A couple of semesters ago, I audited a “Gender & Development” class in the undergraduate sociology department at Johns Hopkins University. My fellow students were generous enough with me, their new classmate nearly two decades their senior and whose streams of commentary almost always began with: “in practice though . . .” Undaunted by my cautions, these young female scholars made some of the most compelling and well-verbalized arguments for gender equality I have ever heard. They navigated easily through the three waves of feminism to economic theories to gender ethics of the current day. Impressed by the brilliance of these twentysomethings, I announced during the final class that “if the future of the fight for equality is left to the likes of you, we are in excellent hands.”
If only it were that easy, I thought afterwards. I so wish I could have told those bright young women about the challenges they will face as they enter their careers and endeavor to find satisfaction in their work and lives. I did not want to be that person, warning optimistic young women about future obstacles—and that the odds of success are ever stacked against them. I fear, though, that if we don’t have open conversations about workplace and cultural challenges, if we don’t call out hurdles by name, we set women up for failure when they enter the workplace.
What is ahead of these young scholars is what has been ahead of women during all three waves of feminism and since the dawn of humanity. Yes, the ratio of male to female college students has flipped from the 1970s and women are now fifty-six percent of US college students. But despite their increased representation and the fact that women often exceed the achievements of their male classmates in school, they will not enter an equal workforce or be equally paid for their work. Conditions for success in their careers of choice will be even more unequal. Women are still just as likely to opt out of a career after the birth of a child today as they were thirty years ago, at nineteen percent for women with bachelor’s degrees and thirty percent for master’s degree graduates.
These statistics tell a familiar story: though degree programs across the board are filled with women who are as capable, brilliant, and ambitious as their male counterparts, women still make up only twenty percent of the senior level leadership of organizations, including Christian NGOs. Despite all this, I am convinced that the current state of things does not have to be permanent. God clearly wants women to thrive and use their gifts to the fullest—first in the classroom and then in the workplace. How do we know that?
God Wants Women to Thrive.
Scripture often teaches us to hold seemingly opposing ideas in tension. We are asked to give generously in order to experience financial freedom. We are to welcome and care for people, though they are strangers to us. Amid tribulation, we are told to fear not.
Here is another one: men and women were created different and yet in the very same image of God. We are designed by God to work together as equals. God did not intend for one to oppress the other, or for one to thrive at the expense of the other. Rather, the work and leadership of creation was to be mutual and shared. This mutuality implies a spirit of “give-and-take” in male-female relationships. Though the thriving of one may come at a cost for another, so the other may at times have to sacrifice for the good of their counterpart. As long as we miss God’s plan for the co-creativity and co-laboring of men and women as true and equal allies, our schools, organizations, churches, and families will be held back.
When I was girl, my family went through a difficult financial season and yet my single mom continued to tithe. When I asked her why she persisted instead of using those dollars to provide for her four daughters, she replied: “It’s the only way I know how to test God’s faithfulness on the days I can’t feel his presence.”
What if we took God’s mandate to be co-laborers as seriously as my mom took her conviction to tithe? What if we believed that the only way communities and workplaces will prosper is by the co-laboring of men and women together?
Women are missing at top tiers of leadership, in research labs, and generally around the table when important decisions with lasting consequences for both men and women are made. Melinda Gates speaks to this point in her must-read 2019 book, The Moment of Lift. “Diversity is the best way to defend equality,” she says. “If people from diverse groups are not making decisions, the burdens and benefits will be divided unequally and unfairly—with the people writing the rules ensuring themselves greater share of the benefits and lesser share of the burdens of any society. If you are not brought in, you get sold out.”
We desperately need women like my brilliant, twentysomething classmates to have long and successful careers and, especially, to fill leadership positions. We need to build a culture of mutuality in the workplace, where women make decisions, share burdens, and reap equal benefits to their male peers.
This is what I hope for the young women in my class, and I want to do whatever I can to help them, and other women entering their careers, reach that benchmark. With that goal in mind, here are three things I wish I had known when I entered my own career.
Ask to Be Counted.
The phrase “not counting women and children” is common in Scripture. From the Old Testament to the New, men are accounted for. Women are often omitted from the tally of masses who marched to war, from the stories of Israel’s exile in different lands, and from accounts of people that were healed and fed by Jesus. Women and children were treated as an afterthought—their numbers often only estimated in proportion to the carefully counted number of men (heads of households). This “head of household” model has, until recent years, dominated much of how we see the world. In her book, Melinda Gates highlights the problem with scientists’ assumption that men, as “heads of households,” knew best how to build effective agricultural programs in developing countries. It wasn’t until women—who actually worked the fields—were also heard that such programs saw success. In other words, because they failed to count (and consult) women, communities were unable to flourish.
The “head of household” model was also deployed to construct the modern workplace. What we take for granted now—the nine-to-five work hours (in best, healthiest cases), people sitting at their desks for extended periods or in long meetings, business travel, rounds of golf or drinks after hours with colleagues—became the norm during the Industrial Revolution. The current office system was created to apprehend the full availability of the (male) employee—and it assumed the presence of someone else (a wife/woman) taking care of things on the home front.
It is no wonder so many women feel unsatisfied with the workplace: it was originally designed to keep them at home. Today’s foosball tables and sleeping pods can’t make up for what really matters to many working women—emphasis on collaboration and relationship, project-based work, flexibility, inclusivity, and equality. And, pressure to fill a supporting gender role in the home often carries into their work, where women end up doing most of the office housekeeping work: meeting notes, coffee-making, and clean up.
So, to my sociology classmates I say: look for a workplace with a safe and welcoming culture for women, a place where you will be counted. A great brand or interesting job description are not enough to bring long-term job satisfaction. If a job continuously requires you to hold back big pieces of yourself or your life, it is not sustainable.
We can only move the needle toward a better workplace for women if we refuse the old normal. Women must expect to be counted.
Construct a Strong Support System.
A good friend of mine stopped attending her church after she received a job promotion. Her church did not support women in pastoral or eldership roles and the community in general did not celebrate women who succeed in their careers. She was without support and people with whom to share her struggles and accomplishments. The church missed an opportunity to strengthen a gifted woman, and I suspect there are many others like her in churches all over the US.
Patriarchy is a strong force in our society. It causes many churches and communities to be wary of women who reach outside of traditional gender roles. Existing support systems often favor those who stay in their lane and perform the traditional tasks designated as “women’s work.” It is painful to try to succeed when the voices around us constantly question our decisions and right to be there. We need people who are consistently in our corner, contributing to our career growth and success.
Support is truly a system. It is a network of husbands, sisters, mothers, friends. It is fair, paid maternity leave and generous benefits packages. It is healthy organizational culture and a church community that supports and models women’s leadership. We need to select support networks that are in our corner and helping us to grow and succeed.
I am blessed to have a partner who embraces my full equality. I was a fairly ambitious master’s degree student when we first met, but “egalitarian” was not one of my top five reasons why I married him. It is now. Without him, I could not have gone back to school with two small children and then excelled (and stumbled) in my career only to turn around and try something new. I cannot imagine trudging through all these career stages without his full and unequivocal support.
My second piece of advice to my young classmates is this: do not go on your professional journeys alone. Establish key allies from the start and make sure your spouse—if you choose to marry—is one of them. Figure out your must-haves and negotiate (don’t be afraid to be difficult) until you get what matters to you.
Tell Yourself It’s Okay to Be Less-Than-Perfect.
I often hear the argument that women “do this to themselves.” Some people believe that women are responsible for their own underrepresentation in leadership. I have even bought into that lie myself at times. Yes, women desire personal fulfilment, and we want to live out our callings without sacrificing our health, and every hour of our days, in the process. Work culture is not designed to accommodate the demands of small children, aging parents, and other responsibilities that generally fall to women. Without support in the workplace, women (especially mothers) may settle for lower level roles or even opt out of professional careers altogether. But it is workplaces that make it near impossible to juggle household management/childcare and careers, not women themselves. We need comprehensive workplace reform if we want to close the gender representation gap. But motherhood isn’t the only reason women do not fill many top leadership roles, and research shows that men and women leave or stay with their organizations at a similar rate. So what else is going on?
A talented friend of mine opted out of her career when her baby was born. When I asked her why, she replied, “I can’t stand the idea of being spread too thin and being perfect at neither motherhood nor my job.”
Many women feel like they must make a choice between work and motherhood because they cannot perform perfectly in multiple areas. They have been taught that they need to be perfect at all times and at all things. In other words, they are being held (and sometimes hold themselves) to an impossible standard. And if they miss that impossible standard, they feel like they failed not only themselves but everyone who depends on them. I think we have to start aggressively socializing girls to be less-than-perfect. We have confused perfectionism with thriving. In the process, we have trained those around us to expect perfect from women, rather than just our full-hearted presence. As long as women show up in the workplace as perfect, quiet, efficient, and small, and as long as we hold back all the uncomfortably big pieces of ourselves, we will not thrive.
My classmates, this is my last piece of advice for you: be less-than-perfect. Practice showing up as fully yourself—with all your God-given nooks, crannies, and flaws. Do not try to polish yourself to make others comfortable. And do not stop looking until you find a place where you can truly thrive.
I wish I had known these three things when I entered my career many years ago. There have been countless times when I thought that I somehow failed to figure out how to thrive in my work. Only in recent years have I begun to have these conversations in my industry and beyond, identifying the systemic and social obstacles that hold women back. I encourage other women and men, deep into their careers or just at the start, to tirelessly continue this important conversation.