Women at work: The state of gender equity

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Sujatha Ramanujan wonders if she ever was the first choice for a senior leadership position. She finds that women have to work harder to earn their titles than their male peers.

“I was considered only if a white male turned it down first, even if I was a better candidate,” says Ramanujan, a scientist and entrepreneur who runs NextCorps’ successful Luminate NY accelerator as its managing director. “I am reminded of an executive position I held, where I had to build a business and raise millions of dollars to be voted into the C-suite. However, the C-suite men went out for beers, maybe had a few conversations (and) then were given titles.”

Ramanujan isn’t resentful that she was asked to prove herself time and time again. She is bothered by the fact that others are not held to the same standards.

Her views are shared by other female executives and entrepreneurs here and around the world. They find that gender biases and the gender pay gap still exist, even though more women are in the workforce and in leadership roles than in the past. An antidote to such obstacles, they say, is for women to support other women, and ensure they’re making room for the next generation of enterprising individuals who are women or identify as such.

“When I started my career, I was unaware of the fact that women’s lib didn’t finish the job,” says Natalie Sinisgalli-Kettavong, who runs her own photography business, NSP Studio. “I thought that my mom’s generation had solved this problem for us. It was like something in the history books. My parents raised me to believe that I could do anything I wanted. I’m very grateful for that upbringing, and that worldview. It was kind of a slap in the face when I learned that the whole world didn’t share that view.”

This year, the United Nations’ theme for International Women’s Day – March 8 – is “Invest in women: Accelerate Progress.” The UN posits that achieving gender equality and women’s well-being in all aspects of life is more crucial than ever if we want to create prosperous economies and a healthy planet.

The Rochester Beacon posed questions to female change makers to learn whether gender equality has progressed, the hurdles they faced in their careers, and their advice for women entering the workforce.

Measuring progress

When it comes to gender equality, progress is a loaded term. In what time frame? Will women ever be equal? Others suggest equity is a better way to discuss the issue. Regardless, the prevailing sense is that there has been some progress, but not enough.

“There are periods of great progress such as the changes in the seventies. But, of late, I am not so sure,” Ramanujan says. “We have watched as women’s rights are eroded across this nation and (we are) insufficiently alarmed. When we lose our physical autonomy, there is little progress that can seem significant.”

Kathleen Whelehan, president and CEO of Upstate National Bank, says that there has been significant progress.

“Men used to be doctors, women were the nurses. Men were school principals, women were the teachers. Men were the managers, women were the administrative support people,” Whelehan says. “Now we have many women in medeical school, law school and business school. It is still somewhat new, but becoming ‘normal,’ to see women as university presidents, heads of companies, and taking leadership roles in government and the military.”

Seanelle Hawkins, president and CEO of the Urban League of Rochester, is also inspired by changes in New York State and in Rochester, calling attention to New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, former Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren and Yversha Roman, the first Latina to lead the Monroe County Legislature.

“It’s heartening to see more women breaking into traditionally male-dominated fields and excelling in their roles, demonstrating their competence and capacity for leadership,” Hawkins says. “However, amidst our celebrations, it’s crucial to recognize that there is still much work to be done in ensuring full gender and racial equity. When we prioritize equity, we dismantle the obstacles that stand in the way of creating a more just and equitable society.”

Jaime Saunders, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Rochester and the Finger Lakes, also notes the signs of progress. For instance, women outnumber men in the U.S. college-educated workforce–51 percent of those 25 and older are female, according to a Pew Research report. This shift first occurred in the fourth quarter of 2019.

“Yet significant gaps remain in valuing the work of women who still earn an average of 80 cents on the dollar to male co-workers,” Saunders says. “The pay gap is even greater for women of color – 70 cents and 65 cents for Black and Latina women, respectively, compared to white women at 83 cents. Bottom line: Women earn less.”

“The reasons can no longer be tied to motherhood or lower-paid career choices,” she adds. “The value of work, the support for childcare, sharing of home responsibilities, health outcomes, and access to opportunities for mentoring and personal/professional development are also signals of how we are doing in achieving gender equity, and we have more work to do.”

By the numbers

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median usual weekly earnings for women who were full-time wage and salary workers rose from 62 to 83 percent of men’s earnings from 1979 to 2022 across the U.S.

Following steady growth from the 1980s until the early 1990s, that earnings progress stagnated before rising again in the mid-2000s. However, over the last two decades, the women’s-to-men’s earnings ratio has remained in the 80 to 83 percent range.

According to a projection by the American Association of University Women, at its current rate, wage equity will be achieved in 2041 for Asian women, 2069 for white women, 2369 for black women, and 2451 for Hispanic women.

In 2021, New York actually had the second smallest wage gap in the country (behind Vermont), averaging out to about 88 cents for every dollar earned by men. Still, that gap is substantially larger for women of color. Black and Hispanic women earned at a rate of 67 and 62 percent compared to men in that same year.

This is particularly significant when applied to lifelong financial effects. Even with a college degree, a woman will begin her career with a pay gap that will grow wider throughout her lifetime. The New York Department of Labor estimates that today’s wage gap would cost a woman $350,360 in diminished lifetime earnings over a 40-year working career. This increases to $986,800 and $1,214,240 for Black and Hispanic women, respectively.

At an earning rate of 82 percent for women compared to men, Monroe County is closer to the average for the U.S. rather than New York State. In the Finger Lakes region, it is one of the better-performing counties in this respect, however.

Within Monroe County itself, wage parity is closest in the western part of the city of Rochester. From 2012 to 2022, the median earned wages of all women were at least 89 percent of men’s in this region, Public Use Microuse Area data from the American Community Survey show that. The eastern side of the city and central PUMA area of the county (which includes the towns of Greece and Gates) were the areas with the next most parity in wages.

The east PUMA region (which is made up of Irondequoit, Webster, Penfield and East Rochester) has shown growth in recent years, and the rate is currently at 86 percent. The north and west PUMA section (including Hilton, Clarkson, Sweden, Riga, Chili and Wheatland) has been at low-80s since 2018.

The southern PUMA area of Monroe County — which includes the towns of Brighton, Henrietta, Pittsford, Perinton, Mendon and Rush — saw women earn around the mid-70s compared to men in this same time period.

The southern region also had the highest overall wages in the county. In contrast, the city of Rochester and central PUMA area had lower median earnings ($45,000 compared to $75,000), suggesting an opportunity to achieve wage parity more easily.

Beyond a moral argument of “equal pay for equal work,” proponents of closing the pay gap argue it would promote innovation and competition, provide a boost to the economy and reduce poverty. And in a country where more women are becoming primary breadwinners, pay disparities will end up affecting all families.

Overcoming obstacles

The wage gap is only one challenge women face in the workplace. Many high-performing female leaders and business owners have to overcome imposter syndrome — doubting their abilities internally while succeeding externally.

An October 2023 KPMG survey found that 75 percent of executive women experienced imposter syndrome at some point in their career. Eighty-five percent believe the syndrome is commonly experienced by women in corporate America. A whopping 81 percent believe they put more pressure on themselves not to fail than men do, and 75 percent say they think their male counterparts don’t experience self-doubt as much as their female peers.

LaShunda Leslie-Smith, executive director of Connected Communities, has overcome and defeated this syndrome, she says. When she told herself she belonged in a space (she is often seen as Black first and a woman second), it changed the dynamic.

“Once I realized that I belonged in those rooms, belonged at those tables, I didn’t have to code switch for acceptance because I had already accepted myself,” Leslie-Smith says.

Ebony Miller-Wesley, director of the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship at Rochester Institute of Technology, knows this feeling well.

“I tend to be somewhat of a perfectionist, often focusing on what could have been improved upon, or executed differently, as opposed to the success of the event, situation or project,” Miller-Wesley says. “Because of this, I have difficulty delegating. That said, early on in my current role, I struggled with advocating for myself, my views and my beliefs for fear of being judged or viewed as not fit or competent.”

She has overcome it by reminding herself to revisit her “why” and celebrate her achievements.

If she were asked before 2022, Ana Liss, director of the Monroe County Department of Planning and Development, would point to the Great Recession as an obstacle in her career arc. She had just entered the workforce but had to switch gears, like many others, and go back to school for a graduate degree. Then, she worked on clearing student loan debt, which meant putting off marriage, motherhood and home ownership.

In 2022, she and her husband welcomed their first child. At that time the county did not have any paid leave policy — Monroe County Executive Adam Bello has since changed that, allowing for a new parent to access a month of paid leave after birth or adoption.

“Thanks to (the Family Medical Leave Act), I was fortunately able to take 12 weeks of leave, but it involved exhausting all of my time banks and six weeks of no pay,” recalls Liss, who is also  executive director of County of Monroe Industrial Development Agency and Monroe County Industrial Development Corp. “I was lucky that there were no complications in our birth and that I was not healing from a C-section, which may have caused me to need to take more time.”

“The disruption in pay, major life change, the ensuing challenge to find and pay for full-time childcare, and reintroduction to my job as a new mom combined to be a bigger hurdle in my career than the one presented by the Great Recession,” she adds.

Liss leaned on family and focused on figuring a way forward. Susan Holliday, former president, publisher and owner of the Rochester Business Journal and chair of Financial Institutions and Five Star Bank, also feels fortunate to have had a strong family support system to help her balance work and home responsibilities.

“I certainly felt guilty from time to time, not being a stay-at-home mom,” she says. “I’m not sure that that is something that I would say that I overcame, but I think I worked hard to keep it in perspective. It was very important to me that all of my family had dinner together most evenings, and I worked very hard to prioritize that.”

“I often resumed my work after the children went to bed, but I made sure that I was home for dinner and spent time with our children in the evening,” she adds. “ I was also fortunate, as a business owner, that I determined my own schedule, so I rarely missed one of our children’s athletic events or school field trips.”

When Whelehan started her career, she was one of few women. In her MBA class, she was one of four.

“Later, I still didn’t look like my peers,” she says. “ At 35, I had been married for 15 years and had five children. That put me way out of the ‘normal’ zone. I was different, and being different can make people uncomfortable, and managers often tend to avoid uncomfortable situations.”

Jessica Lewis, president and CEO of LaLew Public Relations, says she has learned not only to be a student of her craft but also to sharpen her business acumen to stay ahead of the curve. To address this, she has enrolled in business classes with the Business Opportunity Program and Ain Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Rochester.

Recently, the pandemic brought what for some was the hardest hit of their careers. Hawkins of the Urban League remembers multitasking with her young daughter at her feet. Their childcare facility was closed. Not only did the Urban League face challenges to sustain operations and meet its obligations as a landlord, it had to transition to remote work.

“It was a test of endurance, both professionally and personally,” she says. “However, through the support of my networks, determination, collaboration and commitment to the Urban League’s mission, I navigated through these challenges and emerged stronger.”

For Sinisgalli-Kettavong, it was the first time she could not offer her services — photography —since was 20 years old. However, the challenge helped her business evolve, establishing her as a brand consultant for women.

“It doesn’t feel good when external factors force you to reevaluate how you run your business,” she says. “Being willing to find growth through discomfort in times of success is the only way to ensure that you’re always moving forward and pushing it to the limit, taking things as far as they can go. That’s the kind of life I want to live. I want to take my success as far as I can, and create the most impact for my mission of empowering women.”

The road ahead

While women are adept at overcoming challenges, more than 50 years after pay discrimination became illegal, the gender pay gap remains an indisputable statistic. Young women entering the workforce will need to be nimble and flexible, experts say.

“The paradigm of a linear ‘career arc’ is becoming more of an exception than a rule, so aspirational leaders should know they don’t necessarily need to commit to a prescribed path as soon as they become high school seniors,” says Liss. “This disruption in the labor economy is good in that it opens up space for change makers to radically adjust workplace policies and expectations to favor working mothers and professional women.

“But as we saw with the COVID-19 pandemic, quick and dramatic economic disruption can actually go in the opposite direction when it comes to women’s rights, where we end up doubling down on traditional values and entrenched biases about gender roles,” she adds.

Holliday believes work-life balance remains an issue that young women need to learn how to navigate, and stresses that the answer is not the same for each person. 

“I think reliable, reasonably priced childcare continues to be a challenge and, as a result, is impacting the ability of young individuals to stay in the workforce while having young children, and that, in turn, is impacting our economy,” she says.

Early-career realities

Sinisgalli-Kettavong, who spoke to the Beacon from her hotel room before a photo shoot at the National Women’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony in New York City, observes that Generation Z (those born in the late 1990s and the early 2000s) experiences another kind of pressure — to make a living in alignment with their values.

“My hope for Gen Z is that they are able to be patient with themselves. There’s no shame in putting food on your table by working at a job that doesn’t necessarily fulfill you in a greater way other than it fills your bank account,” she says. “That is enough, especially when you are young and … you’re probably trying to pay back some college debt.”

Says Liss: “Women just starting their careers will be disappointed by the contrast between what the real world has in store for them in terms — of what policies are on the books and how people will treat them at work — and the progressive ideas they’re exposed to at school and online.”

Miller-Wesley doesn’t sugarcoat it either. Women in the beginning of their careers “should be prepared to face a number of challenges, including, but not limited to, the glass ceiling still being in existence, pay inequality with regards to their male counterparts and knowing how to ‘tactfully’ show up as their authentic self,” she says.

Finding middle ground

Whelehan recommends getting comfortable negotiating the middle ground.

“If the job requires extensive travel, is there a way to accomplish the same results with a modified face-to-face plan and use Zoom for some of the meetings? Can a hybrid work schedule produce the same results as a fully-in-the-office plan? Can you volunteer to be an assistant coach, an assistant room mother? And can you do this without being apologetic.”

It is not uncommon for women to be tasked with traditionally female duties, like bringing food for a work event. Whelehan, who suggests a healthy dose of humor, says Wegmans’ bakery staff knew her well. It’s also not uncommon to assume responsibility for these additional support tasks without even questioning it. Creating change requires diligence, Whelehan notes.

“Removing the obstacles to gender equality requires us to continually challenge the expectations of excellence that hold women back. It also requires women to be competent, confident and collegial,” she notes.

Ultimately, challenges will still remain in the workplace. That may be a good thing, Lewis says.

“Challenges are what you make of them,” she says. “You can face them head on or be intimidated by them. There is a famous quote that says, ‘Well-behaved women seldom make history.’ With every loss is a lesson learned. Be unafraid to make mistakes. It’s in the time of discomfort where you learn and grow.”

A hopeful stance

Despite their blunt analysis of what awaits young women, each woman interviewed for this article has hope — lots of it — for change. They also strongly believe that women need to stick together and support each other.

“I believe women collectively need to dismantle this belief that we are part of a zero-sum game, pitting women against one another,” Saunders says. “With so many pressures in life and career, it can be hard enough. We will not always agree and may not always connect, yet we can hold one another accountable from a place of care and support.

“We all have choices to lift others or tear one another down,” she adds. “Tearing down of others is harmful to all of us — to the woman doing it, to the woman receiving it and to the environment we ultimately create. Such actions most often come from a place of fear, from our own insecurities and from years of being falsely trained that we must harm to get ahead.”

Though she stresses that women will have to work harder to build a professional network to back their future endeavors, Ramanujan concurs.

“We need to support women scientists and entrepreneurs without demeaning them. Women need to back women.”

Showing up for women, mentoring them and making room for them in key positions is essential to accelerating progress.

“I’ve learned that building connections with women who have already traversed similar challenges can be invaluable,” Hawkins says. “In my experience, these women are often eager to share their wisdom, offering invaluable guidance on navigating the early stages of your career, providing insights into career progression, and offering practical advice and feedback along the way.”

Hawkins says the guidance of other women was instrumental in shaping her journey. With the support of experienced mentors, she learned skills such as salary negotiation, navigating office politics and advocating for fellow women in the workforce.

Leslie-Smith also sees mentorship and sponsorship as vital components of a successful career.

“Building those relationships with people who have been in the workforce, in that particular industry or field that you’re in, who can open those doors. When they’re in a room, even if you’re not there, you’re in that room,” she says. “They can help create space for you. And obviously, the more of us that get into those spaces, the more of us that get into those rooms, we can squeeze out bigotry and all of the things that are preventing equality in those workspaces.”

Sinisgalli-Kettavong is emphatic: “Ladies, talk to your girlfriends about how much you get paid. Honestly talk about money, talk about investing, learn and teach each other and read books about it. Inequality thrives in shadow.”

Saunders says she cannot wait for the day when “we no longer count and keep track of the first women to do this or the first women of color to do that.”

“Some beautiful day in the future, such instances will be so commonplace to no longer be noteworthy,” she says. “I am excited for this generation of women to do just that.”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. Jacob Schermerhorn, contributing writer, created data visualizations and data analysis for this article. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

One thought on “Women at work: The state of gender equity

  1. Yes, all of this! Beautifully said!! I appreciate all the women who participated in this piece (and of course the woman who wrote it!!). I wouldn’t be where I am in my career without the support of women in leadership positions who gave me opportunities and showed me what is possible. We truly can make a difference when we support each other.

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