The Pulse on Gender Equity in Seattle & Beyond


On my feminist bookshelf

Gender Equality OverallMartha BurwellComment

It's no lie that I am a total bookworm at heart.  Perhaps it’s something to do with growing up in the Pacific Northwest but there’s little I enjoy more on a rainy day than gathering a collection of Trader Joe’s snacks, pouring a mug of tea, and cozying up on the couch to read about how to smash the patriarchy. 

Here’s what’s currently on my bookshelf:

Rad Women WorldWide: Artists and Athletes, Pirates and Punks, and other Revolutionaries who Shaped History

By Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl (2016)

This is such a fun book. Each page features an illustration and a short bio of an amazing feminist. Learn about present and past heroines from all over the world, ranging from political activist Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma to Venus and Serna Williams in the U.S.A. to Hatshepsut in Egypt.  Perfect for a daily dose of inspiration in the morning with my coffee. Suitable for kids and adults alike. 

We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to Cover Girl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement

By Andi Zeisler (2016)

Andi Zeisler, a founding editor of Bitch Magazine (which I love) doesn't hold back one bit in her new book. Though I’ve only just started it, the main focus is a criticism of for-profit companies cashing in on the feminist movement without creating real change.  Seeing “girl power” messages plastered on products sold by corporations that have no real investment in gender equity is dangerous. It's dangerous because we think we’ve made progress so we don't fight as hard, when really we’re just falling victim to a clever marketing ploy. 

Americanah: A Novel

by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

I’m a little late in reading this one from 2013, which is already fast on it's way to becoming a classic.  Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explores Blackness, feminism, class, nationality, and the power of language in this must-read.  She’s also the author of We Should All Be Feminists, based on her TedTalk by the same name.  I’ve been known to email this TedTalk to friends who are afraid to use the F word (feminist).

What Works: Gender Equality by Design

By Iris Bohnet (2016)

Published by Harvard University Press, this academic book is one of the most important current reads for business, nonprofit, public sector, and educational leaders committed to gender equity.  It goes beyond theory, and dives into how we can take steps to reduce the impact of unconscious gender bias (and other types of bias) in the way we run things.  It’s based in behavioral design theory, demonstrating how we can change how humans act through design.  The classic example is when orchestras began putting up curtains to “blind” them from seeing who was auditioning, and they immediately hired nearly twice as many women.  This book has been a key tool of mine when working with clients on making their business more inclusive and equitable.

Men Explain Things to Me

By Rebecca Solnit (2015)

If you’re a sucker for gorgeous writing that has the ability to pull emotions straight out of your chest, and you’re also a feminist, you’re not going to be able to put this one down. Rebecca Solnit has that unique ability to capture an intense feeling and put it into words that everyone can understand.  Like, say, the feeling when a man starts talking down to you, explaining a topic that you are in fact an expert in, assuming that you know nothing about it.  Men Explain Things to Me is a collection of essays that starts with her now-famous piece that resulted in the creation of the word “mansplaining.”

The Truth About White People

By Lola Peters (2015)

I was lucky to meet local author, nonprofit leader, and community changemaker Lola E. Peters at an event last summer, and picked up her book right away.  This collection of essays dig into racial power structures that are present in all parts of our lives—from where we work, to our relationships, to the women’s movement. It demands self-reflection, and real conversation.  I read only one essay at a time, giving myself time to absorb each one before I moved on to the next. 

Living History

By Hillary Rodham Clinton (2003)

This memoir, published 14 years ago, has been simultaneously inspiring and heartbreaking to read.  Inspiring because there is just so much good that this one woman has done.  No, she's not perfect, but she's done a hell of a lot more than we usually hear about. Heartbreaking because, well, I don’t think I need to explain.  Though you always have to take memoirs with a grain of salt, this book is full of not just her personal stories, but is also an education on gender and politics and how much, and yet also how little, things have changed in the past 70 years. 

Gender Balance: When Men Step Up

By various authors (2016)

Full transparency: I haven't started this one yet.  However, I'm more excited than might be reasonable for someone reading a Human Resources book.  Why? Because it is a gender equity book directed at men and masculinity.  Too much of the dialogue around gender in the workplace is aimed at women, telling them what they're doing wrong (Lean In / negotiate harder / have kids later / etc.). It's about time we start putting the responsibility on those in leadership positions (most of whom are still men) who have the power to change the cultures and business processes of their companies.  This is a collection of writing from top global business leaders who walk you through the benefits of gender equity and some techniques for how to approach this complex issue. You can also view the OECD panel from last year with several of the authors. 


By Kristin Cashore (2008)

Sometimes I just need something light and fun to read, and I’ve found my people in YA feminist fantasy.  Graceling follows heroine Katsa, who draws us through a fantastical story filled with battles, magic, and figuring out how to use power for good. Though there is a little romance, it’s refreshing to see a teen story that doesn’t revolve solely around wanting attention from a boy. 

Bonus: movies!

Hidden Figures: Opening January 6

This one comes out Friday, and I'm really looking forward to it. It's the story of the Black female mathematicians and engineers at NACA (now NASA) known as the West Computers.  Set in the 1960’s at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, the work of these women has gone largely unrecognized until recently.  The movie is based on the book by the same name, written by author Margot Lee Shetterly, who explains how “Langley was not just a laboratory of science and engineering; ‘in many ways, it was a racial relations laboratory, a gender relations laboratory.’”

The Eagle Huntress: In theaters now

This epic story was so beautifully shot and heart-wrenchingly uplifting that people were actually cheering out loud in the theater when I saw it last weekend.

13 year old Aisholpan Nurgaiv is an incredible heroine—strong, courageous, and unwavering in her self-belief. Seeing a young brown girl question what she's been told about her role, and then decide how she wants to live her life, and succeed, is incredibly important and exhilarating in itself.  We don't see that enough in the cinema. But perhaps just as importantly, this film showcases the critical role of fathers in progressing gender equity. Without her father's support, Aisholpan would never have succeeded in the practice of using eagles to hunt in Mongolia, as it is traditionally only passed down from father to son. He was the gatekeeper of the knowledge, and also controlled her access to competitions, gear, and ability to travel to hunting grounds.  He consciously chose to defy social pressure. He chose to believe in his daughter, and train her in a skill that women and girls had never before had access to. That is a powerful message that everyone, especially fathers, need to hear more of. 


What books are you reading? What movies are you most excited about? Let me know on Twitter: @equalisea

Ruchika Tulshyan thinks it’s time to turn the tables.

Gender Equality Overall, SeattleMartha BurwellComment

For far too long we’ve been putting the work of achieving gender equality in the workplace on women.

I’ll admit it.  I’ve gone to more than one “how to negotiate” workshop. 

I can do power poses like no one’s business.  Strong eye contact, shoulders back, spine straight.  But also making sure to sit at a slight angle so I don’t look “too aggressive.” Staring at myself awkwardly in the mirror, I’ve practiced comebacks for common arguments as to why I should be paid less.  And I’ve even used cute phrases like “wiggle room” to soften the blow of –-gasp—a woman asking to be paid more!

But the truth is, I can do power poses for the rest of my life and I still won’t be paid the same as my male counterparts.  Because individuals can only get so far within a system that’s constantly pushing back on them.

As Ruchika Tulshyan writes in her new book, The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality in the Workplace, “too much of the existing narrative focuses on ‘fixing women’—getting more women to negotiate, assert, demand, be confident and ‘lean in’ to leadership.”

Author Ruchika Tulshyan   Photo by  Jama Abdirahman

Author Ruchika Tulshyan
Photo by Jama Abdirahman

Instead, if we take a closer look, we see that gender inequality is something that we unintentionally built right into the structures of our businesses.  With the example of negotiation, we know that we have social stigma against women asking for more money.  But we keep salaries secret, we keep requiring employees to negotiate, and we keep penalizing women for it. 

Perhaps we’re ready turn the tables, to evolve our workplaces so that they work for women, as well as men.  Because our old systems were designed for a different time, and a different workforce.  And frankly, we’ve outgrown them.

That doesn’t mean that we have to demolish our way of doing business altogether—but we do need to be open to a steady stream of renovations. 

The good news?  These investments will also benefit the business.

This is what Tulshyan calls “The Diversity Advantage.”  It’s the idea that “diversity isn’t just the right thing to do.  It’s also a financially savvy strategy in today’s hyper-competitive digital marketplace.”

Tulshyan’s 2015 ebook guides the reader through the many deeply-ingrained, but often unintentional, ways that businesses disadvantage women.  Being solution-oriented, it also offers a gold mine of ideas for correcting this, so that the companies may tap into the full potential of the talent of 50% of the population.

Last month, I had the chance to sit down with the Seattle author, and ask her a few questions about some of the themes in her book. 

We started with one of the most-publicized effects of gender inequality in the workplace—the gender pay gap.

The book states “one of the biggest obstacles to resolving the gender pay gap is denial.”  Yet there is so much evidence on the systemic gender pay gap. Why are people still in denial? 

Right now, a lot of businesses are still run by middle-aged, or older, white men.  And from their point of view, they see that there are more women in the workforce than there were previously.  Which is true, but the problem is that they are concentrated in lower-level jobs.  The higher up you get in leadership, the fewer women there are.  And many leaders don’t look hard enough to see this, or don’t question why, and decide to prioritize other things.  

They also may tend to think that the lack of women in leadership roles is a result of individual choices.  But in reality, this has been disproved time and again.

Or, they assume that they themselves are not sexist, and no one they work with is sexist, so they jump to the conclusion that they’re not doing anything wrong.  They may not understand the implicit biases that we all hold. 

So it really comes down to a lack of knowledge and understanding about the actual situation.  They need to understand that it is a priority that impacts the performance of the entire business.

The book demonstrates how pay secrecy is harmful to reaching pay equality, advocating instead for more pay transparency.  Right now, in Washington state legislature, we have a bill being considered that would make it illegal for employers to punish their employees for discussing wages.  Would this new law be enough?

This is a first step, but it’s not enough. 

We are very uncomfortable talking about money in this culture.  In fact, we’d rather talk about relationships and sex at work than talk about money! 

Until we have a cultural shift in which it becomes less of a taboo to discuss salaries, we’re still not going to see a lot of pay transparency.  Businesses can address this by slowly phasing in transparency, or at the very least taking a comprehensive look at how they are currently paying their employees. 

When it comes to supporting parents, the book states “the most impactful solutions are initiatives and policies that benefit both genders such as paid leave, flexibility, and child care support.”  Why is that the case?

It’s been well documented that creating benefits that are only for women actually harms women, because it treats them like a special population.  So the businesses will start to discriminate against them because they now come with additional expenses.  So instead, those benefits should be for all employees. 

Another reason has to do with millennials, who will soon be the largest demographic in the workforce. Both male and female millennials have shown time and again that they value those types of benefits, demonstrating that businesses must provide them if they want to be able to attract and retain talent.

Lastly, in order to truly make change, we need a cultural shift about who’s doing the caretaking and the homemaking.  Right now, women still shoulder most of that work, and it is a big burden.   We must culturally start allowing, or requiring, men to take on some of that burden.  So making these types of policies accessible to men helps achieve that.

Sponsorship is something the book advocates highly for.  What is sponsorship and how can it be implemented successfully? 

First of all, sponsorship is very different from mentorship. A mentor is generally someone who you meet with occasionally and get guidance from. A sponsor, in contrast, is someone who is in a more senior position that works with you to strategically advance your career, using his or her own reputation and connections to help you move forward.

However, a sponsor may not understand the nuances of gender.   And as more sponsors will be male, simply because there are so many more men in top leadership positions in business, it’s important that we consider gender training with sponsorships. 

For example, in many companies, networking and relationship building among leadership still occurs after hours over dinner and drinks.  This is part of what’s considered the “old boys club.”  But, if a (typically younger) female protégée is invited by her (typically older) male sponsor to these events, it is often perceived very negatively, and it can actually harm her career.  To avoid these types of situations, it’s recommended to create a more formal sponsorship program that includes guidelines and training around gender.  Formal programs also help create accountability by having points at which other leaders check in to see if the sponsor is successfully helping the protégée meet her career advancement goals.    

There are quite a few countries in Europe, and several in Asia, as well as India, that have legally mandated gender quotas for corporate boards.  In the book, it states that quotas do have some effect, but that there are other ways to get more women on boards that are more effective.  What are the recommendations?

Quotas have their ups and down.  On the one hand, they are useful in that they provide accountability.   It’s too easy for a company, without quotas, to say “we tried it and it didn’t work.” A quota requires that they keep trying.  Facebook is a surprising example.  They have only 2 women on their board, and no women of color.  This seems odd, because the most rapidly growing segments of their market are overseas, and they could clearly use diverse leadership to help understand those markets.  Facebook does not utilize quotas.

On the other hand, quotas are not enough.  There also has to be a cultural shift. 

Otherwise you may see something like what happened in Norway, in which the same few women are asked to be on 4, 5, or more boards, and most women still don’t have access.  Lastly, women are much more likely to stay on boards if there is a culture that makes them feel welcome in a leadership position. 

Here in the US, we are culturally quite far away from having legally mandated quotas. In fact, we have a Supreme Court case this year that will question whether affirmative action (which quotas fall under) is even constitutional.  Why is there such a difference between attitudes about quotas in the US, as compared to other countries?

We believe in the US that we have a meritocracy, where anyone who works hard enough will achieve success.  It’s the American Dream.  But that is simply not true for everyone.  That mindset ignores the systematic oppression that is present in our society, and fails to recognize that only some people can participate fully in our “meritocracy,” and those people happen to be mostly white men.  

We are uncomfortable with the fact that our belief in meritocracy may be an illusion, because it challenges the idea that those white men achieved success based solely on their own talent. 

The introduction to the book states “make no mistake: this is no feminist manifesto.  Sure, gender equality is a human rights issue. But engaging women in the workforce is primarily an economic issue.  Diverse leaders drive bottom-line growth and high-level innovation for global corporations.” 
After reading the book, I’d argue that it IS a feminist manifesto, as well as an economic argument.  So I’m curious why this disclaimer was included.

The book was also meant to appeal to men, so that phrase was included to emphasize that the book is first and foremost an economic argument. 

We must have men participate in this movement in order for it to be successful. There isn’t a case in history in which an oppressed group has overcome oppression without the participation of those in power. 

The only exceptions are when extreme violence was used.  In the case of gender equality, men are still largely in power, and they must participate as allies in order for us all to succeed.

Lastly, Ruchika noted that compared to other places she’s lived in (The UK, India and Singapore), in our Seattle culture, we tend to avoid tough topics like this.

But Seattle, we’ve got to talk about it.  And more than that, we’ve got to take responsibility and act on improving gender equality in the workplace.  If the ethical case doesn’t sway you, the business case can’t be ignored. 

You can purchase Ruchika’s book on Forbes.  A paper version will also be available soon.