I’ve been trying to pinpoint the feeling that’s overtaken me since Hillary Clinton’s loss in November, and the closest I can come is: Bereft. The feeling of being deprived or robbed; lacking something needed, wanted, expected.
Women across the country thought we were on the cusp of a new era, and November 9th dawned like a crude wakeup call. Devastated, disillusioned, disheartened, many of us have spent the past month in a stew of anxiety and self-examination, wondering: What went wrong?
As someone who has spent the past 8+ years studying what helps people build successful careers and creative businesses, I inevitably viewed this year’s election through the lens of work.
Viewed from this perspective, Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid isn’t just a commentary on the American political system—and the electorate—it’s also a commentary on women at work. Clinton was essentially running for CEO of America, and she was passed over for the job in favor of a man.
Sadly, this is nothing new. Women currently make up just 4% of the CEOs at America’s top 500 companies and 7% of the partners at the top 100 venture capital firms. While 38% of new businesses in the US are started by women, only between 2 and 6% receive VC funding. Of that paltry percentage of women who do receive funding, only 0.2% are women of color.
Considered in the context of these anemic numbers, Clinton’s loss seems less surprising. The chance that any woman will be promoted to an influential, key leadership role is slim—to say nothing of the chance when that role is President of the United States.
But what is at the root of this bias? And how can we combat it?
Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant paired up for an excellent series of articles on women at work that ran last year in the New York Times. It’s worth recapping a few striking facts and studies that they highlighted:
Managers — both male and female — continue to favor men over equally qualified women in hiring, compensation, performance evaluation and promotion decisions.
Male executives who spoke more often than their peers were rewarded with 10 percent higher ratings of competence. When female executives spoke more than their peers, both men and women punished them with 14 percent lower ratings. As this and other research shows, women who worry that talking “too much” will cause them to be disliked are not paranoid; they are often right.
In a study led by the New York University psychologist Madeline Heilman, participants evaluated the performance of a male or female employee who did or did not stay late to help colleagues prepare for an important meeting. For staying late and helping, a man was rated 14 percent more favorably than a woman. When both declined, a woman was rated 12 percent lower than a man. Over and over, after giving identical help, a man was significantly more likely to be recommended for promotions, important projects, raises and bonuses. A woman had to help just to get the same rating as a man who didn’t help.
And just in case you think that these “work” biases don’t carry over into the realm of politics, some research confirming that they do:
A study by a Yale psychologist, Victoria L. Brescoll, found that male senators with more power (as measured by tenure, leadership positions and track record of legislation passed) spoke more on the Senate floor than their junior colleagues. But for female senators, power was not linked to significantly more speaking time.
Now, if you’re a woman in the workplace, you’re probably not particularly surprised by any of this research because you’ve already experienced it first-hand.
However, what I found very surprising was that women were equally guilty of sexism—and discrimination against women—in many of these studies. Male and female managers routinely passed over female job candidates in favor of male candidates. Women and men were willing to critique female colleagues and dock their performance for “talking too much” in meetings.
Further research has shown that it is not sufficient to merely recognize a bias against women in order to counteract it. (In fact, affirming the existence of certain stereotypes can actually lend them more credence unless such recognition is paired with an explicit message that discrimination is not okay.) Beyond acknowledging bias, we must go a step further and actively indicate that such biases are unacceptable and must be overcome.
It is not sufficient to merely recognize a bias against women in order to counteract it. We must actively confirm it’s unacceptable.
Which brings me to the point of this essay: Yes, we can and should protest. Yes, we can and should take political action. And yes, sexism is just one factor among many—race, class, education—that impacted this election. But it is a factor that many of us can take meaningful, purposeful action to impact right now by stepping more fully into our power as women in the working world, asserting our voices, and affirming, supporting, and lifting up other women whenever and however we can.
As leaders, managers, entrepreneurs, artists, editors, designers, marketers, coders, curators, educators, and writers, many of us have a substantial sphere of influence and there’s much that we can do on a daily basis.
Consider how you can actively:
I’m the first to admit that as a manager, an editor, and a writer, I have fallen short of these ideals at times during my working career. I have not highlighted or celebrated women in all of the ways I could have given my influence.
I was aware of the bias against women but I did not do everything in my power to overturn that bias. And I feel as responsible as anyone for Hillary’s loss—for the loss of all women—because of it.
We now know that it’s not enough to be with her. We have to start explicitly advocating for her. Asking how can I: Give her a voice? Give her a vote of confidence? Give her a promotion? Give her a platform? Give her a future?
You don’t vote for a woman every four years, or just once in a life time. You vote for (or against) women every day in the way that you judge, accept, validate, and elevate other women.
The painting above is “Automat” by Edward Hopper.