Stefanie: Take a look around you on any given day, and it won’t take long to notice: Women don’t have equal rights. But there’s one place where we find some of the more shocking examples. That’s at work.
News Clip: Statistics Canada’s out with its latest numbers on the gender wage gap, college and university graduates who are men earned more on average than their female counterparts. 82% of Canadian women viewed as overbearing if they had a strong opinion at work. But on the flip side to that, it’s 87% felt men who express strong opinions at work are viewed as leaders and confident. Women now hold 24% of senior management positions globally.
Stefanie: Those numbers are important because workplace equality is what’s generally used to measure women’s progress. And the progress we’ve made can’t be ignored. But women still don’t earn or own as much as their male counterparts and those positions at the very top of the power structure, women rarely occupy them. Even when they do the same challenges persist. This is despite messages of empowerment being touted globally, despite women being encouraged to have more confidence and to own their own careers. So what’s stopping us from getting to the top and staying there? And how do we change it? I’m Stefanie Phillips in for Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Lauren McKeon is the author of no more nice girls, a book about gender and power. And excerpt from her book recently appeared in The Walrus. Hi, Lauren.
Stefanie: So when we look at statistics of women in power, in positions of power in Canada, how are we represented at the top?
Lauren: Uh, not very well. In fact, in a lot of industries and, you know, spheres of public life, uh, we’re not really represented at all. And I think what makes that even more depressing is that you can see the disparity between representation, sort of at the middle bottom where women are represented, and then when we get to the top, you know, and they’re not. So, for example, 38% of all MBA students in Canada are women, which is not parity, but is okay. But then when you look at, uh, executive positions in Canada, fewer than 10% of women occupy those positions. So we start to see the disparity. When we look at government, you know, half of us vote, we are represented among half of the voting population. Uh, but then when you get to the level of MPs, for example, we see that the number hovers around like 25%-30% most years. And we can look historically, and only 11% of Premiers in Canada have been women. So you know, it just, once you get to the top, it’s like, where are we? We’re not really there at all.
Stefanie: So 11%. How many premiers is that actually?
Lauren: Sorry, 11 total. Not even percent. So 11 total. And the first was not elected until 1991. In 150 years.
Stefanie: Yeah. Those are kind of depressing numbers. So what happens when women do get to the top?
Lauren: Yeah, I think we believe that once women get to the top, you know, we’re at the top, and we will have, you know, the power that we fought for, for the CEO, you know, we’ll go run the company, people will listen to us, we’ll stop having to deal with maybe all the BS that we dealt with, um, when we were working our way up. But that’s not true. We have this idea of a glass ceiling and, you know, we shatter through it and then we are on the other side, but we’re not thinking about all the broken glass that’s still there once we shatter. And you know, in fact, the stats here are pretty depressing as well. We know that once women occupy the C-suite, their pay gap actually widens to 68 cents for every dollar a man earns, from, I believe 78 or 79 so it, it dips. And on top of that, we also know that women, like women CEOs are significantly more likely to be fired, 45% more likely to be fired, even when they’re doing well, like especially when they’re doing well. Because it’s like, Oh, like, well, now’s the time to get the white dude back in here. Like, you know, now we can, um, you know, really innovate and get exciting again. Uh, women are also far more likely to get hired when a company is in crisis. So it’s 40% of women are hired when a company has a crisis versus 20% of men. And we could say, well, that’s great. That’s because we trust women when a company is in crisis, but it’s actually, research shows that is actually because it’s easier to blame women when things don’t turn around and it’s easier to replace them when they do. So there’s this white saviour effect, where women and people of colour are often replaced by the white saviour who comes in and saves the company from, you know, the disaster that they put it in, and it’s all just smoke and mirrors to kind of maintain the power balances that we’re used to.
Stefanie: Can you talk about more of the double standard between women and men when they’re in the are in positions of power?
Lauren: Yeah. A lot of women that I spoke to. And, and the research, but you know, women that I spoke to, feel that they’re kind of in this situation where they can’t win. And it’s sort of this double expectation, um, particularly when you’re in power. And the idea that you’re supposed to be nice but not too nice. And you’re supposed to be, you know, a boss but not bossy or else you might get called another B-word that is not as flattering. Um, you know that you’re supposed to be attractive, but not too sexual. You know, authoritative but not mean. And it kind of just swings back and forth until you’re like, well, what am I supposed to be? Like you know, you can’t win. And you’re left to follow this very narrow, tight rope that is incredibly easy to fall off of.
Stefanie: Yeah, it’s, I think you described it as superhuman almost in your writing, right?
Lauren: Yeah. It’s the standards that like no one can live up to that. And you know, we’ve found that when you inevitably don’t live up to this impossible standard, you’re judged so much more harshly, um, than men are in a working environment.
Stefanie: So I wanted to talk about the pedestrian bridge that collapsed at Florida International University. Can you tell me about a bit about that story?
Lauren: Yeah. So it was a real story. And why I emphasize that will become important in just a few seconds. So in 2018 the bridge collapsed and six people died, and I would have that real horrible incident, um, sort of this myth grew online until people believed it. And it was the myth that an all women engineering team built the bridge. And people created fake news, actual fake news that spread. And they cribbed all of these photos from the actual company that was responsible, but from their International Women’s Day posts. So they just pretended and made all these fake sites and links so that it looked like only women worked at the company. And then a lot of people would say, like, well, that’s what happens when you hire female engineers. No wonder they aren’t in STEM. And it wasn’t just on the internet. Like I would hear this story repeated to me more than a year later by just regular people. And I’d be like, that’s not true. It’s not what happened. But it shows, I think the power of like kind of societal gullibility that women are not competent in certain fields, in particular fields that are historically male dominated.
Stefanie: I mean, this is not the only time women have been blamed for something that isn’t their fault. Why are women the scapegoat when things go wrong?
Lauren: You know, I think that we’re just kind of, we’re primed for it in a lot of ways. Like as a society, we’re primed to blame women. You know, we blame mothers when kids do something bad, and, you know, wives when husbands do something bad. You know, it’s always the story of like, well, what did she do to make him do that? You know, that’s kind of a narrative that has persisted, um, in politics and pop culture. You know, when we look back at history and literature, we’re just so predisposed to do it. When someone nudges us there, we kind of go the whole way.
Stefanie: And then how does that play out for women who are in positions of power? What does that look like at the top?
Lauren: We’re often really adverse to the idea of women in power. And you know, for a lot of people that I spoke to who, you know, started thinking about this, or maybe changed the way they approach power and leadership, for them, a big moment in history was Hillary Clinton’s loss. And the polls expected that she was going to come out ahead. You know, everyone thought it would be okay. Even though we had seen the herring that she took and the press and sort of the, the hate that was happening on social media. And then, you know, she just became like this ultimate person who can’t do anythingn right. You know, was criticized when she got emotional. She was criticized when she was too powerful. She was criticized for what she was wearing if she was too feminine to masculine. And she wasn’t perfect, of course. But she became, um, this symbol for everything like we don’t like about women in power. And when they get to the top, they topple. You know, they become such a target, um, that people just work very hard to take them down.
Stefanie: Right. So can you explain the, he’s skilled, she’s lucky phenomenon.
Lauren: Yeah. There’s this phenomenon that researchers have dubbed what you just said, that he’s skilled, she’s lucky. And it’s this tendency that we have to, when we look at men and women in power, you know, and whether that’s in a very public position or maybe just like in our own small company where you know, man is promoted or a woman has been promoted, and we tend to fall back into these very stereotypical, traditional narratives, which are like, well, he got there because he’s so good at this one account, or he really killed this project. And of course he deserves to be there. And if it’s a woman, we say, well, she’s lucky. You know, it’s probably because she’s attractive or, you know, she was really nice to the boss, or like, and it kinda just goes from there. But it’s not just other people that follow this narrative. Women fall into this narrative a lot too. Um, you’ll hear, and that’s part of how the term got coined because you’ll hear a lot of women and researchers, I’ve heard a lot of women that they interviewed, like CEOs, people in powerful positions, when they’re asked how they got there, well, I just had this like really lucky break. I was really lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and you know, it kind of fell my way when I just got really lucky with this one piece of success. We buy into the narrative too, and it, it perpetuates it.
Stefanie: Gotcha. I want to get more into that in a bit, but I don’t want to ignore the intersection of race and gender here. So what happens to a woman of colour who has the same. Qualifications as an a, a woman with a so-called white name who’s applying for the same job?
Lauren: Right. Power is so layered, and our perceptions of power and who deserves to be in power and who’s skilled and not lucky really becomes more complicated when we start thinking in terms of like race and sexual orientation, trans or cisgendered. And you know, there’s been a fairly famous study where researchers sent out resumes with white sounding names like Emily, Sarah, Carey, things like that. And they also sent out fake resumes with names like, LaKesha, Tenicia, and they found that when the resumes were perfectly matched, women with white sounding names are far, far more likely to get a call back. And even when they were both high quality resumes, like exceptionally skilled people, not only did the gap not shrink, it actually widened based on just our stereotypes of who deserves to be there, um, where we place value. And in the end, um, researchers determined that having a white sounding name on your resume adds an additional eight years of experience. Which is devastating and depressing and should really make us look at some of the biases we have about who deserves to be in what spaces and how we inherently project skills and power onto certain types of people.
Stefanie: Right. You kind of wrote about how confidence is being sold to women and women of color and people with varying abilities in books like, you know, Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg and #GirlBoss by Sophia Amoruso, the message is that to have success, all women need to do is just be more confident. But is is confidence enough?
Lauren: I mean, I would never say like, don’t be confident. You should never be confident in yourself. I wouldn’t say that, but I think where it starts to get really muddy and like very sticky, especially for women, is when we’re told that you just have to be confident. You know? You just have to be a girl boss. If you just believe in yourself enough, then you can achieve anything. And I think what’s dangerous about those messages. Is that they kind of encourage us to ignore or overlook all the systemic barriers that a lot of people face. And you can’t really confidence your way into equal rights or into rooms where people don’t want you to be there. And on top of that, it’s this very shallow idea of confidence. It’s like it’s something, you know, that companies are selling to us. So it’s like, you know, be confident, but also buying this pair of shoes or this makeup, or you know, or this certain outfit. And that’s all you need to get ahead. And I just think that we run into some very dangerous story when the conversation stops there because it puts all of this blame for not getting ahead back on that person, and not on the system that really perpetuates these sort of inequities.
Stefanie: Exactly. Yeah. And I want to talk about that cycle, right? It’s like so hard to get to the top. You get to the top and then you face all of these other barriers or things get worse, and then you either don’t want to like lift other people up to be at your level or you just don’t want to be in that position anymore. Like what else is perpetuating that cycle?
Lauren: Yeah. It’s exhausting. It’s exhausting. And I think, you know, there’s so much that perpetuates it. You could, you could answer the question in two ways. You could talk about like all the systemic barriers that exist that are complex and threaded through the way that we structure society in a very masculine way. Or you could just be like sexism. And I think both of those answers are right and we’re also in this place right now, kind of driven by these past two or three, maybe four now, years of like anger and activism and ready to speak up and really challenge those structures that hold this in place and ask, you know, why do we keep following this set of rules or this path that you know, has always been there and has been successful for men but has not ever really been successful for anyone else? And very like much successful are white men. Like a very subset of men too. And you know, if we’re caught in the cycle and we keep getting spit out of it and we’re exhausted by it and it’s not working and we’re not really lifting anyone else up, like it’s kind of this set of rules that doesn’t really apply to us. And what else could we do if we started to redefine what success looks like or leadership looks like or power looks like at all?
Stefanie: What do you think it’s going to take to get to a point where we can ask those questions and find answers?
Lauren: I think we’re already starting to, in some ways. Like it seems daunting, incredibly daunting to be like, you just have to change the system. Burn it all down. And I think, you know, that’s not, in some ways not feasible, like it’s not going to happen in my generation. At the same time, you know, what I looked at in this book was people that are starting to do that, like in their own ways, in their own lives, in ways that are, um, large scales, you know, large scale, political movements, larger scale social movements, but also the kind of smaller, more personal scale and questioning why things have to be the way they always have been. So whether it’s, you know, women that are starting to make technology with women first in mind. Um, which is not really how the STEM-field has since innovated. You know, whether it’s that, or whether it’s, you know, a small company that is making greeting cards, um, of new Hallmark moments with women of color on the front of their cards. You know, that’s another way to challenge power and who gets to be celebrated. It might also be trans film directors who are creating their own films, uh, with trans stories front of mind, but also creating different sort of film sets. Because we know, certainly in the past few years, we’ve learned that film sets can be very toxic places. So it’s just people that are shifting and stepping outside the system and asking like, why am I following that role? Why am I trying to be like that? Why would I be that type of director or that type of journalist or that type of CEO? Maybe I can run my company differently. Maybe I can create a different kind of film. And I think that’s how we’ll start to get there.
Stefanie: That’s great. I think that’s a good place to end it too. Thanks, Lauren.
Stefanie: Lauren McKeon is the author of No More Nice Girls. That was The Big Story. For more from us, visit thebigstorypodcast.ca or follow us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. I’m Stefanie Phillips. Thanks for listening.
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