Why women are still struggling in the workplace

Published 10:25 am Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A friend of mine has been having a difficult time at work lately, a place she cares deeply about and in a position that could set her up for her dream job one day, provided she can eventually find what should be a clear path of upward mobility.

Working in the public sector, her salary — as well as that of everyone she works with — is public information. Despite having the same position and longer tenure than many of her coworkers, she remains the lowest-paid person in her office. Unlike many in her position, she’s asked to juggle several different responsibilities which require regular after-hours work, which she does without complaint, never missing a deadline. She’s requested temporary use of an office from time to time to meet with people as part of her job and has never received it despite watching her male counterparts move into their own designated spaces over the years while she remains in her cubicle.

She doesn’t say anything for fear of being seen as a “complainer” concerned with what other people are paid rather than focusing on her job. So she keeps working. And waiting. The consummate yes-woman. Because it’ll change one day, right?

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For about a year, she’s had issues with a male colleague who makes her uncomfortable by saying inappropriate things, sharing intimate details about his personal life, giving unsolicited hugs or putting a “friendly” hand on her shoulder from time to time. She doesn’t say anything because he’s beloved by everyone there and she fears she will be accused of lying for attention. So she stays quiet and endures it. Because it could always be worse, right?

Yes, it could always be worse. And that’s how we condition ourselves to endure it because comparing struggle to those who have it worse is how most people learn to cope. We stay silent to protect our futures and the futures of our families who depend on us maintaining steady employment. We tell ourselves this is just what we have to do to work our way up the ladder and get to a position where we can finally change the system. There’s no point in working this hard for this long if we jeopardize the end goal over something we’re strong enough to endure, right?

The fact of the matter is, no matter how many legal protections are in place for women in the workforce, many of us can’t afford to take that action — literally — or suffer the political repercussions that often accompany being the one who gets an employee fired over sexual harassment or demands more money based on what the person sitting next to us gets paid for doing the same job.

When we talk about women being treated fairly in the workplace, we cannot allow it to be a game of comparison or a matter of developing thick skin. Fracturing this discussion into who has it worse, or noting how much better things are now compared to a time in the past does nothing to combat the issues women still face in 2017. That’s what creates a culture of silence and shame among women who question whether their grievances have merit when it’s only a few hundred dollars in salary or the occasional uncomfortable encounter with a male colleague.

The challenge, of course, is reconciling that appreciation for women who fought relentlessly so we could have career opportunities with the fact that we still have a lot of work to do. We should be talking about that more openly without the qualifier of how it compares to what we’d face in the same office 50 years ago.

Because while it could be worse, it could also be better. A lot better.

For everyone.

Alex McDaniel is editor of the Oxford Eagle. Contact her at alex.mcdaniel@oxfordeagle.com.