I recently had the pleasure of attending a talk on the male-female dynamic in the workplace given by alumna Sandra Pomeroy ’83. I expected the discussion to center around the difficulties women experienced in the workplace due to structural inequalities in business. Refreshingly, Pomeroy reflected fondly on her experiences in the past and had a hopeful prognosis for the future of gender equality, especially in finance.
It is easy to get caught up in thinking about the present and the struggles many women still experience on a daily basis. Pay inequality, sexual harassment, and discrimination on the basis of gender are real issues that demand our continued attention. But, we’ve come a long way since the 1980s, and that also warrants our focus.
When Pomeroy was starting out in the banking world after graduating from Colgate, there were few women in her office. She notes that the men were cautious around her and her female colleagues at first, and that it took a while before the attitude of the workplace actually reflected the diversity of its members. As she was talking about her experience, she didn’t seem upset or scarred because of it. Instead she continuously referenced how much things had changed. She was laughing and joking about the way things used to be. I suppose this is partly because the business world has seen a dramatic improvement in gender equality since she started working, but it also may be due to the fact that it was a learning experience for her. Because she experienced both a homogenous environment with mostly men and one with more diversity, she can definitively say her team works better because her colleagues have different perspectives and ways of thinking
There’s a new documentary coming out called Makers that chronicles a group of women from when they started working in the 1980s. A recent Huffington Post article features a video interview with the director, discussing what she learned from the women she interviewed. The snippets of the film discussed are somewhat surprising, like some of the pranks played on women before men realized what behavior was and wasn’t appropriate for the workplace. The filmmaker explains how surprised she was to hear some of the stories, which is an indication of how far gender equality has come.
This is not to say that there isn’t a lot left to be done to make the workplace a better environment for everyone, but sometimes it’s nice to look back on the not-so-distant past, laugh, and remind ourselves of how far we’ve come. These types of memories are important reminders of how not to conduct ourselves, but also good places to return to in case we ever feel discouraged. It can be daunting thinking about ways to affect change on such a large scale, but it’s encouraging when you realize that the same women who once had to wear men’s suits just to fit in at the office are now leading the business world. And unabashedly wearing skirts.