Navigating the Intersection of Work and Mental Health

Working Better and Stressing Less

Ideas on work and mental health

A counselor's perspective on workplace equality for women

I usually dedicate this blog to answering questions people ask me about counseling. Today though, I want to address another loosely-related topic that keeps showing up on my desk and that people keep asking me about: Inequality of women in the workplace. 

I will cite four recent articles people have sent me to frame my thoughts. A recent article in The Atlantic attributed inequalities in the workplace to women’s lack of confidence due to how we socialize girls. The Lean In movement attributes inequalities to women opting out and “leaving before they leave” rather than being gritty and “staying at the table.” In response to both of these perspectives, featured an article that discussed structural and cultural barriers to equal participation by women including lack of paid maternity leave and social pressure on men to shy away from caretaker roles. There have also been recent legislative debates on further equal pay legislation. My general response to all of these articles is, “yes.” There is a little bit of truth in every perspective on this issue.

There is no way that I can author a better-researched or more eloquent response to this topic than the authors above already have. That said,  I will share my thoughts on this subject from my perspective as a counselor and as a women who worked in a male-dominated field for many years.

It will be difficult for us to make any progress on any issues of inequality until we are willing to admit that privilege exists. I cannot tell you how many of my contacts on social networking sites appeared to anchor themselves to the “confidence gap” thesis by saying “atta go girls – get out there and make stuff happen!” There is NOTHING WRONG with trying to encourage and motivate women to dig in and try to elbow their way to the front of the crowd a bit more. Please, if you are one of those people who tried to be encouraging, I am not dissing you. But if you are one of those (and you know who you are) who basically responded by, “Yah ladies – be more like men and you’ll get ahead just the same,” you are FULL OF MANURE!

Age, disabilities, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, indigenous heritage, national origin, and gender are characteristics that give some people advantages and others disadvantages that are so embedded into our society that we are mostly blind to them. Gender is one of the few areas in which I am not privileged so for purposes of illustration, I’ll use me and my gender to illustrate. Privilege is the sum of all advantages and power that one group has more of than another. It’s not the fault of any individual and most people in “privileged” groups don’t consciously or actively try to exert that power over the unprivileged groups. Examples:

-       I grew up seeing girls take dance and boys play sports. Since our workplace places more monetary value on competition than expression, most boys in my age group have more experience with competition and team work from an early age. Yes - because of LITTLE LEAGUE.

-       As an intense little girl, I was often called bossy while boys with similar intensity were not similarly shamed for taking leadership roles.

-       My mom sacrificed her career to be a stay at home mom and the message I got from most people around me was that staying at home with children was a superior arrangement to having two working parents. I made my critical career decisions accounting for taking time off to have children and potentially staying at home with them. My male friends have always denied making decisions in a similar fashion.

-       When I joined the software industry, I found very few female role models. Especially lacking were women in mid to upper management positions who also had families. One part of why I left was because it simply did not seem possible to climb the ladder with kids in tow. 

I cannot think of a single person in my childhood, schooling, or career who ever purposely tried to tear me down for being a woman. Yet, despite the best intentions of everyone in my life, I still suffered (and probably still suffer) from institutional sexism. It is simply built into our language, our culture, and our daily operations. We don’t think about it or notice it until we try to.

What I’m trying to say is that yes, inequality of women in the workplace is related to confidence, leaning-in, socialization of both men and women, our legal system, our leave system, and many other factors that haven’t even made their way into my consciousness. Heck, it’s related to the basic biology of our species in that women simply have to be the ones to carry babies and then breastfeed them. That one, super-obvious fact alone, explains a huge amount of inequality in the workplace and economically.

Ultimately though we’re not going to get anywhere until everyone, men and women, open their eyes and simply notice. Don’t blame. Don’t judge. Don’t feel guilty. Don’t get discouraged. Don’t even try to fix it yet. Just look around and notice that our world puts some people at advantage and some people at disadvantage. Notice where you may be advantaged and disadvantaged. If that gets accomplished in my generation and nothing else changes (yet), I’ll be thrilled.


Katie Playfair