The longest-standing democracy in the world looks and feels bitterly divided. An immigrant offers some reasons to keep hope alive for the American experiment.
On Friday, June 24, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
If law is the primary domain of lawyers, then it follows that the arcane complexities of constitutional law should remain the exclusive domain of exceptional legal scholars. Many voices in the legal community – some ably and in good faith – will share their hard-earned expertise to provide technical commentary on those complexities and the jurisprudence that led us here.
I am not a lawyer, and I have no scholarly pretensions to invite debate on issues of constitutional doctrine. Nor do I write this post with any wish or expectation to change minds about abortion. Instead, I wish to address how the rule of law shapes American life, and I ask the legal profession to reflect on how the work of lawyers and judges affects the daily realities of your fellow citizens.
Today I write as an American, an immigrant, a woman, and a non-lawyer who makes her living advising lawyers on how they make theirs. Since the Dobbs draft first leaked in early May, I’ve spent considerable time and energy trying to make sense of what’s happening. Those efforts yielded no easy or soothing answers, but I’ve learned and realized much that I feel compelled to share. I’ve also decided to share some of my experiences as a woman of color in the legal industry and what I’ve learned over a decade spent in legal business.
I write this in the difficult knowledge that many will disagree with what I say here. Nevertheless, I offer my perspective to name what I know many people are feeling now – fear, anger, exhaustion, and despair.
Leaders who expect to inspire productivity, excellence, or creativity in the workplace cannot afford to ignore sociopolitical context and attendant human experiences that exact such emotional toll on their workforce. Leaders who fail basic tests of empathy cannot expect trust with those they purport to lead, and organizations that make decisions without reference to reality are unlikely to find a viable pathway to lasting success.
This post is about uncomfortable truths, how we deal with them, and why this matters to the elusive quest for diversity and innovation.
I. Can we handle the truth?
Our current reality is one of ever-present stress and tension, rooted in exhausting controversy across a constellation of cultural flashpoints: race, sex, gender expression, marriage, reproductive rights, religion, immigration, guns, and education. These are issues that rightly evoke impassioned beliefs because they collectively shape the very foundation of the human experience: identity, love, faith, security, and opportunity.
The framers of the U.S. Constitution sought to secure the “blessings of liberty” for themselves and their posterity. Lawyers may debate which liberties are guaranteed by the Constitution, but many Americans wonder who will be protected under the law.
In the last ten days of June, a flurry of activity from SCOTUS has:
- Ended constitutional right to abortion by overturning Roe and Casey v. Planned Parenthood
- Struck down a Maine ban on public funding availability for religious schools
- Ruled that prayer in school is protected under the First Amendment
- Ruled that police who fail to advise people of Miranda rights can’t be sued under civil rights law
- Struck down a New York law restricting the right to carry concealed weapons
- Expanded the power of individual states to prosecute crimes on tribal lands
- Reinstated a congressional map in Louisiana challenged for diluting the representation of black voters
- Limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate carbon emissions
The Dobbs ruling is not an isolated event; it is part of a systematic and coordinated effort to realize a specific vision for the future. The majority opinions in Dobbs and Bruen represent that vision as a return to traditional values of the past. To others, that vision represents a return to historical oppression and inequities.
In a time when so many Americans feel distressed and imperiled, it troubles me that so much conservative rhetoric is tinged with dismissive indifference, defiant provocation, and casual cruelty. As an Asian-American, it grieves me to know that I will remain a perpetual foreigner in the eyes of some, and I’m heartbroken that I feel increasingly unsafe and unwelcome in my own country.
Why do we stand divided across such an impassable and still widening gulf? For the past few years, I’ve pondered this question. What follows is an exploration of my best hypotheses.
A. Defensiveness is human instinct
I am not a lawyer, but I advise many lawyers who occupy positions of far-reaching, if nebulous, influence. In my time in the legal industry, I’ve been given many opportunities to take some part in ambitious endeavors to make positive change inside large organizations. Through those experiences, I’ve come to see the change agent’s brief as a never-ending balancing act.
Organizational progress means asking people to do something they already do in a different way, to stop doing something they’ve been doing in the past, or to try doing something new and different. Large organizations become more complicated because while introducing something new is hard, it’s still easier than changing behavior and curtailing old habits.
Innovation, pricing, and strategy work of any consequence means raising difficult questions about unflattering truths in the organization’s current reality. Implicit in this work is the imperative to engage in uncomfortable conversations that challenge the comfort, self-regard, or vested interests of powerful stakeholders.
It is virtually impossible to communicate these requests in a way that do not trigger defensiveness and self-protective behaviors. This work has shown me that people can engage in stunningly unproductive behavior when they perceive threats to their standing. When I write and speak about the importance of resilience, it is because I have seen and experienced the organizational costs of unchecked fragility.
When people – particularly people in power – respond to feedback or dissent with defensiveness, it often triggers a vicious cycle. Defensiveness takes many forms: making excuses, blaming others, combative or disingenuous debates, and a dizzying array of obstructive behaviors. Most people go to great lengths to avoid the stress of dealing with defensive bosses and often form support groups that calcify into silos and tribes. Decision-making becomes political, and bad decisions are inevitable when uninformed opinions and special interests determine resource allocation or performance evaluations. Failures make fragile workplaces even more brittle, and the typical outcomes are employee disengagement and institutional inertia.
B. Denial is dangerous and forgiveness is divine
Ever since I started waitressing at 16, I’ve had a strongly held but dimly understood belief that hiding mistakes at work is a stupid thing to do. Once you fall behind during a busy shift, the best way to fix a mistake is to tell someone who can help immediately. Hungry diners get hangry fast, and the only people who can expedite a solution to get them food are the co-workers in the kitchen.
This instinct for forthright practicality prepared me well for life inside law firms. Over the years, I became more skilled in the art of the difficult conversation, but I still find it taxing – especially in environments where I perceive a high degree of defensiveness and subsequently a high risk of disingenuous behaviors.
Candidly, I’ve found it harder and harder to do this work in recent months, and upon reflection, I know that struggle is due in part to the current political environment where I find it more difficult to assume good intent in the midst of disagreement.
The 2016 election forced me to question the nature of my reality and my place in it. Since then, the #MeToo, #BLM, and #StopAsianHate revelations have all influenced how I perceive and interact with the world around me. Over the past few years, I’ve felt discouraged and disillusioned by the defensiveness of many white conservatives, and like most people, I’m wearied by the sound and fury that now passes for public discourse. These days, I also feel exasperated by the inertia of the Democratic Party, and on many days, I find my patience wearing thin.
Writ large, the very same human frailties that ail legal business are those at work in the culture wars plaguing society today. There is much to condemn in the ideology and rhetoric of the extreme right, but I’m more unsettled by the tribal instincts I see playing out amidst increasing income and wealth inequality. Taking into account an environment of pervasive disinformation, I’m troubled by the susceptibility of white defensiveness to slide into denial instead of truth-based reconciliation.
Most of all, I worry that increasing polarization, scapegoating, and dehumanization will make violence against outgroups easier – in a country with nearly 400 million guns in private ownership.
Without hyperbole and without ambiguity, I believe we are seeing a uniquely American strain of neo-fascism at work. Jason Stanley, professor of philosophy at Yale, identifies three essential features of fascism that echo across history:
- Conjure a “mythic past” destroyed (“by liberals, feminists, and immigrants”).
- Sow division… by inflaming historical antagonisms and ancient hatreds for their own advantage:  demonizing outgroups, normalizing and naturalizing bigotry, stoking violence to justify repressive “law and order” policies, the curtailing of civil rights and due process, and the mass imprisonment and killing of manufactured enemies.
- Attack the truth with propaganda, that “creates a petri dish for conspiracy theories.” … For fascists, truth doesn’t matter at all.
See Jason Stanley, How Fascism Works: the Politics of Us and Them, 2018.
I ask the readers of Legal Evolution to consider the specter of fascism because it has strong explanatory power to account for observable features of American politics today. Our current state of division and deadlock is not a natural evolution of our national character, but the outcome of a concerted effort by a motivated few to seize and hold onto power without the consent of the governed. (I’ll have more to say about this in just a bit.)
Dobbs is yet another critical stimulus that is forcing me to reflect, but this time I am trying to focus on what we owe to each other and what I can try to do better. A recent article by Roger Martin helped to crystallize the thoughts I’ve struggled to pull together these past few months. In “A Management System for Forgiveness,” Martin presents a logical argument that is both elegant and compelling:
- Mistakes are unavoidable in human organizations because all human beings are flawed
- Cover-ups are inevitable if people do not see a path to forgiveness
- Cover-ups preclude the possibility of remediation and learning
- Thus, a system that allows forgiveness is essential
This rings true. The most effective leaders I’ve worked with are those who expect and forgive mistakes by truly accepting the fallibility of people – themselves included. If perfectionism is a sign of insecurity, then a collective commitment to grace and forgiveness may be the wellspring of resilience. And we will need resilience to navigate the hard road ahead.
C. Why liberal discomfort is often unforgiving
I don’t intend this as a broad critique of identity politics, but I think liberal elites may have lost the thread on social justice issues, both in the workplace and on the campaign trail. I’ve wondered in recent months whether we’ve collectively spent too much time and energy scrutinizing individual transgressions – at the expense of the difficult, collaborative work required to hold institutions accountable and to facilitate organizational learning.
#MeToo and #BLM are incredibly important movements that extend beyond sexual assault and racism. Patriarchy and white supremacy are still very much embedded in our institutions and holding powerful perpetrators accountable is a critical step toward building a more inclusive and fair society where safe spaces are the norm. The scope and intensity of these movements were also critical in raising broad awareness and consciousness.
Where I see room for reflection and progress is how we engage in social learning to build individual and organizational resilience. In retrospect, it makes sense that elite organizations with largely liberal workforces will encounter barriers to DEI comprising a distinct style of defensiveness. Especially in a reputation- and relationship-based business like legal services, risk of denunciation (e.g., “call-out” and “cancel culture”) can be a powerful deterrent, but equally like to lead to cover-ups. I emphasize this because cover-up culture is enormously harmful to outgroups at risk of workplace sexual harassment or assault.
Humans are flawed and we all bring bias and prejudice into institutions, the vast majority of which are built on power structures that preserve both patriarchy and white supremacy. We all make mistakes, and some of those mistakes are rooted in bias. Navigating these institutions demands greater emotional labor from outgroups, and that’s part of the emotional tax that workplaces levy on women, people of color, and LGBTQ.
Part of the immensely difficult work of advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace is speaking that truth to power in ways that lower personal risk and raise psychological safety. Accepting this with more curiosity than defensiveness will require humility and resilience from people with power and privilege, starting with the most senior leaders. As more organizations commit to improving DEI, the most successful ones will plan ahead for people to make mistakes and earn forgiveness. That means we have opportunities to explore approaches that apply elements of rehabilitative as well as restorative justice, rather than an exclusive or primary focus on retributive justice. See Ezra Klein, “Bryan Stevenson on how America can heal,” Vox, July 20, 2022.
Currently, many white people are struggling with heightened racial awareness and stress. If we don’t solve for this systematically, the most likely outcomes are defensive behaviors that will spill over into emotional labor for outgroups and organizational avoidance of difficult conversations: the conditions that make cover-up behavior likely.
Within our broader social context, I suspect the liberal focus on social justice is due at least in part to “guilty knowledge” and the shame of not doing more to help.
“If you, as a White person, would like to be treated the way Black people are in this society, stand."
Watch who stands in response to Jane Elliott’s invitation. pic.twitter.com/t7WcwCahAt
— Be A King (@BerniceKing) November 17, 2019
It’s easy to see how these repressed feelings can raise the temperature of outward expression when someone else errs, but this only sows more division in a time when we need to build trust across coalitions for collective and coordinated action. Sustained silence and inaction do protect and preserve existing power structures, but this is one of the reasons a broad acknowledgement of historical inequity is necessary. There’s currently an oversupply of injustice in the world, and it’s too big for any one person to face alone.
I’m more and more convinced that we would all benefit from an expanded understanding of white and male identity as distinct from white supremacy so we can grapple with how systemic racism and sexism work. Privilege is often passively, automatically conferred and protected, by existing structures or external factors (in some cases by truly bad actors like outright hate groups). For allyship and anti-racism to ever transcend virtue signaling, we need a model of privilege and discomfort that can cut through guilt, shame, defensiveness, and denial.
In our political system, many theories abound as to the causes and drivers of the Democratic Party’s troubles, but I’ll put mine very simply. They’ve lost the trust of voters, particularly working class and minority voters, and they simply haven’t done enough to earn it back. Despite the daily din of an active (and sometimes algorithmically aided) market that trades in outrage, most Americans want common sense legislation and practical solutions from government.
Both major parties are complicit in the hollowing out of America in favor of moneyed interests, and working class voters have felt this in their wallets for years. The fact that voters aren’t convinced by the current two-party system is actually a very good reason for hope.
While voter disenchantment with the Democratic Party has certainly created tailwinds for the strongman populism of the extreme right, it suggests that Americans still want and expect something better from our democracy. Voters are right to challenge complacency and entitlement from the left if they expect unwavering loyalty from society’s most vulnerable groups who continue to bear the brunt of increasing economic inequality.
Liberals need to learn at least one hard truth about the rise of Trumpism: most Americans aren’t judging their political ruling class by external markers of their own self-regard and status, like espousing more liberal values, modeling more dignified behavior, or performing more elaborate gestures of acknowledgment. Americans expect their elected representatives to govern and to take action that produces outcomes that serve the interests and will of the people.
That’s a lesson we can all learn from as we navigate relationships with each other. Often, cancel culture places a great deal of emphasis on the offender in an elaborate and emotionally charged whodunit: their intent, motive, and character. A more productive focus might be to focus on listening with the intent to understand rather than the intent to respond, so that we can build enough genuine empathy to want to minimize harm.
This is especially true in the current climate because cruelty is posting a 10-0 season and more Americans are at risk of harm.
II. Division and hate are features, not bugs
I began this post by saying I wouldn’t attempt to change minds about abortion, and I’ll keep that promise.
In the past two months, I’ve seen countless people pontificate in the illustrious halls of the internet that liberals shouldn’t overreact with hysteria and fearmongering because Dobbs simply returns the decision to the states. This is technically true and a great segue into a case I do hope to argue well.
A. Hate-industrial complex in the age of outrage marketing
A common factor in most hot button issues in our culture war aren’t really about the salacious, provocative, outrageous thing it purports to address. They’re about power and control, and the issues are often hand-picked or tailor-made to provoke outrage and intransigence to pit Americans against each other in a crazy-making debate. Extra points if the debate distracts from or muddies an issue of actual importance to American lives, and double jeopardy if that debate concerns the fundamental rights of an outgroup to live dignified lives as human beings.
Let’s consider the outlandish Ohio bill to ban trans athletes in school sports. This bill would allow anyone to challenge the eligibility of any girl on the basis of nothing and subject her to medical inspections of “internal and external reproductive anatomy.” Tyler Buchanan, “Ohio’s transgender sports ban attempt in the spotlight” Axios, June 7, 2022.
This one is a direct hit, maybe a first-ballot Hall of Fame candidate in the Cruelty Games. This issue has low electoral support across the board, but the wildly intrusive and lurid proposal is sure to get airtime on cable news. The actual threat posed to all girls has triggered a flood of explainers, advocacy, and rebuttals (with a side of good old social media trolling) about how hormones and trans bodies work.
Terrified parents try to follow along with a flood of unreliable and slanted information about a strange and unfamiliar topic and the whole thing feels like living through an awful episode of Black Mirror. The most likely response is exhaustion and resentment against gender non-conforming kids. At the time the bill passed, there was one trans girl competing in high school sports in the entire state of Ohio.
This manufactured controversy builds on the ruckus over trans access to bathrooms that stoked prejudice and hate by casting trans people as imaginary predators. Like the Texas abortion ban that deputizes citizens as bounty-hunters, this bill exposes a targeted outgroup to persecution by fellow citizens. For the increasing number of Americans envisioning a dark authoritarian future, that Orwellian feature adds a little extra kick to make our nightmares more vivid.
This is how fascists “demonize outgroups, normalizing and naturalizing bigotry.” What responsible parent would not be outraged at the thought of their teenage daughter being subjected to genital inspection? It is of course no accident that this proposal will immediately trigger an association to the USA Gymnastics sex abuse by national team doctor Larry Nassar.
Something scary plus kids is always a good starting formula because parental instincts will be to pay attention and have a reaction that quickly calcifies, because fear makes people more suggestible, less empathetic, and more tribal.
Meanwhile, a survey of 34,000 LGBTQ people between the ages of 13 and 24 found that 45% of them had seriously considered attempting suicide in 2021.
B. Roe is just collateral damage in a Faustian bargain
Would you be surprised to learn that the Southern Baptist Convention – the bastion of white evangelical Christians – supported access to abortion as late as 1976? I was. In the modern era, the Christian right have powered the pro-life movement with religious fervor, but that only dates back to 1979 and the founding of the political action group Moral Majority. Just a year later, the evangelicals would defect en masse from the Carter coalition to elect Reagan with sweeping majorities.
The vision being enacted in these SCOTUS rulings – and the current legislative agenda of the Republican Party – reflects the policy preferences of the second New Right: a populist coalition of small-government conservatives, evangelist Christians, and libertarian-leaning business interests that propelled Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980.
1979 is the year Paul Weyrich and Jerry Falwell joined forces in a mission to mobilize the evangelist Christians to form “a formidable voting bloc.”
Weyrich was a prolific neoconservative activist and co-founder of the think tanks Heritage Foundation, American Opportunity, and American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
Falwell was a televangelist and Baptist preacher who began his foray into politics with attempts to preserve segregation in schools. These attempts meant circumventing Brown v. Board of Education via private, religious schools for white students that nevertheless depended on tax-exempt status. In 1971, the district court for DC ruled in Green v. Connally to uphold a new IRS policy denying tax exemptions for “racially discriminatory private schools.”
Green v. Connally “captured the attention of evangelical leaders, especially as the IRS began sending questionnaires to church-related ‘segregation academies….’ But Falwell and Weyrich, having tapped into the ire of evangelical leaders, were also savvy enough to recognize that organizing grassroots evangelicals to defend racial discrimination would be a challenge… they needed a different issue if they wanted to mobilize evangelical voters on a large scale.” See Randall Balmer, “The Real Origins of the Religious Right,” Politico, May 27, 2014.
Abortion proved to be the golden ticket for the Moral Majority, with Phyllis Schlafly providing a female voice to an anti-feminist agenda. Schlafly was already leading the charge against the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment by “activating a grassroots army to zealously fight to maintain their privilege at the expense of other women’s political, social and economic equity. They cast these other women – often unmarried, single moms, gay women, and women of color – as deserving of shame because of their own life choices.” Falwell and Weyrich “saw the harmony in their ideology and their narratives… warning their audiences that the new buzzwords of equality – whether they were applied to Black people, gay people, or women – were tantamount to attacking your family, your way of life, and your privileged status.” See Ilyse Hogue, “How Phyllis Schlafly Found the Right Balance of Racism and Misogyny and Charted the Future of the Radical Right,” The Forge, July 24, 2020.
The Moral Majority did indeed reshape this country as Weyrich had envisioned, in their stated objective to repeal Roe v. Wade and in a much more covert operation to rebuild America along a “blueprint for corporate domination of American Democracy.”
C. Bigly grift & mass incarceration
The Powell Memo, as it came to be known, was written by future SCOTUS Justice Lewis Powell. The Powell Memo gave rise to the modern apparatus of corporate lobbying and influence peddling in Congress. It urged American enterprise to temper the reform-minded forces in academia and politics and to counter the growing power of unions: “This is the lesson that political power is necessary; that such power must be assidously (sic) cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination — without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.”
Following the Powell memo, corporate political action committees injected an explosion of cash into American politics. In 1974, there were 89 registered corporate PACs. By 2008, there were nearly 1,500, with over $3.5bn to lobby Congress and various federal agencies.
As expected, Citizens United has made elections more expensive, less transparent, and less democratic. In the decade since the Citizens United ruling:
- the 10 biggest individual donors and their spouses gave $1.2bn to federal elections. In 2018, these donors accounted for a staggering 7% of total election giving in 2018 (7x decade prior to the ruling)
- Outside spending surpassed candidate spending in 126 over the past decade (8x)
- Nearly a billion dollars with undisclosed sources went into elections in this decade (8x)
The activities of the corporate lobby extend beyond campaign finance. Think tanks produce research and position papers as well as draft legislation. A broad look at the subtle intertwining of legislative activity and business interests is necessary to understand how influence peddling actually works: corporate money corrupts more than politicians in quid-pro-quo exchanges, and that corruption infects our society in far-ranging ways.
ALEC, one of the think tanks founded by Weyrich, has come under scrutiny as a “bill mill” that seeks to “harness profit, further entrench white supremacy in the law, and target the safety, human rights and self-governance of marginalized communities.” See Special Report ALEC Attacks: History of ALEC & the People’s Resistance, Center for Constitutional Rights, 2019.
Given ALEC’s lineage, you will not be surprised to hear that some of the policies most harmful to black Americans were among those ghostwritten by ALEC and mainlined into legislatures. Nixon’s war on drugs morphed into Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, which ushered in the era of mass incarceration via mandatory minimums, “three strikes,” and “truth in sentencing” laws. ALEC profited from the expansion of the prison infrastructure in its representation of a roster of contractors for the operation of private for-profit prisons and then built out an entire infrastructure to peddle prison labor to corporations. That means ALEC coordinated the creation of both supply and demand for the modern incarnation of slavery. See Mike Elk and Bob Sloan, The Hidden History of ALEC and Prison Labor, The Nation, August 1, 2011.
These special interests have done more than graft a pro-business agenda onto American government. The policies resulting from “crony capitalism” redirect the function of the government toward the enrichment of a few instead of the welfare of the electorate. This orientation results in policy that is sometimes in direct contravention of the will of the people, often at the direct expense of average or imperiled Americans, and nearly always to the collective detriment of the nation’s best interests.
- The 2020 election was the most expensive ever on record, the total bill coming in at $14.4bn, more than doubling the then-record breaking 2016 cycle at $6.5bn.
- Over the past quarter century, pharmaceutical companies have spent over $5bn; oil & gas over $2.5bn, hospitals and nursing homes over $2.0bn to lobby lawmakers and regulators.
- Historically, the NRA and the powerful tobacco lobby have flexed their influence to profit at the expense of public health and safety, and the energy and plastics lobby have impeded our progress toward sustainability
For the country, the outcome has been a staggering increase in wealth disparity and a growing distrust in the system. In 2016, 93% of Americans said they believe politicians listen more to donors than regular voters. In 2017, only 20% of Americans said they trust government to do the right thing. Public Trust in Government: 1958-2022, Pew Research Center, June 6, 2022.
As early as 1997, then Secretary of Labor Robert Reich warned against the many-faceted dangers of what he calls the “influence industrial complex.”
We are on the way to becoming a two-tiered society, composed of a few winners and a larger group of Americans left behind whose anger and whose disillusionment is easily manipulated. Once unbottled, mass resentment can poison the very fabric of society, the moral integrity of a society, replacing ambition with envy, replacing tolerance with hate. Today, the targets of that rage are immigrants and welfare mothers and government officials and gays and an ill-defined counterculture. But as the middle class continues to erode, who will be the targets of tomorrow?
Reich has proved prescient.
The Moral Majority did its work and made a thorough job of it. Our system of government is on the verge of breaking, and that is disheartening. I believe the threat to our democracy is fascistic in nature and that the republic will be tested in the 2024 elections. Still, I’m encouraged by all that I’ve learned.
I do not believe Americans are locked in a real and unresolvable conflict. If we feel torn asunder by hate and division, it’s because we are reeling from toxins pumped into our system by an oligarchy of special interests, intent on establishing a minority rule for the purposes of profiteering. Many of the most horrifying vestiges of racism and misogyny are easily traceable to a small group of committed activities who have evolved Jim Crow racism into mass incarceration and expanded misogyny into hate toward anyone non-conforming to rigid sex and gender norms.
III. A sidebar on supporting women
I remain deeply saddened by the sitting majority’s rulings this session. Bruen in particular felt like a gut punch, coming on the heels of the first gun safety reform in decades.
I have had many dark days in the past few weeks, but the hope I share with you is real. For every woman contemplating the prospect of forced birth and harmful health outcomes, I grieve with you. I feel anger and sorrow, but I’m less afraid because I know I’m not alone. None of us are. I know it will take time and work and commitment, but I feel certain that American women will fight for our rights and win.
Since the Dobbs ruling, over 2,000 female partners from some of the best law firms in the world have signed a letter committing to action to “defend and support women’s rights to autonomy, equality, and safe access to reproductive care, including abortion.” I was very happy to see that over 1,000 male partners have made their own pledge of support.
I’m confident that most large businesses will stand by their talent and do their best to support women’s rights. Here’s some data. Women’s economic power is higher than ever. Globally, women control over $43 trillion of consumer spend. By 2028, women will own 75% of all discretionary spend, ensuring that most B2C companies can’t afford to alienate women.
In the workplace, more and more employers recognize the value of diverse teams to power creativity and innovation. Much of the reflections on defensiveness I gained from doing innovation work, and I’m personally convinced that the resilience organization that teams gain by becoming more inclusive pay off in more functional and higher-performance teams.
Women are taking advantage of the Great Resignation. In the past year, women have left workplaces in record numbers, and many have traded up. Deloitte’s research shows that women plan to continue this trends, and intend to reward employers that offer more respectful and welcoming workplaces that foster gender equality:
I’m happy to see this data suggesting more employers will invest more time and energy to this work, but I also know that this work progresses slowly. The difficult truth is that many American women have more dark days ahead, and it would be nice if colleagues and workplaces could extend a little extra empathy and support. (By that I don’t just mean condolences for a Supreme Court ruling abrogating her rights, I mean empathy that helps women feel like a complex human being who belongs in whatever space she occupies.)
Because I know what it is to feel too exhausted to explain why I am exhausted, I share some uncomfortable truths here for everyone to consider. I don’t speak for all women, but I’m offering some insight from my experience in case it is helpful. If it’s not, that’s ok too.
For any employers wondering why you have trouble retaining and promoting women, my advice is to start with the assumption that your workplace culture is not friendly to women. This can be true for a variety of reasons other than outright sexism, but if you have more than 100 men in your organization, it’s nearly certain you do have sexism in the workplace. If you employ only one woman on her team or at her level, it’s very likely she is doing a lot of emotional labor to navigate her workplace. That emotional labor includes, in the words of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “many indignities one accepted as just part of the scenery, just the way it was.”
Speaking from my own experience, those indignities range from conscious or unconscious bias that sort of hums along like low-level background noise that most women don’t even think about addressing:
- Passive-aggressive, belittling comments from peers or more senior colleagues, e.g. “she’ll be great in 10 years.”
- Constant but vague expectations to perform hidden emotional labor that make men feel good about themselves (e.g., smile more, be pleased with or interested in or impressed by their work). Not engaging sometimes leads to some form of tax in the form of wounded male ego or vanity.
- Vaguely gendered feedback that is not exactly sexist but impossible to address (“strong personality,” “abrasive,” “you came off like a cheerleader”).
When it comes to unwanted sexual attention, that happens a lot too, so it’s best to assume that it does and will keep happening in your workplace and have a plan to deal with it: about 1 in 3 women have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work. There’s a range of behaviors in this category that range from mildly taxing to debilitating, so the earlier discussion on defensiveness and forgiveness will apply. Here, I’ll just share that whenever this happens, it takes cognitive and emotional energy to figure out how to respond, so if you want to express interest in a female colleague, please try to lower the emotional cost of saying no in case she isn’t interested.
And then, there is just the expectation of more and different types of emotional labor. Today, I’ll just share one example that I think might come up for lots of women these days.. Since 2018, I’ve experienced a new kind of aggravation: aggrieved conservatives tired of “wokeness” and “cancel culture” who want to debate stuff and seem intent on testing people’s boundaries of what they politically incorrect. This is a taxing exercise, so please don’t do this. I include an example below for clarity and levity.
Also, please don’t invoke free speech and First Amendment rights while doing the above.
In short, I think women often drop off the career advancement track because they’re simply tired. But those reasons often have to do with other pillars of the patriarchy , chief among these unequal division in the home, particularly in managing the household — but the modern workplace can be exhausting, especially in taxing times like the one we’re in now.
IV. America, the great unfinished symphony
On the eve of America’s 246th birthday, I bear in mind Thomas Jefferson’s words: “The earth belongs always to the living.” In this greatest of nations, the power belongs rightly to the people.
Each of us have more power than we realize, and together we have the power to write the next movement. Stand in your power and use it for good.
In the midst of hate, I found there was, within me, an invincible love.
In the midst of tears, I found there was, within me, an invincible smile.
In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm.
I realized, through it all, that…
In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.
And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.
Albert Camus, The Stranger