–Britt Santowski, SPN
Over 100 people responded to my request for input on the value of age, experience and ethnic diversity of working women. I know a number of you have been waiting for the results.
This survey was born from my own struggles finding employment, an over-one-decade long quest, and I’m still not even close to an income that I had prior to being laid off at eight months pregnant. The essence of my question was: Is it just me, or is it a common female experience? The short answer to my original question is, It’s not me; it’s an experience very familiar to at least the women who responded.
Thank you to everyone who took the time to complete the survey. I received 95 responses from women and 19 from men. Each survey took on average 10 minutes. For some, it evoked rage. For others, it inspired interest. I am deeply appreciative of each and every response.
The US has its first women and notably woman of colour in the position of Vice President. As Kamala Harris tweeted yesterday (and stated in her speech), “While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last—because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”
Harris is there because a door was opened for her. Yes, she had all the criteria, skill and experience. And what she (and all women and especially Indigenous women and women of colour) need to enable the crossing of this threshold is to be given the opportunity.
Women are being hit hard by the pandemic. Per the findings of this survey, breaks in employment are viewed as detrimental especially to women. So, women are doubly threatened both now and in the recovery.
Doing what we have always done changes nothing. Rethinking how we open doors to diversity is critical if we want to start infusing diversity into any workplace, especially into leadership roles.
Check your standards, check your motivations, check your privilege. If you are in a position to open a door, I urge you to do so.
The three most notable finds that stood out for me:
- Women’s talents are grossly under-utilized;
- Women’s time spent on care-related tasks “doesn’t count,” and
- While it’s not a good outlook for women in general, it’s drastically worse for Indigenous women and women of colour.
If you are a woman at the start or midpoint of your career, this should interest you. If you are parenting daughters, this should be of interest to you. And if you have a mother or sister, this should be of interest to you. If you are a woman, an Indigenous woman, or a woman of colour struggling in your career, you already know much of this. This will validate your experience.
Following is an overview of the findings, and there’s a link at the bottom to the DRAFT report.
Britt Santowski, Sooke BC
What the women said
The women who responded to this survey need to be appreciated. For many, it meant reaching into a dark place, reliving the pain of the rejection and inability to get meaningful employment as they age. This analysis is entirely dependent on the generosity of 94 women and 20 men in giving their time.
This woman had “applied for over 100 jobs since I was laid off, not one call. Even [this company] won’t call me back and I have all the experience and training. It’s an age thing I think.”
As did this one: “I have experienced being invisible in the workforce, and being considered overqualified for the jobs I might be considered for, and under-qualified for everything else.”
After years of looking, this 58-year-old woman’s “last interview was devastating.” At the one single interview she got, she was asked “how long I had to give to the company; they would have to train me, and (they) didn’t think they would get a return on their investment.”
This women left a success career abroad only to come home to the inability to find work. “I, too, have felt increasingly invisible over the past 5-10 years, especially in the job market. I took a break in my successful career for an opportunity to travel and live abroad and since coming home have felt discrimination on the work front, from the banking industry, from acquaintances all with the advice that I should just take what I could get, let my male partner support me… and on and on.”
This woman, while never having trouble finding work, found that what she did find did not pay very well. “After retiring … I worked retail managing stores often working above minimum wage with extra. I have always had a small business or healing practice on the side. Over the years it has gotten more difficult to get work and with each ‘No,’ your confidence goes a little lower.”
Another woman found that she had to be willing to work at the jobs no one wants to get to where you want, and when she did finally find work the pay was good but she didn’t have enough hours so she needed to get a second job.
Competing against men: Different goalposts
One woman observed a trend in civil service where men over 50 were promoted upwards, “even when not qualified, and most women over age 50 were let go, or demoted, unless they were slim and beautiful.”
Another woman was overlooked in an advancement opportunity and watched the job, for which she was fully qualified and capable of doing, go to “a man early in his career, with a fraction of my skills.”
One woman got a job that was previously occupied by a man, and her job level was dropped by four levels.
Trapped by domesticity
On being impacted by the pandemic, one woman wrote that she had long wanted to quit her job but felt guilty leaving, so she stayed. Then the pandemic hit and her place of employment closed. When it re-opened she was unable to return because of the childcare challenge.
Another mother added to this, saying it was hard to even think of work when looking after several children. (Odd, how looking after children never registers as “work” when the mother is doing it!).
Another woman also affected by the pandemic noted that while the father does contribute to parenting, it’s 70/30 percent split (with her doing the 70%).
One woman felt trapped in her marriage and the financial dependency (necessarily correlating with income disparity) that accompanied her entrapment.
Another woman has experienced a decline in income over the years.
Straight up Ageism
And this woman, who sought to change her career path in her mid-forties to earn a teaching degree, found that her age clearly worked against her: Even though she was an academic “high achiever, turns out school boards were mostly hiring 20-30 year olds.”
“Smash the patriarchy,” wrote this one. “You and I don’t have jobs because people are taught to hire white Anglo men who don’t age out of employment as quickly as others. Also we were born in the shadow of the Boomers who held onto jobs and crowded us out until we became invisible older women.” Those living in the shadows of the Boomers experienced recessions in 1980 and again in 1990, the dot com crash in the early 2000’s, and the economic meltdown of 2007.
Women need women to change the system
As one woman wrote in a separate email directly to me, “Filling out the survey triggered memory and emotion for me.” She wrote that her 50 years of experience has shown her that they “system is rigged, no matter what we try to do.” She felt that waiting for the system to change is an exercise in futility, and that a new way of doing things was needed.
“The community of women in Sooke could use a Wolf Pack of women focused services that addressed everything from financial consultation to clothes makers to food and farmers, to wellbeing supports from maiden to menopause, and all sorts of other stuff.”
She acknowledged that this might be “pie-in-the-sky” thinking, but added why not, “Nothing else is working.”
Another woman echoed this call, saying “Women need to focus on supporting women.”
Yet, another woman found that women often seem to be their own worst enemy. “With COVID-19 things bottomed out … [women] don’t seem to be able to help each other as much as we need or want to. … [W]e should be helping each other more.”
Not all negative
While there was much pain in the responses, there were also several women who had positive employment experiences, and a smaller number who noted that they had intentionally stayed at home to raise their children. They acknowledged their good fortune and equally acknowledged the importance of looking at the value of experience in women. These women were a notable minority.
Women are underutilized. Women generally feel that they are underutilized in their existing positions. This speaks to an untapped potential.
Employment gaps are perceived to be detrimental to career growth. Women are more likely to have gaps in employment due to parenting and caregiving demands.
Women’s work falls into an abyss of invisible time. On accounting for time, women’s time caregiving is not categorized as employment or volunteer work. While both women and men agree that women spend a significant more time on caregiving and domestic labour, there is still a sense that women and men have an equal amount of time available for the application and testing demands of seeking employment.
Ethnicity matters (not a good thing). Mostly white people responded, so this survey is not a good reflection of the experiences of First Nations or Visible Minorities in the more experienced positions. Where respondents were asked to reflect on the number of First Nations or Visible Minorities in positions of higher responsibility at the workplace, the whiteness of upper management became glaringly obvious. What becomes clear in looking at the responses is that there are significantly fewer visible minorities in the positions of higher responsibility, and almost nil for First Nations.
If it is hard for an experienced woman to acquire work in positions of higher responsibility, it is more than significantly more difficult for the non-Caucasian population. And if we need to see it in order to be it (ie, mentorship through existing representation), then these people have the double-challenge of targeting a reality in which they don’t already see themselves reflected.
We mostly accept that employment disparity exists. Yet, there seems to be extraordinarily little being done to rectify it. This leaves us with the hanging question, who is going to be the agent of change?
I’m attaching a 41-page DRAFT report of the findings. A substantial amount of research and analysis will still need to be done, but this report will show you the numbers and the results. If you are interested in sharing your story through an interview with me for possible expanded publication of this report (which I will be chipping away on over the next year or so), please contact me directly at email@example.com.