Leadership Without Solidarity Fails Women

Mentorship should focus on developing compassion and acknowledgement of all labor

Mentorship should focus on developing compassion and acknowledgement of all labor

There are women in the workplace, they tell me. And apparently that’s been causing issues since Rosie first picked up that rivet gun. Truth be told, I never gave the topic much thought growing up. Most of the women I knew had successful careers and valued their work as well as their independence. I planned on blithely doing the same.

Of course, planning on getting a job and finding yourself in the professional trenches are vastly different realities. As a young woman starting to understand the realities of my workplace in San Francisco, I know I need help. So I’ve looked in on it all: mentors, books, articles, events, etc. While much of the advice has been helpful, I continue to find myself frustrated by the discussion of what success, mentorship, and empowerment should look like for young female professionals (or really, for anyone).

We have a serious issue with labor dynamics in this country and, instead of talking about it or taking steps towards solving it, we’ve cut it up into little bite-sized battles: women in the workplace, minorities in the workplace, women of color in the workplace, mothers and fathers in the workplace, you name it. We fly high our myopic workplace flags and we don’t look to see whether we’re advancing one of these causes at the expense of any of the others. I want to advance in my chosen career just like anybody else. But I refuse to seek advancement at the expense of others or join the chorus of adulation for men and women who advance through hierarchies while underpaying women, discriminating against minorities, and exploiting contract or “gig” workers.

So What Do I Want?

For all the wonderful things about living in San Francisco, I’m also struck by a number of the contradictions that surround me. I find myself in the cradle of fascinating, pioneering industries, a number of which have afforded many women the chance to achieve meaningful personal, professional, and financial growth. And yet, if I look a little deeper, I see that many women (and men) who work in these exact same industries, often at the exact same companies, are barely scraping by. These workers are making do without a living wage or adequate healthcare coverage, and are sometimes denied the ability to make desired economic or reproductive decisions because of their working conditions or debts. And while I’m encouraged to see more professional women speaking up about sexism and harassment and finding a voice and a movement, it’s important to remember that that same outlet is blocked off to many of those who engage in manual labor, domestic labor, and emotional labor — work for which they are neither compensated nor acknowledged.

A meaningful discussion of women in the workplace should include the goal of equitable treatment and compassionate acknowledgement of all the labor that goes into making an economy successful. “Having it all” is not a discussion reserved for women. We need to open it up to the point that everyone can, at the very least, contemplate a fair workplace, living wages, adequate healthcare, and affordable shelter.

There likely — or, at least, hopefully — comes a time in every modern Lean-In Girl’s life when she looks up and wonders whether the company yoga instructor has healthcare coverage, whether the night janitor makes a living wage, and whether that temp has a retirement savings plan. The employer-employee relationship is changing, and so is the workplace. We’ve got contractors and gig-workers and temporary placements and an ever-murkier swamp of underpaid, under-acknowledged labor. Two people can work side-by-side and be compensated vastly differently based on gender, yes, but also on worker classification.

I find it deeply troubling when a company like Facebook, with all its wealth and influence, refuses to employ its workforce full-time (cafeteria workers and custodians are contractors) or provide full benefits while profiting from its workers’ labor. And the COO in this case is a woman — someone who has not only written about the struggles of a prejudiced workplace, but who actively encourages young women to follow in her footsteps. I appreciate her example and acknowledge her obstacles, but it is hard to ignore that she is complicit in marginalizing hundreds of her workers. And so I struggle with the idea that this is the example held up as the guiding light for aspiring working women, because I’m not sure I want to lean into a path with a destination so lacking of compassion.

A Word (or Many) on Leaders

I owe much to the struggles and conquests of the many women and feminists who paved the way for me to even be in a position where I can think about what kind of workplace I want, and where family and work aren’t mutually exclusive choices. I want to learn from my predecessors and I know they want to give back. But, as with everything, there’s a caveat.

If you’re going to be a female mentor and want young women to succeed in the workplace, I want your whole story, not just how you thrived in the face of male-dominated boardrooms or overcame gender gaps in payment and promotions. I want to know about the women you employed to take care of your children, the people who cleaned your house and cooked your food, maintained your cars and mowed your lawns, and about the family members who offered you respite. Don’t tell me how you succeeded through hard work and grit alone; show me the tiered world that let you live the life of a successful woman. Speak to me of your subordinates and of the least privileged people in your company. Show me your gratitude and acknowledgement of all the labor supporting you, and I will learn from that.

San Francisco is rife with events and programs aimed at helping women succeed in the workplace. I’ve attended my fair share, and I’m always left a bit baffled at the definition of success. The events are filled with fantastic, accomplished women who truly want to see me thrive, and I owe so much to their struggles. But as much as I want to learn how to secure a productive future for myself, I don’t want the kind of success that means ignoring the needs of the people whose labor allowed me to rise. The Wall Street Journal reports that we are 100 years away from achieving equal representation in the “C-Suite” because women, especially women of color, aren’t promoted at the same rates as men, and they are certainly not paid equally for their work. But there is no estimate for how many years remain until we get to a point where men and women at the lowest levels of profitable companies can all count on living wages and adequate healthcare.

There absolutely remains a need for professional women to keep holding those events and keep mentoring young women — such discussions have been valuable and helpful to me as a young professional. But I also want for myself and the women around me to set our sights higher, to aim at being good people, sympathetic leaders, and, one day, equitable employers and managers.

With a malignant growth in the oval office and elected officials who are fine with hot-boxing the planet, leadership is probably on everyone’s mind. As a woman, I don’t want to have to automatically accept and laud a leader just because she happens to be female (Betsy DeVos is a woman; our standards are higher, right?). Being excited about women CEOs would be great — but we need them to work in the system they mastered to soften its blow on the weakest and stand together with all the people who carried them.