Particularly around the recent wave of sexual assault allegations against men in every industry — from Congress to Hollywood —, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means for employers to be truly committed to gender equity in the workplace. I just went through the hiring process for summer associate positions this summer, and it’s not a secret that the legal field is still lightyears away from where it needs to be in terms of gender equity. Although women now frequently graduate from law schools at the same rate as men and often are on par with men as first-year associates, as one associate put it, there are still (many) firms out there where there are more partners named John (or insert your typical male name) than female partners, period — and that gap only widens when you start looking at women of color. It feels like a huge leap forward that every firm I interviewed with proactively talked about their diversity efforts — it seemed like every firm went out of their way to pair me with experienced female attorneys, talk up their in-house affinity and networking groups for minority lawyers, and generally acknowledge that while their numbers weren’t great, they were putting huge efforts into changing that.
It’s (sadly) unquestionable that even having open conversations about diversity and gender equality is a huge step forward for where the legal industry — or really, any industry — was at even just a decade ago. And it’s clear conversations on improving diversity and gender equality are happening in industries across the board, from Google funding Black Girls Code to the outpouring of support for more women in politics in the most recent electoral cycle. Naturally, there’s a lot of talk in these circles about what individual employers can do to attract, retain, and promote diverse talent. But as recent events have shown us, women — particularly women of color — still face significant barriers in achieving parity in the workplace, whether that’s struggling to break into upper management or dealing with sexual harassment in the office.
And even though I’m a relative newbie to the professional world (two “real” jobs and a litany of internships), my professional life has shown me that while diversity programs are great, there are a multitude of other benefits employers can offer that have a direct impact on improving gender equity in the workplace. Unfortunately, many of these benefits are not ones that are offered by most employers in the United States, for the simple reason that they’re seen as unnecessary or too expensive. Even just that, with the number of skilled workers laid off after the 2008 recession and the (still limited) number of jobs created since, it’s not hard for employers to find replacements who will work at lower salaries and lesser benefits if their current employees create a stink. And it goes without saying that the barriers white-collar workers face are compounded many times over by women working in traditionally blue-collar or service industry jobs — while your average law firm associate might find their ten weeks of paid maternity leave too scant, your average McDonalds cashier likely gets just six weeks of federally-mandated, unpaid FMLA leave. (And that’s only if she’s lucky enough to qualify as a full-time employee which, in this time of often erratic scheduling policies, isn’t often enough.) Until these conversations begin to pay particular attention to the ways in which our societal stinginess doubly impacts women, and women of color and/or of a lower socio-economic bent in particular, we’re never going to make real progress.
A common pushback I’ve heard in these conversations is that while it’s all good for the Facebooks and Googles of the world to offer months on end of paternal leave and snazzy diversity programs, small businesses and companies can’t be expected to offer the same level of benefits without seriously harming their bottom line. To which, yes, there’s a scale and it’s all relative, but at the end of the day, every company — no matter what its size — invests its resources in things it considers valuable. To that end, maybe small companies can’t provide every benefit I’ve listed here, but even as our own beloved TFD has shown us, it’s possible to run a small business while also actively promoting women in the workplace, from actually, intentionally hiring women, to making sure even your interns are paid — something, even if it’s not a lot — for their work. You pay for what you prioritize, and if diversity and gender equity are priorities, there are ways even small companies can invest in them.
With all that said, if your employer is one that talks the talk about promoting women in the workplace, here’s a non-comprehensive list of the benefits they should be providing you with.
1. Paid internships. At one point, employers were allowed to hire interns without paying them, because internships were meant to be more like shadowing experiences — where interns basically learned about the business, weren’t given real work to do, and basically truly were there to just “learn” — not actually contribute to the workplace. This is no longer the case. In many sectors, from media to non-profit work, “interns” frequently take on the work an entry-level employee once would have, for no — or little — money, and generally without benefits. Not only is this slowly phasing out full-time entry-level jobs, it frequently means that only the already privileged can generally take on unpaid internships. With a list of internships now considered a prerequisite for eventually snagging that first job, this further widens the gap between the haves and the have-nots — and unfortunately, a large percentage of those have-nots are frequently women. A recent study found that three in four unpaid interns are women — potentially because female-dominated fields like education, non-profit work, arts, and humanities are most likely to offer unpaid internships. As an organization — particularly in one of these aforementioned fields —, making a commitment to offer paid internships helps bridge the gap and ensures that women are fairly compensated for the talent they’re providing.
2. Health plans that cover birth control & women’s preventative healthcare. We’re lucky that under Obamacare, insurers were required to cover these things without copays. Under this administration, it’s fairly clear that likely won’t continue down the future. It should be a fairly undisputed fact that the ability to control your reproductive choices is probably one of the biggest factors in a woman’s long-term career success — few things can have as disruptive an impact on your career or finances as a pregnancy you’re not prepared for.
3. Longer, paid and more egalitarian family leave. Paid maternity leave is mandated in every developed country except ours (a real claim to fame, I know). And while offering paid maternity leave is pretty elementary for an employer that cares about women in the workplace, offering paternity or family leave is just as important. For one, women still end up doing significantly more household work and “emotional labor” than their male spouses do, but there’s clear evidence that fathers who take significant paternity leave early on also end up being more involved in their children’s lives, and take on a larger share of their direct care down the line. Having a spouse who takes on their fair share of work at home helps women stay engaged in the workplace, so as an employer, enabling everyone to take time off to be with their kids ultimately helps women in the long run.
4. — and not just for having kids. Caring for one’s kids isn’t the only caregiver burden most women face. Women are more than twice as likely as men to serve as unpaid, informal caregivers for family members — not just kids. But even as more workplaces offer parental leave, few are equipped to support those who take a step back from work to care for other family members — from parents to spouses. And as a result, women, as the ones who disproportionately assume this burden, are the ones who suffer most professionally. Having a family leave policy that recognizes that caregiving obligations can arise on many fronts is, therefore, key to ensuring women can succeed in the workplace without being penalized for attending to family responsibilities — particularly for single or childless women who may not benefit from traditional maternity leave schemes.
5. The freedom to actually take leave without jeopardizing your career. It’s an unspoken truth that even though many employers may offer generous leave policies, they don’t do enough to ensure that people who take them up are able to re-integrate into the workforce without significantly missing out on advancement opportunities later on. There’s no point in offering generous family leave if people think taking time off will impede their career in the long run.
6. Bathrooms that have free — or at least, heavily subsidized — tampons and menstrual supplies. These products are as basic a necessity for bathroom hygiene as toilet paper and hand soap — but I can’t remember the last time I toted some extra toilet paper to work. Somehow, feminine hygiene products are considered a luxury (and taxed as such), and the cost and ability to easily access these products, therefore, becomes just one more source of stress and expense for working women. Low-income women and women on public assistance frequently can’t afford to purchase these products regularly — and even for women who can afford these products, the amount of money a woman spends on feminine hygiene products annually is significant. It’s time we start treating female hygiene products like a basic necessity and supplying them as such — no woman should ever have to feel uncomfortable or unprepared at work for dealing with a basic bodily function.
7. Active efforts to put women in leadership positions. You can’t be committed to gender equality at work if your board, or management team, or whatever it is, has no (or token) women on it. Period.
8. Active efforts to combat implicit bias. Everyone generally understands the concept of implicit bias — but few believe they perpetrate it. Being more conscious of internal biases and how these may play out in everything from hiring to how people are promoted can go a long way towards fostering a more diverse workplace.
9. Diversity efforts — that include men. At my law school, I’m on the leadership team of three separate affinity groups — my most significant extracurricular by far. There’s no doubt that this takes an immense amount of time to do — time that my white male classmates are likely spending studying, or networking, or doing any of the million things that will better establish them for professional success. Doing the extra work of diversity efforts on top of being a successful law student or consultant or software engineer takes time away from something else you could be doing, so a workplace that’s truly committed to equality will recognize that and find ways to make improving diversity everyone’s issue — not just women or people of color. There’s also a limit to how successful diversity efforts can be if men don’t play a role — after all, with men continuing to dominate leadership positions, from Congress to the C-Suite, while it’s all well and good to offer young female employees the chance to network with more senior women, it ultimately might help them more if senior men were also expected to play as significant a role in networking with and mentoring young employees outside their demographic.
10. A culture of accountability for harassment. As the post-Weinstein fallout has shown us, sexual harassment is pervasive across every industry, at every level. One in four women has reported being subject to sexual harassment at work. And in many cases, women feel constrained from coming forward because of the power dynamics at play — they worry coming forward will thwart their future prospects at the company, or jeopardize their relationship with higher-ups who might be supportive of the abuser. A company that truly cares about women in the workplace will take steps to prevent sexual harassment — in large part by having a clear process and reporting mechanism when such incidents occur, and demonstrating that there will be consequences for those who engage in inappropriate behavior in the workplace.
This is far from a comprehensive list — what did I miss? Sound off in the comments!
Meghan Koushik is a cheese enthusiast and law student in California. You can find her on Instagram.
Image via Pexels