Photo credit: Tamzin B. Smith Portrait Photography
We have fought this battle before. We fought, we won, and yet were unable to claim a total victory.
This is what ran through my head in 2017 when I was deciding whether to break my non-disclosure agreement with WNYC and talk publicly about the bullying and harassment I'd endured while working there. I wondered, "Are women doomed to fight the same battle over and over, generation after generation?"
As a journalist who had covered the issue of sexual harassment and discrimination for years, I already knew several facts about my situation.
- Tens of thousands of women had been in the same or similar situation
- Some had fought and won
- Some had fought and lost
- Neither the wins nor the losses had significantly changed the daily working lives of women
Before I decided what to do, I did even more research in the hopes that I could learn from what other women had gone through. As the novelist George Santayana once said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
One of the first stories I read was about Lisa Mays and the women who sued Wall Street. Mays was sexually assaulted while working at Smith Barney and she filed a class action suit against the firm, along with 22 other women. Almost 2,000 women ended up joining the suit, and Smith Barney paid $150 million dollars to settle the case.
One woman told the Washington Post at the time that "It's like they have a manual in their heads as to how to crush women." The case was nicknamed the "Boom-Boom-Room," after an actual room in the firm's Garden City office where male executives consumed vast amounts of alcohol, made lewd comments, and groped multiple women. Think The Wolf of Wall Street, but real life and no Leonardo DiCaprio.
The women who filed the suit were battling mandatory arbitration, a system that forced them to handle complaints within the company and generally take their sexual harassment and assault accusations to white, male arbitrators. One broker allegedly told his female employee that charges of sexual harassment would be dealt with in the Boom-Boom-Room.
Those brave women won their case and helped establish legal precedent for claims of sexual harassment in the workplace. And yet, here we are decades later and 55% of workers who report harassment are still subject to mandatory arbitration. That's more than double the number in the early 2000s. Despite the court victory in the 1990s, one Wall Street lawyer told the New York Times that about 90% of her clients are blocked from legal relief because of binding arbitration agreements. Furthermore, employers have found other ways to silence their workers, like the non-disclosure agreement that I signed when I took the job at WNYC. I chose to speak up in 2017, breaking the NDA that I signed and risking legal action.
One of the great benefits of hosting the show "Retro Report" on PBS is that our mission is to bring greater understanding of today's events by tracing them back to their roots in history. We talked about the #MeToo movement, for example, by telling the story of Lisa Mays and the other women who sued Smith Barney.
Knowing our history, as George Santayana implied, can give us context and insight to better inform our current experience. Even recent history can help. While mulling over my options in 2017, I called the other women who had preceded me in my position to hear what they'd endured and how they'd handled it.
Despite the lessons of both recent and distant history, I was faced with a decision between remaining silent and safe or speaking up to protect the future but risking retaliation. I may have learned from the past but my employers had not. Or, perhaps we had both just learned very different lessons.
A number of the women who were part of the Boom-Boom-Room suit now say that change has been incremental or non-existent in financial firms. If anything, they say, legal victories have simply made the harassment and discrimination more subtle than in was during the heyday of 1990s bro culture.
To quote another famous philosopher, Georg Hegel once said "We learn from history that we do not learn from history." Time and again, we see that mistakes of the past are made by ensuing generations in a never-ending cycle of bad choices with little retribution.
If we are to truly learn from history, it can only be done by examining our past with a clear and honest eye, not seeking to excuse or justify anyone but, instead, to avoid the errors of our elders. I've learned to never sign away my right to justice. I hope other women will learn the same lesson from my experience and the experience of all the women who have come before me. We have fought this battle before. It's time to claim true victory: an end to the contract clauses that seek to silence us.
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."