When I think about the impact RBG had on the life of a girl born in 1970, I am stunned. Before the 1971 Reed v. Reed case that she wrote the brief for, the Supreme Court had never invalidated any type of sex-based rule. Worse, it had rejected every challenge to laws that treated women worse than men. Following that first precedent case, her work through the ACLU Women’s Project and other cases it inspired gave me the right to have my own bank account and credit card. To play on a women’s soccer team at my high school. Apply to any public university or military academy I wanted. Earn the same as my male classmates in my first job out of college. Buy a car using credit. Get birth control when needed. Keep my job as an executive after my pregnancy. Be the executor of my parent’s estate, even though I have a brother.
What’s most important about the timing is that, as a little girl, my mother said I could do whatever I wanted. And I believed her. My guess, knowing my grandmother, is that she told my mom the same thing. By the time I was in my teens and twenties, I didn’t encounter the rash of rules, attitudes, and behaviors that suggested she was wrong. I graduated 22 years after Wesleyan admitted women and 28 years after Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business first did. My class at Wesleyan was 50/50. Tuck had further to go for gender parity when I started in 1996, but has reached it now. I came of age at a time where the obvious barriers had been dismantled one by one, early enough for me to not ask “What can I do?” The question I faced was “What did I want to do?” As I said in my footnote last week: “Thank you RBG. I could not do what I do, had you not done what you did.”
A Long Way to Go
RBG’s death—and the resulting surge of attention on gender equality—has reminded us we still have a lot of work to do. I spend my career in an industry that has a particular need to improve. Yes, I have been able to start a technology company, raise capital, and serve customers for over a decade. But I am still too often the only female in a room. And I have faced implicit biases while fundraising that have tangible consequences on my business outcomes. We still struggle, like most companies, to find senior women engineers.
In the work WeSpire does to help companies understand inclusive culture, we regularly find policies, practices, and behaviors that negatively affect women. One strategy that RBG used persistently is showing discrimination hurts more than the people who were being discriminated against. Her plaintiffs in equality cases were often men. WeSpire’s services work has uncovered similar patterns. At one company, we found that to succeed at the senior level, leaders had to have a stay at home spouse due to the firm’s outdated requirements for constant travel. Questioning that rule was a “third rail.” And the result had been a historical struggle to retain senior women. By 2017, many mid-level managers at this company had spouses with fulfilling careers and no desire for either to have to step back. Competitive firms had more modern views on travel. So they were losing top talent across the board. What had started as a gender issue was now a generational issue that risked their entire business.
Psychological safety is the belief that you can speak up, share ideas, and be yourself without fear of negative consequences. Research has shown it is the most critical factor for high performing teams. When we do psychological safety assessments for companies, we often find women feel significantly less psychologically safe. The remedy is very RBG-esque: work to improve psychological safety for everyone. This not only helps women; it drives overall performance and that benefits everyone.
This is one of the best lessons those of us who work in diversity, equity, and inclusion can take from the Notorious RBG. She made so much progress for women in large part because she focused on ensuring that life is equitable, and inclusive for many. It is a lesson we can and should apply to every equity challenge we face.
Quote of the Week: “A great Justice; a woman of valour; a rock of righteousness; and my good, good friend. The world is a better place for her having lived in it.”Justice Stephen Breyer