Following a Workplace Playbook Created by Men Won’t Move Us Any Closer To Gender Equity at Work

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Over the past century, women have made significant strides in the labor market. Starting in the 1920s, they began shucking traditional social mores that said women (particularly married women) belonged in the home by taking on factory work, and between the 1930s and 1970s, amid the advent of new technologies, they took on clerical work, too. Since then, a combination of greater access to higher education, the availability of birth control, shifting cultural attitudes, and anti-discrimination legislation has allowed women to enter the workforce en masse. Indeed, women now represent the majority of the college-educated labor force in the United States—and yet, the journey to playing catch-up is far from complete. Case in point: the continued lack of gender equity at work.

Experts In This Article

To be clear, equal access to work among people of different gender identities is not the same thing as gender equity at work, which involves the different experiences that people have once they get to the workplace, in terms of growth opportunities and compensation. Breaking down this gender inequity is a key part of the conversation on this week's episode of The Well+Good Podcast. In it, Well+Good director of podcasts Taylor Camille speaks with financial expert Farnoosh Torabi, host of the So Money podcast, about how and why women still lag behind men in the workplace and the societal and personal shifts that can help close the gap.

Listen to the full episode here:

Perhaps the clearest indication of this lack of gender equity at work is the gender pay gap: As of 2022, women made 82 cents for every dollar earned by men (a statistic that also fails to account for the full spectrum of gender identities). This earnings gap is the genesis of Equal Pay Day, which falls on March 14 to reflect how far into the year women would need to work to earn what men earned the year prior.

According to Torabi, a major part of the continued challenge for women is that, "as active participants in the workplace, we're still new to this scene," she says, in the episode. Despite all of the progress that's been made, it's important to remember that as recently as 50 years ago, we weren't "invited to rise through the ranks of corporate America," she says, "so we're relatively new to the politics and the systems at work, which have largely been designed by men." In turn, we're still making up for lost time when it comes to things like networking and mentorship, which have long been a part of the experience for men in the workplace.

"It shouldn’t be about playing by established [workplace] rules because then we’re just saying the old rules are [correct], and they need to persist."—Farnoosh Torabi, financial expert

Rather than trying to simply follow in men's footsteps, however, Torabi argues that women should help blaze a new trail forward. “It shouldn’t be about playing by these established rules because then we’re just saying the old rules are [correct], and they need to persist,” says Torabi. "Let’s be more creative and think a little more inclusively and have everyone write these rules, and not just the folks who’ve been there the longest and are the loudest."

Why financial expert Farnoosh Torabi says we need to create a new workplace playbook to achieve gender equity at work

It's often implied that to get ahead at work and in life, women should emulate traditionally masculine behaviors. As historian and author Blair Imani noted on last week's episode of The Well+Good Podcast, our patriarchal society tends to pit women against each other on the basis that there are only so many seats at the table for them. And this reality can lead women to internalize certain toxic and classically masculine behaviors like ruthless competitiveness.

The result is a workplace playbook that prioritizes and promotes these kinds of behaviors without acknowledging their limitations. As an example, take former Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg's popular book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, which, soon after publication and for a while thereafter, became the authority for women looking to ascend the rungs of the corporate ladder. While Torabi acknowledges that the book does have its merits (one of them being its recommendation for women to look at a job description that's relevant to their experience and believe that they qualify), it “is very much a playbook that stemmed from how the men were doing things,” she says. (And since its publication, it's been widely criticized for its lack of intersectionality and promotion of 'girl boss feminism.')

Still, that's not to say that we can't learn anything from the workplace habits of men or that they cannot be helpful allies to their women colleagues, Torabi caveats, adding that men can certainly be a great source of wisdom and advice at work. Gender equity is a fight for which everyone needs to come off the sidelines and help, she says.

Part of the reason for that are the many systemic roadblocks to gender equity at work—like, for instance, the lack of national paid and family leave in this country, which can disproportionately hold back women who become mothers from career advancement (and the higher paychecks that come with it). And advocating for legislative change is something that anyone can do, regardless of their gender identity.

"If more and more women decide to start speaking up and asking to be paid what they're worth, we become a force that's much harder to reckon with." —Torabi

But at the same time, she says, women, in particular, can and should play an active role in rewriting the workplace playbook going forward—which will mean letting go of or breaking certain rules created by men. "Women, through no fault of our own, have been culturized to believe that we should just put up and shut up in the workplace, and that there will be a cost to speaking up," says Torabi. "I'll be the first to admit that there can be a risk there, and employers can be punitive in this way, but if more and more women decide to start speaking up and asking to be paid what they're worth, we become a force that's much harder to reckon with."

The message? Enlist your allies, says Torabi. Though gender inequity at work is still a major issue in 2023, what she says has changed in recent years is the discourse around it—it's become a lot stronger, she says. "To bring up pay equity during a pay or salary negotiation is no longer unheard of or unusual." And the next time you're considering asking for a raise or promotion, that cultural context is something you can leverage, she adds. "Bring that into your conversation."

To hear more of Torabi's insights on how we can all work to enhance gender equity at work, listen to the full episode here

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