How can we each accelerate the pace of positive change for women in the workplace?

How can we each accelerate the pace of positive change for women in the workplace?

{Marian W. Wentworth visits with health workers during a trip to Uganda in 2017. Photo credit: Warren Zelman}Marian W. Wentworth visits with health workers during a trip to Uganda in 2017. Photo credit: Warren Zelman

I began my career in the private sector almost always as the only woman in the room. Like many women of my generation, I experienced the kind of casual sexism that for too long was considered acceptable. But I also experienced firsthand more abusive forms of discrimination.  As I moved up in the organization, I began to see how sexism affected other women around me. I remember reviewing male and female candidates who were being assessed for readiness for promotion and noticing a distinct trend: The female candidates were assessed on their achievements; the male candidates on their potential. This situation worsened as candidates were actually selected for roles. Average achieving, “high potential” male candidates were being promoted over women who had tangible track records of accomplishments. While the trend was obvious, the solutions were not. We tried a series of different ways to shift this trend in our organization, but none produced quick results.  How we assess potential — and in whom — is but one example of the kind of systemic sexism that forces women to work harder to achieve professional success, and why some of us find it too much to fight.

The world is changing, even in places long resistant to change. A few weeks ago, I had the chance to attend the Women’s Congressional Institute Gala in Washington DC, which celebrated the highest percentage of women in Congress in US history: nearly 25% of the US Congress is female. Most women in Congress were in attendance, and the first and only woman to be Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, gave the keynote address. We took pictures and I texted them to the women in my family. The text messages of enthusiasm flew around my phone for hours. It was a grand night. The United States is not doing as well as Rwanda, which I recently visited, which leads the world with 61% of elected representatives being women, or France, where women represent 40% of their elected government officials, but it is genuine progress.

In my own career, as the President and CEO of Management Sciences for Health, a global health NGO, I am still a minority, but not a minority of one. A few large NGOs are led by women, as are a number of smaller NGOs and implementers. It can still feel like a boy’s club, but one in which I have female company. MSH is by far majority female, and four of my leadership team are women. According to a 2018 study from Quantum Impact, 44% of leadership teams in global development are women. Of course, 71% of entry-level workers in development are women; how and when we drop off is a topic that needs to be addressed. We have a long way to go, but we have come a long way too.

As I worked my way up in the private sector, I was occasionally able to work with women, and eventually those occasions became frequent. Sometimes we supported each other. Sometimes we criticized each other on the basis of superficial things like makeup and clothes. Over time, it got better: those superficial issues became tips we shared in the bathroom and a source of camaraderie. We eventually learned that supporting each other was a source of strength and not an admission of weakness. We also began to find ways to bring men into the cause. Today, I am in more of a position to make a difference than ever. For me, supporting women, mentoring women, sponsoring women, and tackling barriers to women’s advancement is a personal cause.

I am looking forward to addressing this at the 2019 Forum to Advance Women’s Leadership in the Global Development Sector, where I will lead a roundtable on visioning for success and transforming problems into challenges to overcome personal and professional roadblocks. I look forward to hearing from other women about their experiences and how we can work together to build a more equitable world.