Ode to the Red Power Dress
Back in my 20’s, in early career days, I remember wearing a dress I refer to as the red power dress. Wearing it made me feel empowered. It made me hopeful, ambitious — and it fit perfectly.
Thinking about that red dress is a testimony to where I was in life — at a company that sold corporate benefits to Fortune 500 corporations. I had found my way into this Boston-based organization by way of a stint at a Manhattan PR firm by way of a stint at a financial services firm in Boston.
The dress characterized my 20’s — an exploratory time imbued with a certain adventure, freedom, a process of discovering interests and strengths. I was convinced that working for an organization helping to transform how employers supported employees as whole humans so they could be most productive at work was helping to more fully humanize the workplace.
There were lots of women at that company, many in senior leadership roles, but it was also an industry dominated by women: HR and benefits. When I left that organization for graduate school, my horizons expanded and I began working in industries more heavily dominated by men: in strategy consulting, within enterprise companies, mid-sized firms, startups, government agencies, both civilian and military.
I had some wonderful experiences working with leaders and teams during that time, yet simultaneously noticed things sad and unfortunate. I couldn’t find women role models in senior roles whose lives I wanted to emulate. I was looking for women who were my age now, who had managed to carve out a life path that included careers, a spouse, and having a family. What I saw were big personal life sacrifices the small # of women I did see in leadership roles make — and I didn’t want to emulate them.
I began to notice client dinners with my teams included more men who had wives who stayed at home. Those wives made it much easier for those men not to worry about drop off or pick up, after school lessons, team sports, family dinners, school events, summer camps, dry cleaning, doctor’s appointments and much more — everything that characterizes the third shift.
I don’t know if it was then that I first witnessed conscious and unconscious bias in the workplace, but it became readily apparent that those men who had wives at home were not well positioned to empathize with the plight of working mothers.
And it wasn’t entirely their fault. It was (and still is) a mindset driven by societal pressure, traditional stereotypes long associated with success: endless hours at work, business trips, accolades, advancement and financial rewards.
The good news on #IWD2018, is that some things have changed. They’ve changed for me since that time in my career and they’ve changed in the wider world in which we live.
Hopeful signs include a sea change in how involved Generation X and now Millennial dads are as parents. These dads change diapers, they’re up at night with children, they’re doing drop off and pick up. They’re tag teaming with their spouses during the week & weekends, making dinner and shuttling kids to extracurricular activities. If the definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, then this kind of sea change is a welcome one for women.
And maybe that helps with more companies being willing to address bias head on today. Organizations may not be solving for it entirely, but the willingness to talk about conscious and unconscious bias, to include men and women equally at the table, to introduce training on it, to change cultures around it and to incentivize behavior change — these are steps we can celebrate on #IWD2018. Small steps they may be, but they are steps in the right direction along this long road to gender equality.
We can honor #IWD2018 with the hope that our journey continues for our daughters and sons to make the world a more equitable place to live and work. We we can celebrate #IWD2018 for the companies who are trying to manifest change, to understand the plight of both the working mother and father to create workplaces that reward, not punish those who have families. And we can applaud women entrepreneurs who have found that a broken model may not be worth fixing, but share in their excitement around new models to create.
Looking back now at that red power dress, I am reminded of what I’ve known all along. True power is never sourced from the outside. Meaningful and lasting change comes from reaching deep into the reservoirs within. Only then do we as individuals confront ourselves and change, and only then do we collectively confront our organizational cultures and change society as well.
Happy (almost) #IWD2018.