization or your compensation package. Most of the time, those invitations don’t come on their own.

Studies have proven that those who ask more get more. But if you lack self-worth and don’t advocate for yourself confidently, will you be asking at all? Probably not.

When you understand your value, your goals are reflected in your self-worth. You believe you can accomplish more and therefore ask for more. This aspirational perspective can help you achieve what you want in your career, relationships, and life.

Making the change

Maintaining the status quo is easy. Compromising your interests and putting your career on autopilot to take care of everyone around you often feels like the right thing to do. Although, what if asking for what you want meant better balance for your family? 

Could sharing your innermost aspirations bring you far greater fulfillment? Perhaps betting on yourself may actually benefit those you care about. Aren’t these possibilities worth the risk?


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