A few years ago, Lucy Marsh ’63 stepped to the forefront of an astounding battle for equal pay at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, where she teaches. In December 2012, the school’s dean sent out a lengthy memo. Buried within it was this sobering fact: Female full professors were being paid up to $16,000 less than their male counterparts. “I went to him to ask what he planned to do to correct it, and he said, ‘Nothing,’” Marsh recalls.
Not satisfied, she joined colleagues who had taken the case to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In the aftermath, Marsh says she endured a smear campaign to discredit her, and many of her colleagues kept their distance. “Over the years, I felt as if I were poison,” she says. “Early on, people would whisper their support, and students—always students—would launch supportive petitions.”
Despite the backlash she faced, Marsh kept pushing forward, a larger mission guiding her. “I feel it’s my responsibility to do this in the hope that it will help other women in the job market.” Her persistence is paying off. In June, nearly two dozen faculty members sent a letter to the chancellors seeking an end to the hostile climate and endorsing Marsh and the other women named in the lawsuit. The trial is now set for 2018.
Across the country, women like Marsh are taking it upon themselves to change work culture and create more equitable environments. They aren’t waiting for their employers or corporations or the federal government to do it for them. They are tired of the unequal pay, the outright harassment, the absence of workplace mentoring and the unfair practices that punish women for their ambition or exclude them altogether. They see a better way—not only for themselves but for future generations of women—and are developing new workplace policies, forming support groups, creating incentives for women’s advancement, pointing out bias when they see it and joining forces with female colleagues and mentors to bring about change.
On the national legislative front, Sen. Tammy Baldwin ’84 (D-WI) and Rep. Niki Sauvage Tsongas ’68 (D-MA) have been staunch advocates and champions of policies that thwart gender bias at work. Both broke the legislative glass ceiling when they were elected: Baldwin in 2012 by becoming the first female U.S. senator in Wisconsin history and the first openly gay woman in the U.S. Senate, and Tsongas in 2007 by becoming the first woman in 25 years to be elected to Congress from Massachusetts. Both, too, have made gender equality a part of their legislative agendas. Baldwin has advocated for access to reproductive health care and cancer screenings for women and has introduced legislation to strengthen workplace regulations that protect women against sexual harassment and discrimination. She co-sponsored the Equality Act (2015), which would ban discrimination against LGBTQ Americans, and this year reintroduced the bill in the Senate. Tsongas co-sponsored the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and has served on the House Armed Services Committee, working on a host of issues such as preventing sexual assault in the military and ensuring that female soldiers’ body armor is tailored for women’s bodies and is not just a smaller version of men’s sizes. “From a practical standpoint, the Army spends millions training women; if we make them feel unequal or unwanted, they will leave the military and take all that talent with them,” Tsongas says. “If you can change the military, you can change a country.”
In many cases, women are seeking out other women in their organizations to find strength in numbers. “We tell women to do all these things, but it’s not enough when you work in a culture that is not conducive to women’s advancement,” says Terri Tierney Clark ’81. In 2015 she launched Summit Leadership Advisors, a Phoenix-based consulting firm that seeks to both change the culture and advance women up the ladder.
In fact, many women who have succeeded in moving into top corporate ranks have made it their mission to increase the number of women in leadership positions, from the executive suite to membership on corporate boards. “There’s nothing more powerful than women helping women,” says Pamela Craig ’79. While at Accenture in the early 2000s, Craig started a women’s executive leadership development program that assigned a sponsor to help 15 to 20 high-potential women from around the world maximize their talent and advance their careers. “Every one of those women had a better role within a year,” she says, “and the program is still going strong.”
Now Craig has turned her attention to increasing the number of women on corporate boards, where nationally women make up a mere 5 percent of board membership. “If I get a call to be on a board and don’t feel that I am a good fit, I try to pass it on to another woman,” she says. As a member of the Women’s Forum of New York’s corporate board initiative, Craig has ready access to a database of qualified women. Every year, the group puts on a Breakfast of Champions to honor companies that have increased female board membership to more than 25 percent.
Similarly, Christine McCarthy ’77, who in 2015 became the highest-ranking woman at The Walt Disney Company when she was promoted to senior executive vice president and chief financial officer, watches for ways to groom other women for leadership. Three years ago, for instance, she helped spearhead the Global Workplace and Women’s Initiative, which seeks to “create a pipeline for women to become senior leaders,” she says. The group, which is 25 percent male, focuses on programs to provide mentorship and sponsorship for talented women. “Our product touches people, and we want our leadership to represent all of those people,” McCarthy says of Disney. “We can’t have an all-male leadership because we entertain families, so we have to have a diverse point of view as a corporation.”
Top-down leadership is critical for making change in large organizations. But meaningful change also flows up from more grassroots efforts, especially when women identify workplace issues that male leadership might not recognize. In 2014, when Sarah Winawer-Wetzel ’05, a senior project manager at a hospital, became pregnant, she began looking into her employer’s maternity policies. But figuring out what the hospital offered was difficult. There was no single source for the policies, and it took hours to track them down. “For example, there was a benefit that would allow a person in their third trimester to park in special parking spots meant for people with disabilities, but you’d only find that information if you knew it was listed under disability accommodations,” she explains. “Then, I got back to work and wanted to pump, and it took three calls to find out where the lactation rooms were and how to get into them.” To assist other new parents, Winawer-Wetzel worked with the hospital’s human resources office to create an “expectant parent toolkit” listing all relevant policies. “My favorite part,” she notes, “is that the toolkit is gender neutral and relevant to any kind of parent—including adoptive, foster, nongestational and transgender parents.”
These days, one of the biggest challenges women face is unconscious bias: being overlooked when it comes to mentoring, training or plum assignments; being talked over or interrupted by men in meetings; or working in chilly offices set to men’s body temperatures and wardrobes. Studies show that male bosses bypass women of childbearing age for promotions because they presume they won’t want the long hours and travel. Researchers at George Washington University found that men interrupt women 33 percent more often than they do other men. And office temperature settings are based on a model that uses the body of a 40-year-old man weighing 154 pounds as the norm, according to research conducted in the Netherlands.
Unconscious bias can be tricky to fight, however. Iris Newalu, director of Smith’s Executive Education for Women, recalls running a workshop for 30 senior-level men at a New York bank to raise awareness about the ways they may unconsciously exclude women. “Initially, they said, ‘We don’t have that problem here,’” Newalu says. “On the second day, we brought in eight female peers and asked them, ‘If the men could hear what you’re thinking, what would it be?’ The women said things like, ‘We work on a project with you, but you leave us out of lunchtime or afterhours conversations where decisions get made.’ The men came around and said, ‘You’re right, we didn’t realize.’”
Many women are beginning to recognize the value of joining with other women to make change or seek redress. “That’s when it’s best to run in a pack,” advises Craig. She recommends that women form groups—including a member of human resources—where they can build the community they may need to rely on for advice or backup. McCarthy agrees: “At Disney, women are very supportive of each other; we really have each other’s backs.”
That’s what Jess Wallis ’05 did at the library services company where she is a product manager. “I started a lunchtime discussion group of women in my company where we can talk about inequality, sexism and diversity issues in the workplace,” she says, recounting the story of one female colleague who, after being interrupted four times in a male-dominated meeting, stood up and said, “I’m going to talk now.” The lunch-hour group has been well attended, Wallis says, with meetings attracting 12 to 15 people (including a couple of Smith alumnae). In time, the group invited the head of HR to discuss potential changes at the executive level.
Carrie Baker, associate professor of the study of women and gender at Smith and author of The Women’s Movement Against Sexual Harassment (Cambridge University Press), is watchful for changes in the wider culture. For instance, she notes that President Trump has proposed eliminating the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor, the very agency that collects data on the wage gap. Nonetheless, individual states are taking action of their own. A new law in Massachusetts requires reasonable workplace accommodation for pregnant workers; New York is about to become the fourth state to offer paid family leave. “What’s happening [federally] has awakened a sleeping giant,” Baker says. “Women are organizing in groups, calling legislators to complain, using social media to speak out.”
The cultural changes women are bringing to the workplace are good for women, but ultimately they’re good for business. Studies show, for example, that greater diversity within a company results in higher rates of productivity. “When women stand their ground and change culture for themselves, they impact the entire organization,” says Linda Smith Charles ’74, who retired in 2014 as director of human resources for the Ford Foundation. “It creates a more cohesive workplace and a sense that the company is more equitable. It shows there is real respect in the workplace for everyone.”
Women Don’t Simply Identify Workplace Problems. They Join Forces and Craft Solutions.
Overcoming Implicit Bias
Nicole Kaelyn (Katy) Costa ’08
Teacher of English as a Second Language (ESL)
The issue: Female students passed over for recognition
Her solution: “Most of my students are in their 20s, though we do have some older students. Teachers nominate a ‘super student’ for each course session based on their attendance, academic achievement, participation and adherence to the English-only school policy. I noticed that since the award was implemented, more men than women were being selected. I brought this to my supervisor’s attention, and for the following award, as a group, we consciously selected a woman. I’ve since made an effort to consistently nominate female students for each session. Studies have shown that men are believed to be the top performers in classrooms, even when women are. I think it’s important to be aware of implicit biases—our own as well as those of our peers, even when you work with a group of fairly progressive individuals, as I do. I believe nominating and recognizing women’s accomplishments in the classroom are important steps to making this happen in the workplace.”
The result: “Right now, we’re around 50–50 in terms of male/female nominees. We need to be vigilant about whom we recognize in our classrooms and schools. Could that lead to more girls and women being nominated for leadership positions and being recognized for their academic achievements more consistently? I think so.”
A Hardball Fight for Equal Pay
Susan Sloan Munsey, MSW ’93
Director of Programs, Generatehope
The issue: Gender pay discrimination at the company she founded
Her solution: “Recently I faced a salary issue at work where men were being paid significantly more ($15,000 to $50,000) while having a lower level of education and experience. I had to really work on this with my therapist and a couple of other strong women friends and associates who encouraged me to fight for what was right.”
The result: “With that great support, I was able to demand equal pay. I didn’t threaten to leave but I was ready to if necessary. Finally I got what I was asking for in salary and benefits. I was pleasantly surprised. I had to play hardball, but I accomplished what I wanted to.”
A Place in the Military for Women
Nicola (Niki) Sauvage Tsongas ’68
U.S. Representative from Massachusetts
The issue: Lack of a breastfeeding policy in the U.S. Army
Her solution: “Unlike the other military branches, the Army had no standardized breastfeeding policy. Different bases had different policies. Some were good; some had no policy at all. I sponsored an amendment that charged the Army with coming up with a standard policy with basic minimums, and used the Navy/Marine policy as a guide. There were basic requirements, such as there had to be a private, clean area with electrical outlets for expressing milk, where service members could go to breastfeed (that was lockable and that was not a bathroom), and an allowance for breaks. An Army officer who was breastfeeding at that time contacted my office about the problem. And there was a Facebook group, Breastfeeding in Combat Boots. This group sent us tons of stories about the problems they faced: being told they can’t pump in an office with a closed door, or having to pump in a parked car or other unsanitary conditions. The amendment I authored was rolled into the National Defense Authorization Act signed in late 2015, and took effect in fiscal year 2016.”
The result: “The new policy required the Army to establish a comprehensive policy for all bases.Supporting women in the military is essential to building the strongest military possible.”
Creating an Equal Dress Code
Lee Negendank Chapman ’02
Procurement Officer, Mining Services Company
The issue: Gendered uniforms
Her solution: “I work for a family-owned company that provides mining contract services to mines across Australia and the Philippines. The company is male-dominated,including at the management level. I knew there was a corporate uniform to wear—white button-down shirt and navy pants/skirt. What surprised me was that only the women wore white shirts; the men wore light-blue shirts. Being in charge of procurement—what we buy and from whom we buy it—I knew that our uniforms needed to be updated, so I tried to unravel the reasoning between different-colored shirts.
“Every female employee I spoke with complained about the white shirts. (‘Why can’t we wear blue? The white shirts are see-through and a bad fit for larger women.’)
“The kicker was when a photo was taken at the annual managers meeting, there were only two white shirts in a sea of blue. This was not lost on the public when the photo was posted on social media. The inequality at the management level was made more prominent by the different-colored shirts. A few months later, I proposed a revised corporate uniform to the CEO. We were able to get approval for a more modern cut of uniform, but also that every female employee in the corporate office would be able to purchase
blue corporate shirts.”
The result: “It has made the women in the office feel more empowered, more comfortable and more equal. I was nominated by my peers for the Employee of the Month award and received it from the CEO in April, just seven months after I started working there.”
Raising the Visibility of Women Employees
Ifetayo Harvey ’14
Communications Associate, Drug Policy Alliance (DPA)
The issue: Visibility of women at her workplace
Her solution: “I put together my organization’s first official recognition of International Women’s Day. I reached out to all the women in my organization and told them to wear red to work. All six of our offices across the country participated, and we all took photos and promoted them via social media. While this may seem like a small feat, I set the precedent for future International Women’s Days. My goal was recognition, but I got that and enthusiasm. Folks are already talking about what we should do for next year’s International Women’s Day.”
The result: “It made women more aware of our unity and power as a group. We realized that women make up the majority of employees at DPA. The effect is still in process. Our new executive director is a woman with a strong background in human rights.”
SAQ, Winter 2017–18
Debra Michals is a frequent contributor on workplace issues and is the director of women’s and gender studies at Merrimack College in Massachusetts.