Why we need women’s empowerment programs at work

One time, I was doing the dishes, but for some reason I didn’t kick away the pink stool my kids use to reach the faucet; I stood on it.

My posture was different. My angle was different. My perspective was different. And then my huz walked in, who’s 6′ to my 5’3, and as I looked slightly downward into his face, I realized –

“Hey, this is how you see the world all the time.”

It was a weird, dumb thing, but I have thought about it multiple times since.

Here’s another thing I think about a lot: You ever see that meme go around, trying to explain privilege? It shows a classroom, and the kids up front are white guys, and as you go further back it’s all minorities, and then it’s clear that to succeed you have to get a crumpled paper into the waste basket at the front of the class? So all the white guys got it in, and from way back, the black girls and guys get way less?

Here’s where I am going with this. Women’s empowerment programs in the office. I have organized with my HR team three in the last year-and-change, and I am pleased that I have the support by my company to arrange this. And the inevitable comments I hear from the guys – “why don’t we get a guy’s empowerment thing?” – I realize, I don’t address this enough. Or at all.

Imagine this. You start a new job; you’re a director for the first time. You’re coming back from your third maternity leave; but it’s the first after working from home with two young ones for three years. You’re now a manager of other people, in an industry you don’t really know that well yet. And the office is mainly men. And the arrangement when you start out is that you can work part time at first because your baby won’t take a bottle or pacifier; you can’t leave her more than half a day at this point when she’s 15 weeks old. You wish you had negotiated for more time before starting – but – no way would your male hirer allow that after making it clear he needs you to start ASAP, right?

So you start. And the first day, after shlepping your pumping gear, you know you have a problem by 10:30am. Where are you going to pump? Luckily, the office manager is a woman and she takes you to one of the few closed rooms available, and the only one where no one is sure to go – especially after your double precaution of a post-it note stuck to the heavy door – the server room.

With your back to the door because there is no lock, you finish up and then the walk of shame – or rather just morbid embarrassment begins: from the back of the office across the halls, the entire floor, all the way to the fridge. Why is it so embarrassing? You’re not even that embarrassed by things – not by being a total klutz, not by being a weirdo. But this – this intimate thing – and all you can think on those walks is that there are so few other women here, certainly no one nursing, and you’ve got to make it to the fridge before these guys see you. Because if they see you – they really see what you are. A woman.

Why does it matter? Who cares? Because for a lot of us, our bodies – our femaleness – is always on display. It has nothing to do with how you dress. It’s just the fact of us. How far behind am I because of pregnancies and maternity leaves? How threatened do I have to feel to take a few steps back alone in a room with someone, or make sense of the space around me? How hard is it to control my voice so I don’t seem over emotional or under assertive?

It’s not about you, individual lovely guys I work alongside and know and trust and enjoy being on the same team with. It’s about the collective experience. It’s the years of society banging and banging and banging it into us. It’s the fact that we can’t really discount gender, no matter how many clever bumper stickers or memes or t-shirts we share.

I’ll always be 5’3. I’ll always be (literally) looked down on by many – most – of the people I speak to every day. Sometimes, I wish you would stay seated, stand back, or… stay put while I get up on a stool.

I’ll always be a woman, who was a few steps behind for a while, trying to keep up, with a really difficult decade of trying to balance everything – while stopping to pump in a server room once in a while.

What’s my point? Today, the women at my company don’t pump in server rooms. In fact, at any given time, there are a few women around pumping and storing their milk openly in the fridge. Every time I see someone carrying her bag to the fridge, I feel so much pride. Half the company is female. There are tons of women in middle management positions for junior women to look up to and learn from. Except for executive level, most of the meetings I am in, I am not the only woman.

I am proud of that. Women empowerment programs in the office are one puzzle piece that help us feel seen and heard and valued, while their very existence proves we are not alone, and also celebrates how far we have come. My body doesn’t matter in a room filled with women. Suddenly, everything else does much more.

Don’t feel threatened if I stand on the stool once in a while, even the playing field, feel strong and tall and powerful, because I know there’s support under me, around me. It makes us all stronger when we all feel that way.

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