The effort to encourage women to empower one another in the workforce is a growing call to arms
By Shane Snider|Photography by John Micheal Simpson
The women’s workplace equality movement is slowly chipping at the “glass ceiling” holding back so many from reaching like-for-like benefits and pay with men doing the same work. It’s unclear whether the pandemic helped or hindered women’s fight for equality in the workplace – remote work forced by COVID-19 lockdowns gave more flexibility but also blurred the lines between home and work.
But one thing is clear: More and more women are reaching out to their peers in the struggle as remote and hybrid work bring new opportunities and challenges. The effort to encourage women to empower one another in the workforce is a growing call to arms. LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company’s 2022 study found women are still dramatically underrepresented in leadership roles – with one in four C-suite executives being a woman and only one in 20 being a woman of color. Women are 1.5 times as likely to switch leadership roles compared to male colleagues, according to the study.
A 2018 Institute for Women’s Policy Research study found working North Carolina women earned a median income of $36,400 per year – an average of $8,600 less than male counterparts. The study said that, if that trend continues, women may not see equal pay until 2060 (those interviewed for this article think that’s a generous estimate). Local activists are fighting the ongoing disparities, and they say a key weapon in the equality war is cooperation among women.
“We’ve made some strides, but we still have a long, long way to go,” said Casey Steinbacher, executive director of nonprofit Made in Durham and former Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce president and CEO. “Now, we have a situation – post-COVID – where you have the wife and mother at home and doing it all – trying to juggle it all at once. At this point, it’s critically important for women to realize they have this role [to encourage other women].”
She added, “I think [corporations] can figure out how to better align their performance requirements in a post COVID world that’s also going to be remote.”
Communication and Reinvention
Tivi Jones, founder and CEO at marketing firm Hey Awesome Girl, said women can start empowering one another simply with words. “Words of affirmation are so powerful,” Jones said. “I think more of us need to feel seen and heard. And a lot of times we don’t want to open up, or we don’t want to compliment people because we’re worried about what others will think.”
Hey Awesome Girl’s website features a regular series of interviews with successful women, which started as a concept to open dialogues among women. “It’s all part of the communication,” Jones said. “I felt like we can make great strides just by starting to talk to one another and relate to one another and to realize that it’s not a competition. We’re on the same team.”
Jes Averhart, founder of the Reinvention Road Trip podcast and empowerment program, harnesses the power of her own story along with stories from other women. “When I was in my 30s, I went through what many women go through – various types of transition,” she said. “I was a single mom and recently divorced and had just moved to town – I didn’t have a lot of friends locally and had to build a network from scratch. I had to go through this process of reinvention to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do.”
That reinvention led Averhart to start her own consultancy, Jes & Co., and to create the 28-Day Reinvention Road Trip program. “I went through my own personal crucible moments – and they added a lot of heat and pressure, and I came out different,” she said. “That was the process of reinvention for me. My thought with the Reinvention Road Trip was to help women get through that process faster.” Seventy-seven women have participated since the program’s official inception in January 2022. Earlier beta tests of the Road Trip saw participation from more than 600 women.
Ursula Mead founded InHerSight in 2014 to address the business world’s growing need for data concerning women in the workforce. Her company encourages equality by providing data to companies, and women can get access to survey information about those businesses – InHerSight holds proprietary data for 200,000 companies worldwide.
“The research shows we’re still decades away from gender equality,” Mead said. “But on the encouraging side, industries are starting to engage on this topic. Tech and finance were some of the early adopters, but now we’re seeing other industries that are traditionally male dominated that know they have work to do.”
A struggling national economy doesn’t have to mean a slowdown in efforts to make the workplace more equitable, she said. “I think it’s going to be really important for companies to do this work in a challenging macroeconomy,” Mead said. “It’s important not to just think about this during high-growth periods.”
Pandemic’s Lasting Impact
“The pandemic had huge implications for working women,” Mead said. “Leading up to COVID, it seemed like every year there was a new call to action for employers. Then the pandemic brought this whole new aspect when we were forced into hybrid and remote work. We saw women’s needs and wants start to change dramatically.”
Mead said traditional concerns for working women were focused more on paid time off and salary. The pandemic shifted priorities for many workers. “We started to see flexible work hours and location becoming a top priority.”
While the changes in office flexibility are a positive, the shift did not come without a price. “We’ve actually taken a few steps back as a result of COVID,” Made in Durham’s Steinbacher said. “For a lot of women, it’s made them juggle too many things at once. It’s going to be critically important post-COVID for women to really understand who they are and what their options are moving forward.”
She added, “We have to figure it out.”