- Pat Fili-Krushel is the CEO of Coqual (formerly the Center for Talent Innovation), a nonprofit think tank dedicated to helping companies design diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplaces where every person belongs.
- While we’ve made a significant amount of progress in making the workplace equitable, there’s still much more to be done.
- Ruth Bader Ginsburg understood firsthand the experience of being discriminated against based on gender and worked to improve conditions for all women.
- Companies should step up to create the workplace that Ginsburg envisioned, but federal intervention is necessary too.
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When I started my career in the 1970s, you could get fired for being pregnant. Job listings were still categorized under “male” and “female” in the classified ads. If you wanted a media career (as I did), the only choice was to start as a secretary. A guy who was less qualified than I was got the better job, with not even lip service that there was anything wrong with this.
My boss told men that he didn’t think women could negotiate. And another boss chased me around a conference-room table. Pants were discouraged for women.
Black women, those of color, LGBTQ women, and those who had disabilities faced double and triple the discrimination. In short, half of humanity had to fight for the right to simply use their talents and succeed in workplaces.
Like many women, as I read the obituaries this weekend chronicling Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dogged fight for her career and for women of all backgrounds, I reflected on my own — and what has, and has not, changed as we seek to create more equity for all at work.
You can say that we still face these challenges.
To some extent, we still face these challenges. But with the loss of Ginsburg and the battle to fill her seat, two lessons really stand out to me. First, we can’t forget what workplaces were like not so long ago and the progress we’ve made. Second, we must recognize just how important systemic solutions are in the fight for equity — and federal law has a crucial role to play.
Companies are doing so much in this moment to commit to diversity, equity, and inclusion. They’re stating that racial and gender justice are a priority. But we need federal involvement to truly drive progress. After all, looking back, time and again companies had to be pulled out of the dark ages of discrimination, beginning with the Civil Rights Act. Federal laws — upheld by the courts — have driven the foundation of the diversity and inclusion movement.
Just look at Ginsburg’s experience to see those lessons crystallized.
Ginsburg knew firsthand about being underestimated and discriminated against. As a student, she and the eight other women in her class at Harvard Law School were berated for taking places away from men. Despite graduating first in her class, she got no job offers from top law firms, and her quest for a clerkship was stymied because she was a mother. In one of her first efforts at job hunting, she was offered a position as a clerk typist, rather than a higher-paying post, because she was pregnant. Finally, thanks to the intervention of a law-school professor on her behalf, Ginsburg got the offer of a clerkship.
For more than 15 years at Coqual, the nonprofit think tank where I am CEO, we have studied the effectiveness of engaging powerful leaders, often men, in advocating for women and others who are denied opportunities. This phenomenon, which we call sponsorship, made it possible for Ginsburg (and me) to break into meaningful careers. Today many companies explicitly encourage sponsorship so that talented people gain access to opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have in a system that is still rife with inequities.
While sponsorship is a tool for people, we need sweeping policies to fix the system and drive broad, lasting change.
Ginsburg also clearly understood this need for systemic intervention to drive change for all women. Most notably, she wrote the 2007 dissent in the case of Lilly Ledbetter, a woman who did not realize for many years that she was paid less than her male colleagues at Goodyear Tire in Alabama and sued.
The Supreme Court ruled that Ledbetter filed her complaints too late. In her dissent, Ginsburg called upon Congress to change the law, and she succeeded. That enabled millions of employees of all backgrounds to file for equal pay for equal work.
Given their scope and size, companies can (and must) drive systemic change — to prevent employee claims of unfair pay but also to ensure every employee can thrive at their organizations. At Coqual, we work every day with major corporations that are reviewing their pay policies, representation numbers, and the way they hire and promote people to take more equitable approaches.
These companies affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of employees. Many raised the bar in their response to the calls for racial justice this summer, and we see the nearly 80 members of our task force share lessons and best practices. Indeed, corporations and business leaders have a huge role to play in moving one another, and society, forward.
But companies can’t legislate.
The Ledbetter case is just one example of how the public sector has a crucial role to play in ensuring equity for women — and for all groups of people who are frequently overlooked in workplace policy. We need federal intervention.
With Ginsburg’s death, we are losing a movement role model and leader — for women like myself, who have admired her for decades, and even for little girls who dressed up like her for Halloween. The best way, in my mind, to pay our respects to a role model like RBG is to learn from her approach and carry it forward.
Here is what I’m taking from this period of mourning: It is always worth fighting for the individual careers of people who have long been excluded at work — and men in power are crucial to that fight. Yet watching out for people is not enough. We must also use every tool at our disposal — private and public — to make change on a systemic level and drive lasting, broad-scale influence. And finally, despite enormous obstacles, we can continue that fight up until the very end.
Let’s build the workplaces and world she was fighting for, where future generations will not know the pain of exclusion and injustice and instead can succeed as far as their talents and desires take them. It is the obligation we owe to the young people of this moment who are beginning their careers today in a world that so very much needs all the talents and energy they have to give.
Pat Fili-Krushel is CEO of Coqual (formerly the Center for Talent Innovation), a nonprofit think tank dedicated to helping companies design diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplaces where every person belongs. She has held roles as chairman of NBCUniversal News Group, executive vice president of administration at Time Warner Inc., and president of ABC Television Network. She has twice ranked among Fortune’s “50 Most Powerful Women” and presently sits on the boards of Chipotle, Dollar General, The Public Theater, and PEN America.
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