By Suzanna de Baca, president and CEO, Business Publications Corp.
I still vividly remember a situation in a past job where one of my female team members tearfully confided that a high-level male colleague had drunkenly and aggressively groped her during a company outing. When I urged her to report this offense to human resources, she refused, saying it was better not say anything for fear that the individual would retaliate and her career would be damaged. Only when I asked her if she would not fight for the rights of one of her own team members if they’d been assaulted was she willing to let me report the incident.
Fighting for our rights at work is difficult and complicated, especially for women, who have historically not been afforded equal rights and opportunities at work. Despite gains, significant disparities and challenges continue today, as illustrated by a recently released study by the World Bank called Women, Business and the Law 2022,which found women across the globe still have only three-quarters of the legal rights afforded to men.
“Approximately 2.4 billion women of working age are not afforded equal economic opportunity and 178 countries maintain legal barriers that prevent their full economic participation,” notes the study, which measures laws and regulations across 190 countries in eight areas affecting women’s economic participation: mobility, workplace, pay, marriage, parenthood, entrepreneurship, assets and pensions.
Fortunately, thanks to men and women together, some progress has been made to advance women’s rights across the globe and in the U.S. According to the World Bank study, recent reforms have focused on protecting against sexual harassment in employment, prohibiting gender discrimination, increasing paid leave for new parents and removing job restrictions for women. In order to continue to make progress, men and women alike must demand that elected officials and business leaders recognize inequities in the workplace and at home, and actively work to change laws or policies to level the playing field.
But it is also necessary for us as women to advocate for ourselves. As my former colleague experienced, it is not always easy to fight for our own rights, but knowing we are also working to create a better future for other women, our daughters, and society overall can give us the courage to stand up and speak out.
I asked local leaders: “What was a time that you had to stand up for your own rights or the rights of others in a professional setting?”
Lastascia Coleman, clinical assistant professor, University of Iowa College of Medicine; program director, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics Nurse-Midwifery Education Program; director, diversity, equity and inclusion, Department of OB-GYN, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics: Standing up for other people is a daily part of my job as a certified nurse-midwife and a core value to midwifery practice. Whether it’s helping a patient make health care decisions that meet their needs or advocating for better maternity and reproductive health outcomes on a bigger stage, I’m not afraid to be a change agent and advocate for basic human rights.
Sheriffa M. Jones, executive director, Spencer Chamber of Commerce: There are several things that come to mind when I’ve had to advocate for myself. One that I reflect back on was negotiating maternity leave for the first time while working for a nonprofit. There hadn’t ever been a woman at the organization who needed maternity leave, and it was a board that was largely led by a group of men.
Jordan Juhl, director of public relations, ChildServe: I was working full time in crisis management when I had my son at age 32. I felt like every day was a race against the clock trying to balance work and quality time with family. The 8-to-5 job that required a body in a seat no longer worked for me. I had conversations with my boss and negotiated a flexible work schedule and a new salary.
Mayra Lopez, psychotherapist, Plains Area Mental Health Center: As a social worker, I abide by a strict code of conduct that requires I act to prevent the discrimination against ANY person. I do this within my professional role as well as in my personal life. There have been times in the past where I have had to advocate for my clients to my own colleagues and peers, which is not easy to do.
Beatriz Mate-Kodjo, managing partner, BMK Law Firm: As a lawyer, I try to help employees act as positive change agents by calling attention to workplace disparities without litigation. Not enough credit is given to employers that adjust pay, grant tenure, or otherwise correct injustice when it’s brought to their attention. I don’t make a dime off those cases but they are some of my favorite accomplishments.
Advice from leaders on fighting for your rights at work:
Maintain professionalism and do your homework. It is hard enough to speak up when overt discrimination or harassment is taking place, but subtle discrimination is harder to confront. Mate-Kodjo advises if something “doesn’t pass the smell test” to avoid jumping to conclusions, going on the attack or making legal threats. Instead, she counsels women to: “Maintain professionalism, ask questions to drill down the objective facts, and document everything.”
Seek out workplaces that value women. In looking for career opportunities, actively seek out workplaces that demonstrate a commitment to women and diversity, equity and inclusion. Juhl notes: “While women must put in the time and effort to create our unique value-add to an organization, it’s also important to work for an organization that values women in the workforce, is willing to work with you on how and where work gets done, and pays a fair and equal salary.”
Ask for what you need to be successful. When you need to fight for your rights or advancement, it is critical that you actually have the conversation and ask for the necessary action. “Remember, the answer is always no if you don’t ask,” says Juhl. Jones echoes her words, saying: “If you don’t ask, you’ll never know, and there’s likely someone else who has the same question or need.” She urges women to clearly get their point across, noting: “It is important to be sure your thoughts are heard – they have value.”
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Advocating for yourself or others can feel unfamiliar and scary if you are not accustomed to speaking out. “Be ready to be uncomfortable if you plan to stand up for a person’s rights,” says Coleman. “You get used to being uncomfortable when you see the results of your advocacy.”
Stand up for yourself and others. It can be difficult to report discrimination or harrassment or to advocate for your own advancement or others, but much progress has been made when women have found the courage to act. “Sometimes standing up for yourself or others is going to feel lonely and scary, but those feelings will pass,” says Lopez, adding, “Remember that it will always be worth it.”