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NEAR TRUTHS:
TWO STEPS FORWARD

TWO STEPS FORWARD: We have a lot of months officially designated to celebrate people who have been—and continue to be—denied equal treatment at all levels of society and culture. During these months we’re encouraged to celebrate progress and make upbeat statements about positive change. And so, during this Women’s History Month, we’ve seen a lot of “you go, girl” rah-rah sentiment from high-profile companies and platforms. It would be inaccurate to deny that there are more women in high-profile posts in the biz than ever before and unfair not to salute the extraordinary professionals occupying those posts—and the many more making their way up the ranks, overcoming enormous obstacles. But those obstacles remain.

We are not only duty-bound but delighted to note that the situation for women at the top of the industry pyramid is better than it was even a few years ago and that the development, mentoring and encouragement of young female execs is in a new and far more promising stage than ever before. We are obligated but outraged that there isn’t much more balance at all levels of the biz.

More support, more mentoring and more guidance are needed. Talented young women in the biz must be encouraged to believe that the uppermost corridors of power are theirs to seize. This needs to happen in all sectors. Many women believe the vast majority of such mentoring and support is coming from women—male execs have not been conspicuously active in hiring and developing women on their teams beyond what optics have required.

But there are other considerations that the cheerful bromides of an official month rarely confront: What is it like for the women who attain these airy perches of command in their daily meetings, casual conversations, email and text threads as their male colleagues process a power dynamic in which they must answer to female authority? One top-tier exec described a weird ritual whereby, when she began to address a roomful of male peers, they all looked down at their laptops simultaneously, as though choreographed. Others describe irritating differences in tone, mansplaining dressed in the drag of deferral.

“The events of the last few years have forced a lot of white people in the business to examine their privilege and their assumptions in important ways,” another exec muses. “But the same thing hasn’t happened with gender.”

THE LEGACY OF HASHTAGS: Some industry women we asked volunteered the surprising opinion that the #MeToo movement, for all its importance in exposing harassment and sexual violence, may also have done some harm. This is because men started actively excluding them for fear of being called out for behavior that might newly be considered questionable. In fact, we’re told, more than a few men have admitted that they have to some extent kept the women in their circle at arm’s length to avoid “misunderstandings.”

BALANCING ACTS: Several women execs we spoke with said that even with a highly supportive structure and team at work, they are burning the candle at both ends. “The pandemic destroyed all boundaries” between work and downtime, one insider comments. “Even with childcare help, I need to be there for my kids when I get home and spend whatever hours I have at home with them. Sure, we can have it all— except sleep.”

What’s more, quite a few women in top positions who worked their way there while raising children now find themselves obliged to “nurture” above and beyond their job descriptions—hand-holding, pep talks and counseling are expected in a way they rarely, if ever, are from men in similar posts.

Something else that hasn’t changed, or hasn’t changed enough, several insiders emphasize: Women have been forced to choose between embracing an executive path and embracing motherhood—too much emphasis on being a mom and you’d be considered somehow weak and not be taken seriously. If we’re going to make progress, these biz players say, we need a culture in which women in charge are not only able to be committed moms but can give the women on their teams the freedom to carve out space for their families. “I was fortunate to work for years for a man who insisted that his team carve out time for their personal lives,” one prominent female exec notes. “But he was more the exception than the rule.”

It takes a change in company culture to make this the standard, and even many women at or near the top of the food chain are still wary about emphasizing their maternal roles too much.

The fact is, you can do the job and go to your kids’ soccer games and school plays. You can do the job and tuck your kids in at night (perhaps not every night, but you get the point). You can do the job and not have to downplay your role as a mom. It is not weakness that you excel in your work but are also able to put your work aside to attend to your children. It’s a mark of strength.

Will the pandemic, having obliterated so many boundaries, bring about a correction—forcing male execs to make work/life balance a priority and thus finally making that possible for working moms?

SPLAIN TALK: Feelings of vaulting hope and bitter frustration often coexist these days—witness the Senate confirmation hearings for SCOTUS nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. On one hand, Judge Jackson’s nomination is historic and represents the possibility of a profoundly new perspective on the hidebound court, most recently dragged to the ultra-right by Trump’s trinity of train-wreck appointments. On the other hand, the door to her becoming one of The Nine is still guarded by the same sorts of Jim Crow misogynist shitheads who’ve always blocked progress in America. That we’re still subject to their noxious babble is inexpressibly galling. But we can’t let them rain on what few parades we have.

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