Last month, the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives hosted Women at Work, which celebrated the lives and work of women both past and present, as well as challenged attendees to advocate for change for women in the workplace. This program, sponsored by Deloitte, featured stories of diverse women throughout history to inspire participants. This was followed by a discussion with a panel of incredible women who are leaders in their respective fields.
As the country continues to face down a global pandemic, the program recognized the continuing trend of limited access for women in the workplace. Host Gabriella Kahn pointed out that there has been a long tradition of women being allowed in the workplace in the midst of great need; however, once the crisis has passed, women are kicked out of these positions. The presentation provided several examples of this from throughout history. Many of the stories shared during the program can be found in our Women in America: Extra and Ordinary educational resources. Some are also featured in the FUTURES exhibition at the Arts and Industries building through early July.
During the panel discussion, Beth Meagher, the Vice Chair of the Federal Health Sector at Deloitte, commented on the importance of recognition and resilience for women in the workplace. She asked the vital question, “How do you assert yourself in a way that you are able to really capture the impact of what you’re doing and also be collaborative?”
Dr. Jedidah Isler, the Assistant Director of STEM Opportunity and Engagement for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, was struck by the boundless courage of the women who paved the way, particularly with Sophie Lutterlough and her “insatiable curiosity.” Speaking of the fact that Sophie was underemployed for 14 years because of racist hiring practices in the Smithsonian at the time, she remarked, “It seemed eerily familiar to the stories of many women, particularly women of color, who are underemployed or kept from jobs which their expertise should allow them to employ. But her persistence and courage to ask for what she wanted and to start where she could are a testimony to her personal fortitude. I think it’s our job as policymakers and decision-makers to ensure that the structural barriers that led to her underemployment are faced and removed so subsequent generations don’t have to face that similar thing.”
For Jennifer Klein, Director of the White House Gender Policy Council, the only silver lining to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic has been paying attention to the plight of workers in professions that have been largely female-dominated, such as care workers: “For the first time, this country is more focused on the caregivers who have been historically women of color and have been historically undervalued, underpaid, with lower wages and fewer benefits.” The first national gender strategy that the Biden Harris administration has created examines the intersection between gender and other forms of discrimination. Joining the conversation about care workers, Julie Su, Deputy Secretary of the US Department of Labor, pointed out, “We’ve seen women leave the workforce in great numbers during the pandemic due to the lack of affordable care, and at the same time, we cannot make that about decreasing the wages and the quality of childcare workers.”
The Great Resignation, so on the forefront of the social consciousness, was another topic of discussion during the panel. Ms. Meagher astutely pointed out, “The Great Resignation is in some ways the Great Reimagination.” So much change and upheaval allow room for employees to rethink who they want to work for and what they want to do. Hybrid work is transforming the modern workplace, and Deloitte is one of many organizations trying to think through flexibility.
Ms. Klein observed that care work is at the center of the Great Resignation and that women have been overrepresented in sectors where we have seen job loss, such as retail and hospitality. Dr. Isler also weighed in on this issue, reminding the participants that resignation is not always a voluntary thing. Especially for women in science and technology, contract and temporary positions, typically filled by women of color, are often the first to go in an economic crisis. In her words, “We constantly have to be thinking about the layers and the overlapping barriers that folks are facing, and that this Great Resignation, as we call it, does not look or feel the same across the board.”
Likewise, Ms. Klein stated that if you want to address the pay gap, you have to address all areas. The gender strategy that she and her team are working to implement outlines a comprehensive government-wide approach to promoting gender equity and equality. It includes ten strategic priorities that are intentionally broad in scope, from economic security, gender-based violence, and health education to climate change, science and technology, democracy, and participation in leadership. The purpose of these priorities is to allow the Council to go deep and fully understand these issues—they are inherently linked and must be tackled in concert.
With the legacy of past women to guide and the wisdom of present women to lead, the future of the working woman is in good hands. In the words of Dr. Isler, “Girls, girls of color, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities all come here with curiosity and excitement and questions about the world. It is our job to make sure they can answer those questions without undue barriers.”