In this edition of Centric Commemorates, we celebrate Women’s History Month. Jennifer Oertli shares her perspectives, experiences and hopes for the future.
I grew up in the 70s and 80s.
Male and female roles were what you’d expect back then – traditional. When my mom wasn’t home with me and my older brother, she worked as a secretary. Not an administrative assistant, a secretary, because neither the modern title nor set of responsibilities existed back then. Women made the coffee. Women filed papers. Women took orders from men. That was my understanding.
Secretaries and teachers were my role models. Being a CEO or the President of the United States was not something I ever dreamt of becoming. Marie Wilson of The White House Project said, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” and that was my experience. I didn’t see women at the top of any organization or institution, so I didn’t aspire to be at the top either.
Don’t get me wrong. Being a teacher or secretary is honorable work. We need these valuable professions. But they are also some of the lowest paying jobs, then and now. My question is, why are these jobs mostly filled by women?
- Women comprise 89 percent of teachers in public elementary schools, 72 percent of teachers in public middle schools, and 60 percent of teachers in public high schools.
- There are over 2,025,512 administrative assistants currently employed in the United States.
- 87.3 percent of all administrative assistants are women, while 12.7 percent are men.
- San Francisco, CA pays administrative assistants an annual average wage of $45,740, the highest in the US. (San Francisco, people. One of the most expensive cities in the country!)
When I was a junior in high school, I attended a career day where all these fancy-suited businesspeople came in to share what they did for a living and help us understand what was available to us later in life. I was enamored with the guy from the local TV station because his job as a reporter seemed so glamorous. As I looked further, I saw women at the morning news desk, all made up with blue eye shadow and feathered hair, and I decided right then that someday I was going to be one of them. I was going to be the next Jane Pauley.
My junior year in college, I landed an internship at a local news station, and I was thrilled. I was assigned the tape intern job which meant I ran around the newsroom finding tapes with footage of the fire on the south side from last week or the shooting in the suburbs from the other night. I noticed the men were assigned internships in the sports department and at the assignment desk where the station developed stories and dispatched camera crews. While I didn’t overthink it then, it isn’t lost on me now that they relegated the women to administrative tasks, and the guys handled more “serious” internships.
I also observed people mainly admired the women reporters and anchors for how they looked and sounded when delivering the news. The men were perceived as more serious journalists, despite their appearance. I felt that to get an on-air position as a woman, I needed to be a pretty face.
As interns, we were allowed to build a resume tape after hours and on weekends. But after sitting at the news desk and reading what I wrote, I watched myself back and hated the way I looked. I felt unappealing and shlumpy, and that was demoralizing. When the whole world tells you your worth and value are based on how you look, not feeling pretty enough is devastating.
A few years later I landed a job in the creative industry where I worked with artists, photographers, writers and designers. Over time, I learned what made those people tick. I discovered that people are more than their outside packaging. I learned about something called talent, and talent doesn’t care about your gender. My talent was that I could see things in them that they often couldn’t see in themselves.
And this is where I am today. I work in change and reinvention. I help people overcome fears and biases and resistance to become successful in work and life. This is the most rewarding pursuit of my career.
But, what about being POTUS? Or a CEO?
Remember Virginia Slims, the skinny little cigarette marketed to women? Their tagline was, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
But have we? Here are the current facts:
- Women make up 50.5 percent of the US population (US Census Bureau)
- Number of women who have been elected US Presidents – 0 (46 men)
- Number of women who have been elected US Vice Presidents – 1 (48 men)
- As of June 2022, there were 147 (28 percent) women in Congress (according to the 2022 Gender Parity Index)
- From McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace study
- 32 percent of women in technical and engineering roles are often the only woman in the room at work.
- Women leaders are 2x as likely as men leaders to be mistaken for someone more junior.
- 37 percent of women leaders have had a coworker get credit for their idea, compared to 27 percent of men leaders.
But there are bright spots:
- Women are more likely to have earned a bachelor’s degree by age 29. 34 percent of women, 26 percent of men.
- More women are owning their own businesses. Between 1997 and 2014, the total number of women-owned businesses in the United States increased by 68 percent.
- From the McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace study, women reported having negotiated for raises more than men. 31 percent of women vs 29 percent of men.
- For the first time in the Fortune 500 list’s 68-year history, as of January 1, 2023, more than 10 percent – 53 companies – are led by women.
While the onus is not just on us as women to spark the change, I believe there are four things we could do to further our progress starting now:
- Know yourself and become intimate with what you want. I can count on one hand the number of women I know who can readily describe exactly what they want. Why? Fear, unwillingness to go deep, resignation to the status quo, a feeling they should be grateful for what they have and not expect more (two things that are not mutually exclusive), and more. If you don’t know who you are and what you want, you cannot expect to get where you want to go.
- Cultivate your Emotional IQ. Build on who you are and what you want and become acutely self-aware of your thoughts and behaviors that help you get ahead, and those that hinder you. You must understand not just how you see yourself, but how others see you and what may be holding you back. As my therapist said, “awareness is everything.”
- Hone your communication skills. Knowing what you want is one thing, being able to share it effectively is another. I recommend Matt Hawkins’ Communicating with Purpose courses. As Jim Rohn said, “Take advantage of every opportunity to practice your communication skills so that when important occasions arise, you will have the gift, the style, the sharpness, the clarity, and the emotions to affect other people.”
- See and seek out men as allies. If our goal is parity and empowerment, we must shift from “us versus them,” to “we.” Not to oversimplify the solution, but if men are the ones who mainly hold the power, wouldn’t logic follow that we need open, supportive men to be our allies? Check out Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals to understand the “we” mentality.
The upside of gender parity in the workplace not just for women, but our economic culture overall? According to a McKinsey Global Institute report, “In a “full potential” scenario in which women participate in the economy identically to men, $28 trillion dollars (26 percent) would be added to the annual global GDP when compared to the current business-as-usual scenario.”
Now imagine knowing who you are, what you want, communicating it effectively, and recruiting your teams of supporters. You’ll “go a long way, baby.” And instead of having to imagine what a woman at the top looks like, you’ll be her and nothing will stop you.
So who are you, and what do you want?
Through these stories, we’ll seek to learn, understand, and empathize. We’ll celebrate our differences and realize that though we have varied backgrounds and perspectives, we are one team.