When Erin Schrode was just 11 years old, she witnessed the power one inspired woman could wield.
“It was 2002, and my mom found out that the county where we lived in Marin, Calif., had the highest breast, prostate, and melanoma cancer rates in the world—and nobody knew why,” says Schrode. “Rather than doing nothing, my mom launched a door-to-door campaign asking our community members why they thought these rates were so high.” Two years later, another study came out linking certain ingredients in personal-care products with cancer, and “the fact that there was no governmental oversight of what was being put into our products just didn’t compute in my 13-year-old mind,” says Schrode. So, she and her mom co-founded Turning Green, a nonprofit dedicated to environmental advocacy.
Schrode started lecturing her fellow 8th-graders about the fact that there was no regulation for beauty and household products that were potentially cancerous. She traveled around the world (she’s up to 70 countries and counting) to spread a message of personal responsibility—everything from the benefits of buying fair-trade food to the importance of registering to vote. “I’ve always been an activist,” says the now-25-year-old. “I’ve always felt that just because I can’t do everything doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do something.”
Schrode ran for state congress in California’s District 2 in her home of Marin County. She was the youngest woman ever to run for office. While she lost in the primary to a much older male incumbent, her platform and her determination were a huge inspiration.
“Women still need to go so far when it comes to gender equality,” says Schrode, whose top platforms were environmental and public health, the future of work, human rights, and tech innovation. “Our recent election is further proof that we’re in a pivotal moment of change—and that we’ve still got a lot of work ahead of us.”
Where We Stand Now
There’s no doubt women have made significant progress since Susan B. Anthony was fighting for our right to vote in the 1860s and Betty Friedan was writing about the American housewife’s frustration with her (submissive) lot in life 100 years later. Schrode is a prime example of that, as are so many women who are working full-time and charting their own course rather than simply doing what’s expected of them. “I think it’s important to realize that unlike women a generation or two before us, it’s much easier than ever for women to make decisions based on what we want to do rather than what’s expected of us,” says Liz Ming, 38, a teacher in New York City. “When my mom was in high school and thinking about college, she was told she could be a teacher, nurse, or secretary—that was it. I try to keep that in mind when I read about all of the ways we are still falling short compared to men.”
And there are plenty of examples of how much we have yet to accomplish before true gender equality is reached.
Women still earn only 78 cents for every dollar a man makes, and make up a mere 14.2 percent of the top-five leadership roles at Fortune 500 companies. In fact, there are more CEOs named John than women CEOs overall in this country. We’re underrepresented in government, too: While there are 108 women in Congress—the highest total ever, including five minority women who were recently elected—both the House and the Senate are still roughly 80 percent men compared to 20 percent women.
“We’ve come a great way—it’s just that women and men alike who are interested in women’s advancement thought the progress would be faster,” says Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Joann Lublin, author of Earning It: Hard-Won Lessons from Trailblazing Women at the Top of the Business World. Lublin interviewed more than 50 executive women who broke through the corporate glass ceiling, and her book reveals some of their most surprising and insightful lessons. “When it comes to gender pay, equity, and getting ahead in your career, there’s been a lot of progress—but there’s also been a lot of setbacks,” says Lublin.
Katherine Miller, founding executive director of the Chef Action Network, who also serves on the board of two women’s advocacy nonprofits, says she believes some of those setbacks may have to do with the fact that for the last three or so decades, women thought gender equality had finally arrived. “For a long while, we had this sense that we’d made so much progress—we thought we were equal—that it led us to be complacent rather than working to make sure we were truly equal,” says Miller. “Now, I think we have woken up to the fact that gender equality doesn’t exist, and if we want it to, we have to be clear about what we want and then take action to make sure it happens.”
That’s one of the motivations forming Schrode’s run for public office. “I am tremendously grateful for every woman who’s paved the way before me, but I’ve never fooled myself—we don’t have anything resembling gender equality right now,” says Schrode. “I’ve been sexually assaulted. The number of lewd comments I’ve faced because I’m a woman is reprehensible. The deck is stacked against us, but I will not let that deter me.”
Ashley Crawford, 37, a healthcare manager in Denver, Colo., says it makes her sad to realize how many times she hasn’t done anything in the face of sexism—and worse, has perpetuated it because of ingrained beliefs and societal norms. “I hate the fact that there are different rules for women and men—and yet there are times when I catch myself playing small at work because I don’t want co-workers to think I’m overbearing, or I complain about my boyfriend not being ‘manly’ enough,” she says. “I’m embarrassed to admit I do these things, but I think it’s an important part of the conversation.”
To be sure, change starts with this kind of honest conversation, says Schrode. It’s important then to do something, even if what you do impacts just one person. She adds, “I often urge people to look for what I call the pain points in their lives—the places where they think a shift can be made to make that pain a little lighter. That is how we’re going to collectively move the needle.”
So, what can you do to help women move more toward true gender equality?
Be a role model. Have you made it to a management position at your company, launched your own business, or have some sort of leadership position either in your job or your community? Well, it’s time to step into your role as an outspoken advocate for women’s issues if you haven’t already. “Several of the women I interviewed who are CEOs or in upper management are taking responsibility for acting as a role model for both the women and men in their organizations,” says Lublin. “There’s tremendous power in the informal ways these women can change company policies.” To wit: Lublin says she talked to one woman in senior management at a technology company who decided that when her son entered his last year of high school, she was going to leave work early one night a week to take him out to dinner. Rather than slink out of the office at 4 p.m. worried what her colleagues would think, this woman told everyone at the company what she was doing and even wrote a blog about this important family ritual that was posted on the company’s website—and she got positive feedback. Fully stepping into your role and making it work for you not only helps you but also has the potential to inspire and help the women around you, too, says Lublin.
Find a sponsor. At some point, you were probably given the advice to get a mentor—someone at work who’d be able to give you advice and offer support when you most needed it. While that’s great, Lublin says the most successful women she’s talked to take this concept one step further and find a sponsor—a senior-level person at your company, and often a man, who is willing to put his or her own political capital and professional reputation on the line to be your advocate. “A sponsor is someone who’ll tell upper management that you ought to be promoted or put on a task force,” says Lublin. If you’re a woman who has senior rank at your company, you should sponsor a high-potential female colleague, she adds. “There is a larger percentage of women in senior ranks than ever before, and most of them are giving back in this way,” says Lublin. “But we need to have more female sponsors. That’s one thing that could make this slow progress pick up.”
Be sure you want the corner office. Sharon Harshbarger Kucera, a financial advisor at Morgan Stanley Wealth management in Lawrenceville, N.J., says the reason there are so few women in senior management roles may be because CEOs often don’t own their own lives. “When you are that senior, your life is scheduled—you have an entourage,” says Kucera. “For a lot of women, connection to family and harmony in life ranks higher.” That was the case for Kucera. After years climbing her way to the top ranks of a big investment firm, Kucera says she realized that becoming CEO wasn’t what she wanted, so she started her own financial advisory business. “At a certain point, I realized I didn’t want to win the game these guys had created,” she says. “It may sound defeatist, but it’s actually pretty empowering.”
Don’t just ask for a raise. It’s easy to let the stats on pay equity prompt you to ask for more money—especially if you find out a male peer is making more than you for doing the same work. Yet, Kucera says, it’s crucial to do some homework first. “I tell women they should be thinking about what they’ve accomplished—and quantifying those accomplishments—every quarter,” says Kucera. A key part of this is not only listing what you’ve done but also confirming it with your colleagues—not just your boss, she adds. It’s a win-win: Your boss should be happy that he or she knows what you’re accomplishing, and it’s helping you build relationships with others in the company. This puts you in a much better position to ask for more money because you’ve consistently built a case for it, says Kucera.
Find out what your male (and female) counterparts are making. Think it’s taboo to talk money? Think again, says Kucera. Talk to your counterparts at your company and have a frank conversation about compensation. You might even ask colleagues you trust at other companies what they make. “Actively think about your network and make a few calls,” says Kucera, who at one point in her career asked a female counterpart at a different firm to lunch so she could get a sense of where she stood from a workload and compensation perspective. “It’s easy to shy away from doing this because you assume people won’t be agreeable,” says Kucera. “But you’d be surprised.” Feel a little uncomfortable being this forward and need a nudge to do this kind of salary research or to ask for a raise? Kucera has a tip: Look at a picture of your family. “Women hate asking for things for themselves—and we make excuses for why we can’t do it by focusing on all of our insecurities,” she says. “Look at your kids: Do you want them to have debt because you didn’t want to be the squeaky wheel?”
Fight “impostor syndrome.” It’s easy to listen to that little (or big) voice inside you saying you’re not good enough and to let that self-doubt hold you back. When you hear that voice, silence it, says Lublin. One way to do this is to pursue small-scale assignments rather than big ones. “If you start working on a project and step forward, you’re going to learn how agile you are,” says Lublin. If you’re a manager, a great way to tamp down those voices of self-doubt is to choose a team that will enable your success and help you thrive. “One of the best ways to do that is to commit to helping them succeed, too,” says Lublin. (It’s also a great tactic if you’ve got men working for you who aren’t showing you respect, Lublin adds.)
Loop in the men in your life. When it comes to advancing women’s issues, it can be tempting to rally the women in your life behind the cause—and avoid the men altogether. But Imani Laners, CEO and SVP of content development, strategy, and sales for Shinko Media in Clifton, N.J., says this isn’t necessarily the best way to go. “We already have the support from our own gender—what we need is more support from the opposite sex,” says Laners.
Is it a bit more uncomfortable to talk about these issues in front of men? Oftentimes, yes—and that’s the point, says Laners. “If we want pay equality, why are we having conferences about leaning in but not inviting the people who make the decisions, like the male managers?” she says. “If you look at any movement, one of the best ways to get results is to put the people who can make the changes on the frontlines. Doing that can feel a little unsettling. But when you get uncomfortable, that’s when the needle moves.”