leave laws

The HR Hammer’s Christmas List

By Stephanie Hammerwold

I like to think I’ve been pretty good this year and that I ended up on Santa’s nice list. So, in the midst of wrapping presents and snacking on one too many holiday cookies, I wanted to take some time to share my Christmas list for the workplace:

  1. Paid leave for parents—The U.S. lags behind many other countries when it comes to paid leave for those who recently had a baby, adopted a child or took in a foster child. Some companies have jumped on board and implemented their own paid leave options, and some states have paid leave programs, but we need to have a nationwide law that reflects the realities of working parents.
  2. Easier access to employment for the formerly incarcerated—One of the keys to lowering recidivism is helping the formerly incarcerated find jobs with a decent income. Unfortunately, having a criminal record can be a huge strike against someone in their quest to find employment. Once released, people have paid their debt to society and should be given the opportunity to rebuild their lives. Opening up access to employment is a huge step toward that.
  3. No more performance reviews—If you are a regular reader, you know my feelings on this topic. It’s time to ditch the traditional review and to go with a system of ongoing feedback.
  4. And speaking of things to get rid of…let’s think about doing away with salary negotiation. I am not a big fan of the game playing that goes on in the negotiation process. I think it immediately sets up a relationship of employer vs. employee. I prefer a straightforward offer and a process that does not solely favor those who happen to be good at negotiation.
  5. Benefits that extend to all employees—Too often when we hear about a company offering excellent benefits, they only extend to office staff. Those who work in low-wage jobs, such as in distribution centers, are often excluded from generous paid family leave and other perks. Some of the hardest working people I know work in low-wage jobs, and we should not forget the value they add to a company when designing benefits programs.
  6. Productive conversations about finding ways to raise the minimum wage—The minimum wage is not livable for employees, and employers worry that raising wages will be unaffordable. We need to have conversations around this issue and find solutions to the huge wage gap we are currently experiencing in the U.S.
  7. A move toward kindness—I recently wrote about this, and I think it is an important reminder as we get further into the presidential election cycle where mud slinging and hate speech are commonplace. There is power in being nice.
  8. Workplaces free from discrimination and harassment—No one should go to work and worry about being harassed or discriminated against because of who they are. We live in a time where same-sex marriage is legal, yet sexual orientation is not a protected class in every state. We have also seen local laws in some place that are aimed at restricting bathroom access for transgender people, and we have heard horrible anti-Muslim rhetoric from some high profile figures. These forms of discrimination are not acceptable, and we owe it to our employees to create workplaces that are accepting and welcoming to everyone.
  9. A focus on finding ways to improve the workplace for employees—Employees are a big part of what can make a company successful, so it is important that we find ways to support them through good wages, excellent benefits, employee appreciation and more.
  10. More books—OK, this one is for me more than the workplace, but I want to encourage everyone to take some time to read in the coming year. It is an excellent escape from all the stresses of work.

Have a wonderful holiday season!


Carnival of HR: How HR is Making the Workplace Better for Employees


By Stephanie Hammerwold

HR has not always had the best reputation. Whether it is publications like the Harvard Business Review talking about why it is time to blow up HR or managers that call us terminators or policy police, we are often branded as being out of touch or too consumed with unnecessary rules. Despite this bad reputation, there are many of us in HR who toil away behind the scenes, trying to make workplaces better for employees. We fight for better benefits, work to end harassment and discrimination and advocate for employees who need a second chance, and I have met and worked with many HR colleagues that are doing quite a bit to change workplaces for the better.

As the HR Hammer, I am committed to helping employers make workplaces better for employees. Doing so creates a happy, productive and loyal team. So, I put the question out there to bloggers for this carnival: How is HR making the workplace better for employees?

Over at Blogging4Jobs, Jessica Miller-Merrell shares an episode of her Workology Podcast where she interviews David Sturt, author of Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love and Executive Vice President at O.C. Tanner. Miller-Merrell and Sturt discuss employee engagement. What I like most about their conversation is how Sturt offers an easy way to drive engagement: recognize employees. In HR and management, we can get really focused on policy and paperwork, and sometimes we forget the value of saying “thank you” or commending someone on a job well done on a big project. As Miller-Merrell and Sturt point out, recognition is an often overlooked engagement tool that costs little to nothing. Next time you are at work, take some time to say thanks to your employees.

At HRmoz, David Richter of Octopus HR Software offers up some advice on how HR and product/market fit can make workplaces better for employees. Richter gives some good examples of how a strong product/market fit can increase productivity and reduce turnover. Company success would also lead to more money for well-being programs and bonuses. He says that one of the most important areas HR can help achieve this is through creating a culture where the employees have voice. This includes seeking employee feedback and letting employees propose and try out new ideas.

Parental leave has been getting quite a bit of attention in the media lately, and we regularly hear how the U.S. lags behind many other countries in providing paid leave options. At Blogging4Jobs, Eric Magnussen writes about how employers can best support employees who are about to add a new child to their families. Magnussen goes beyond the basic requirements of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and provides suggestions that include making a checklist for new parents that includes leave requirements as well as information on the lactation room, contact numbers for counselors and support services for new parents, insurance information and other available resources. Magnussen also says employers can help by being flexible and including fathers in leave and offering work-from-home options. These are all great ways employers can recognize the challenge of balancing work and raising a family, something which ultimately supports creating a workplace that meets the needs of our employees. 

Finally, Stuart Rudner and Brittany Taylor of Rudner MacDonald LLP discuss a topic of increasing relevance: medical marijuana in the workplace. There have been many changes regarding legal use of marijuana, and it is important that employers are ready to address how these changes affect the workplace if they are going to support how their employees live. Rudner and Taylor talk about the Canadian laws regarding medical marijuana and give advice that is relevant to many of the legal changes we are also seeing here in the U.S. They point out that the use of medical marijuana should be treated in the same way as an employee on any other doctor-prescribed medication. Rudner and Taylor remind employers that it is important to have procedures in place for handling requests for reasonable accommodation and to follow those when an employee makes such a request that includes the use of medical marijuana. They also write that this is a good time to review your company’s drug and alcohol policy to ensure that it address changes to the legal use of marijuana.

That’s it for this week’s Carnival of HR. Now get to work improving things for your employees, and be the superhero of your workplace! Follow the HR Hammer for more tips on creating good places to work.

Domestic Violence and the Workplace #SeeDV


By Stephanie Hammerwold

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Some of the most heartbreaking situations I have dealt with in HR have involved helping employees struggling to leave an abusive relationship. Domestic violence can manifest itself at work through attendance issues due to an abusive partner forcing an employee to stay home, the emotional scars someone carries to work or even the abuser showing up and being disruptive in the workplace. It is important that employers have a plan to support employees trying to leave abusive relationships.

Staying Safe at Work

Domestic violence can be both physical and emotional and can affect attendance and work performance. There are not always clear signs from the outside that someone is in an abusive relationship. Emotional scars are invisible and physical injuries such as bruises may be hidden under clothing or passed off as an accident. As an employer, you may not know an employee is struggling with an abusive relationship until the employee speaks up and asks for help.

When an employee speaks up about abuse, the first step is to be a good listener. Offer a space free from judgement so that the employee feels safe and comfortable at work. For some people in abusive relationships, work can be a sort of safe haven away from the abuse. As HR professionals and managers, it is important that we support that type of environment. For some, the decision to stay in an abusive relationship may be financial. Perhaps the abuse victim is afraid of losing their job if they speak up and ask for help or time off. Showing the employee that you are supportive is a big step in helping an employee to realize that they have the resources to get out of an abusive relationship.

Some abusers show up at their victim’s workplace. A victim can get a restraining order against an abusive partner. If an employee gets a restraining order, work with the employee to educate their manager and others in the department on calling the police if the abusive partner shows up at work.

How Employers Can Help

Be prepared with a list of community resources that you can refer an employee to. Include shelters, legal support and counseling. Social service agencies often keep a directory of community resources, and I have found that many will provide a copy to employers upon request. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) is also an excellent resource for victims of domestic violence. They can connect people with services in their area. Your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) may also be a great resource. Know what type of help your company can provide as well. This may come in the form of paid time off or flexibility in work schedule while the employee seeks help outside of work.

There is no federal law that addresses leaves of absence for victims of domestic violence, but some states like California have laws in place that include leave for those seeking shelter, legal, counseling or other services related to domestic violence. California’s new paid sick leave law states that domestic violence victims can use sick time to seek services. For some people in an abusive relationship, knowing that they have the option to take job-protected leave may be enough to get them to leave an abusive relationship. Research leave requirements in your state, and include domestic violence leave in your leave policy. Even if your state has no requirement, consider offering it at your company.

Be a Supportive Employer

When I was in grad school, I worked at a domestic violence shelter and learned firsthand the challenges of rebuilding a life after leaving an abusive relationship. Once I moved into a career in HR, I brought that knowledge into the workplace to help employees who came to me seeking help. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 44% of full-time employed adults have personally experienced the effects of domestic violence in the workplace, and 21% of people surveyed self-identified as victims of intimate partner violence. As such, it is important that employers have a strategy in place to address domestic violence in the workplace.

When I worked in the shelter, I was surprised at how many of the women had stories of being fired or forced to quit due to issues related to being in or trying to leave an abusive relationship. Take the time to establish leave guidelines and draft a policy on domestic violence and the workplace. Train managers on what to do if an employee comes forward asking for help. Taking these steps may be the help someone needs to get out of an abusive relationship.

Transforming How People Work #CAHR15

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By Stephanie Hammerwold

The California HR Conference wrapped up yesterday with a final keynote address by Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of People Operations at Google. Bock recently published Work Rules!, which contains his advice for transforming the workplace. His presentation drew from his experience at Google as well as examples from other companies where valuing and listening to employees are keys to success.

Google is a company known for innovation in technology. Their search engine is powerful enough that it turned the company’s name into a verb, and they have introduced things like Google Glass and the self-driving car. There seems to be regular buzz around what invention Google will bring forward next. But even though Bock works at a tech giant, his advice was surprisingly simple: treat your people right. 

It is easy to get caught up in new HR tech and thinking of ways it will streamline and improve processes. While those things can help us perform our jobs, they are not at the core of creating an environment that drives creativity and innovation.

Bock emphasized the importance of trusting your employees. He said, “Let people in your organization try stuff. Trust them to solve problems.” Too often managers do not put that level of trust in their employees. Whether it is a retail store where employees must get approval for any customer request outside of normal procedures or a manager who won’t let employees try new ideas, many companies fail to trust in their employees. 

At one company I worked at, the owner warned everyone at a management meeting, “Assume all employees are stealing from us.” This was his philosophy for figuring out how to reduce theft in the company’s warehouse. Unfortunately this attitude spread to most of his interactions with employees. As such, the company had a culture of paranoia. This is not the type of culture that encourages creativity and innovation.

Bock also said that companies should be frugal and generous. He explained the ways that Google has been able to increase their benefits at little to no cost to them. For example, the company has a mobile haircutting service that comes on campus. Employees can pay $20 to have a haircut. The benefit is that it makes getting a hair cut convenient, and such a benefit is no cost to Google. They also provide services such as on-site dry cleaning as a way to help employees save time in their busy schedules.

As for being generous, Bock said, “There are moments in life where you get crushed by life or moments where something amazing happens.” These are the times a company needs to be ready to address. This may come in the form of generous death benefits for family members of an employee who dies while working at the company or extended leave options for new parents. Caring for employees during those big moments in their life is a key part of valuing their work.

Bock added that the smallest things can have the biggest impact, and he encouraged managers to nudge their employees when they feel it is necessary to facilitate communication or action. This could be as simple as sending an email to both a manager and a new hire to remind them to meet to go over expectations. Even the gentlest reminder can have positive ripples.

In conclusion, Bock stated, “We’re positioned to transform how people work.” What is most interesting about Bock’s philosophy is that it can be implemented at any company. It does not require fancy technology or the vast resources of a company like Google. It boils down to putting trust in our employees, and as Bock said, “To always make an exception in favor of the employee.”

Women Chefs & Gender Inequality in the Kitchen

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An Interview with Deborah A. Harris & Patti Giuffre

By Stephanie Hammerwold

In today’s media we are inundated with the world of restaurants and chefs. There are several networks devoted entirely to cooking, restaurants and food as a metaphor for culture. This is especially evident in Las Vegas where towering banners display the faces of celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay, Emeril Lagasse, Guy Fieri and Bobby Flay, chefs whose eateries serve as the flagship dining experience in the biggest casinos and generate millions of dollars in sales every year. 

In my time there recently, one thing was glaringly obvious: with the exception of a large banner for Giada De Laurentiis and a small sign for a restaurant by Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken (known as the Too Hot Tamales) the most advertised and most recognized restaurants were all owned by men. In all the focus on high profile restaurants, professional kitchens and the back of the house, one thing is clear: the profession is still largely male-dominated.

In Taking the Heat: Women Chefs and Gender Inequality in the Professional Kitchen, Deborah Harris and Patti Giuffre analyze the history of the culinary industry and how it has evolved to be almost exclusively the domain of male chefs. Their book includes interviews with 33 women chefs as well as an analysis of media data to determine how women chefs are portrayed and perceived. I recently interviewed Harris and Giuffre about their research and new book.

What is your background in sociology and women’s studies?

Deborah Harris (DH): I received my PhD from Mississippi State University in 2007 with a focus in social stratification and inequality. Gender inequality has always been an academic interest of mine.

My early research examined how social inequality was manifested in social welfare policies, particularly how low-income rural women navigated changes in cash welfare programs that encouraged work and marriage as routes off public assistance. Since then I have studied how women are depicted in wilderness recreation advertising and how this might impact how women feel about engaging in these activities. While working on the project that would become Taking the Heat, I developed an interest in the sociology of food and I am currently examining how college students perform gender in their food diaries that describe their daily eating habits. 

Patti Giuffre (PG): I received by PhD from the University of Texas at Austin in 1996. I first became interested in gender inequality in the workplace during my many years working in restaurants as a hostess, cocktail waitress, bartender and waitress. My observations during my restaurant work became the basis of my first study, which concerned sexual harassment in restaurants. I have also conducted research on homophobia and sexual orientation discrimination in workplaces.

How did you become interested in analyzing gender in the workplace through professional kitchens?

DH: This research was inspired by my love of the reality television competition, Top Chef. When I began teaching at Texas State, I had a ritual of coming home Wednesday nights and curling up to watch Top Chef each week. During one episode, the chefs were told they were being rewarded for their hard work and treated to a night out at a Miami nightclub. All the chefs dressed to the nines only to find out, once they reached the nightclub, that it was all part of a cooking challenge that required them to design a menu and cook at a food truck in front of the club. The chefs had to perform all the shopping, running around and cooking in their dressy clothes, and some of the women were very upset that they were having to perform these tasks in high heels, dresses and makeup. One chef even adamantly declared that she never let her male colleagues see her like that (i.e. in very feminine dress). I wondered why she was so upset, but then I started thinking about how, as a male-dominated career, women chefs may want to downplay their femininity to fit in better at work.

While I wouldn’t call myself a foodie at the time, I realized that, while I could name several men chefs, I couldn’t name any women chefs. All the women who I thought of were not actual “chefs” but were Food Network hosts. I was struck by the irony that, when cooking happened in the home it’s seen as a more feminine activity, but in the professional world men did more cooking. I discussed this with my colleague, Patti Giuffre, and we decided to use professional chefs as a case study for examining the mechanisms through which gender inequality is maintained at work. If any job would be more open to women’s entry, it would seem that being a chef would fit, but that didn’t seem to be the case and we wanted to know why. Seven short years later and we had a book!

We found the work of chefs and the culinary industry to be fascinating because no other male-dominated occupations are based upon an activity that is culturally defined as “feminine” or “women’s work” in the home.
—Patti Giuffre

PG: We were fascinated by the current superstar chef trend. We were also interested in how the work of chefs is unique compared to other male-dominated occupations. There are many studies of women’s experiences in male-dominated industries, workplaces, and jobs (e.g. construction, police, firefighting, coal mining, gas and oil industry). We found the work of chefs and the culinary industry to be fascinating because no other male-dominated occupations are based upon an activity that is culturally defined as “feminine” or “women’s work” in the home. We suspected that men chefs might have more at stake in defining their work in the professional kitchen as something that is completely different from the type of cooking that typically occurs in the home. The nose-to-tail and molecular gastronomy culinary trends seem to further delineate the type of cooking that occurs in professional kitchens from cooking that occurs in the home.

How might the restaurant industry (and other employers for that matter) change their approach to harassment training in order to encourage an environment where sexual joking and teasing are not the norm?

DH: The really simple answer to this question is for kitchen leadership to make it very clear about what kinds of behavior is considered harassment and won’t be tolerated. A more thorough answer would have to take into account the different models of restaurants. Our participants discussed how there were a greater number of corporately-owned restaurants these days. On one hand, these restaurants tended to have more standardized menus, so they weren’t the most exiting places to work as a chef. However, because of the corporate influence, these restaurants were more likely to have more formal channels in place for dealing with sexual harassment.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are a lot of smaller, chef-owned restaurants where things like HR departments simply don’t exist. In these scenarios, the person complaints would go to would be the chef or owner, which may very well be the person who’s committing the harassing behavior. 

In both cases, what is important is that there is a culture where workers feel like they can report harassing behavior without reprisal or being labeled “too sensitive.” Historically, professional kitchens have earned a reputation as “rowdy” places to work, so workers may feel that this is the kind of behavior that is expected—and even desired—in the kitchen. But if those in charge in the kitchen make it known what the boundaries are and emphasize a more professional atmosphere, this can impact the workplace. Coworkers learn what is and is not acceptable behavior and those who have harassment complaints know they can report the behavior and something will be done to address the situation.

PG: Studies suggest that sexual harassment training is rarely taken seriously by workers. And, workers often do not know whether behaviors are sexual harassment or not. Workers in restaurant kitchens tend to engage in a lot of sexual joking and banter. In these types of sexualized workplaces, workers have an even more difficult time identifying what is “fun” and “funny” versus what is sexual harassment (unwelcome sexual behaviors). Management must take it seriously, and inform workers that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. They must also enforce company policies (that is, IF there is a policy). 

Corporate restaurants are more likely than small, independently-owned restaurants to offer policies, training, and enforcement. Interestingly, the women chefs we interviewed believe that the presence of women leaders in the kitchen will deter sexual harassment. They say that women ARE changing the kitchen culture to discourage offensive behaviors. Perhaps more women in leadership roles in kitchens will eventually alter the sexualized culture.

In your book, you mention the popularity of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. As you point out, the lean in approach may work for some women, but it tends to uphold the traditional masculine workplace as the norm. How do we move beyond the self-empowerment approach to really transform the workplace? Are visibility of marginalized people and improved leave laws, benefits, flexibility, etc. enough?

DH: In part of your question, you ask if increased visibility and workplace policies enough. For chefs, much of what it takes to be labeled a “success” involves moving up kitchen hierarchies and opening one’s own restaurant (or even multiple restaurants). As a creative career, media and other forms of visibility is crucial for financial success and getting access to investors and other sources of capital. So, in this case, being a chef is more like other creative careers (fashion design, etc.) and having more visibility is a great start. It shouldn’t stop there, however, and more attention (and pressure) should be put on industries and organizations to provide more benefits and support for workers. 

PG: We have been intrigued by and a little skeptical about the “lean in” phenomenon. Lean in compels women to stand up for themselves, “bang the table,” self-promote, and get their voice heard. Leaning in speaks to many women workers around the U.S. who like the individual empowerment messages contained in leaning in. Lean in strategies seem to help some women in the short term but do not contribute to larger changes in an industry. Some of the women chefs in our study described a survivor mentality that was very similar to lean in. Policy changes like family leave or flexibility certainly can help support women but even with supportive policies there are particular groups of women would be penalized if they leaned in (e.g. women of color, queer women, and/or women who work outside of white collar corporations).

Sandberg’s lean in strategies might work best for some groups of women (e.g. heterosexual women, white women, women in the “1%”). The survivor ethic contained in leaning in can contribute to criticisms of less successful women by highly successful women for not being more ambitious. It can also cause women to downplay the bias and discrimination they have encountered.

Sandberg’s book has good intentions but is detrimental to our thinking about gender inequality at work because it focuses our attention on individual-level “choices” or what (certain) women can do to fix themselves. One of our sociology colleagues, Dr. Kirsten Dellinger, Professor at the University of Mississippi, raised a great question at a recent conference: What would it mean for organizations to lean in for gender equality? Organizations leaning in are probably more likely to transform the workplace than individuals leaning in.

I like the example of Thomas Keller’s kitchen and how he maintains a calm environment that seems to go against the wild and chaotic view we often have of a professional kitchen. How do we further this idea that a successful workplace does not necessarily have to be loud and macho? How does an environment like Keller's further add to the professionalism of chefs and allow for the growth of a wide array of people in the field?

DH: I think this case really illustrates the power of media depictions of chefs. Our participants really felt that chef-related media from Hell’s Kitchen to shows on The Food Network gave an inaccurate picture of what is was really like to work in a kitchen. While several women had worked for the yelling, angry chef who threw food or pots and pans around the kitchen, most admitted that behavior was on its way out. If various media outlets started showing a more realistic—or at least a more varied—depictions of what working in a kitchen is like, this could affect how people viewed the occupation. Similarly, culinary schools could help encourage more professional behavior by discussing the realities of life in the kitchen to their students. 

I agree with your conclusion that struggles with work-family balance, long hours, etc. are not unique to the chef profession, and there is a lot to think about in terms of how we balance work and family regardless of gender. How do you think we can take your conclusions from this book and apply them to other workplaces?

DH: Again, I think the relevance of culture is important in this case. One way to increase work-family balance across many fields is to normalize paid leave for both parents and to encourage parents to take time off knowing that their jobs will be safe. This can be helped by larger cultural shifts that emphasize a sharing of parental roles. When it becomes more popular for both parents to share family responsibilities, this will help pressure industries to be more family friendly instead of having more gender-specific policies.

One way to increase work-family balance across many fields is to normalize paid leave for both parents and to encourage parents to take time off knowing that their jobs will be safe.
—Deborah A. Harris

PG: Our findings apply to many workplaces that are highly demanding and want “work devoted” employees who prioritize work over family. Most American workplaces are not truly family- or caregiver-friendly. Many Americans are trying to work AND care for family members and other loved ones. There are some workplaces offering various forms of support for workers, but for now, it really is up to management and ownership to create and enforce policies that are supportive to workers. 

The U.S. is one of the only industrialized countries that doesn’t offer federal paid family leave. We need some federal or state policies that would encourage more workplaces to offer paid family leave. There are four states in the U.S. that offer paid family leave (California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Washington). Studies find that workers are happier, less stressed out, and actually return to work more quickly in states or workplaces that offer paid family leave. Furthermore, men are more likely to use family leave in states and workplaces that offer it.

Workplaces can offer other forms of support, for example, paid sick leave. We know of some local grocery stores that offer a sick leave pool. Some workers will never use the sick leave, while others will need more. The pool allows all workers who need paid sick leave to use it without fear of being penalized.

Finally, our research can be applied to other workplaces by asking us to consider culture change so that workers who need to care for ill loved ones can do so without facing penalties, biases, or negative responses that they “aren’t dedicated enough.”

Taking the Heat is available from Rutgers University Press in both print and ebook format.

You Work Like a Girl: Changing Perceptions of Women in the Workplace

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By Stephanie Hammerwold

Whether it is leaning in or standing up for ourselves, there has recently been much discussion about women in the workplace. Women have been speaking out about sexism in the Silicon Valley, and there have been several recent high profile lawsuits involving harassment, pregnancy discrimination and other issues. Yet despite this attention, we still have big problems with how women are perceived. A woman can have an amazing resume, work really hard and move up to a top position, but her perceived shortcomings may be distilled down to, “Well, it’s because she’s a woman.” Changing the way women are viewed will involve a big cultural shift in how we perceive gender and work.

How Women are Perceived
Women often struggle with likability in the workplace. Be too nice, and you are seen as the office mom. Be too mean, and you will get labeled as the office bitch. It is a fine line. Success for women is often equated with likability. Steve Jobs and other top male executives and leaders are often lauded for their assertiveness. Would we feel the same way if Steve Jobs had been Stephanie Jobs?

When we focus on a woman’s likability in the workplace, we are once again denying that her skills, expertise and experience are the things that really determine if she will be a good worker.

Media stories on women promoted to top positions at companies are a strong indicator of how women at the top are perceived. For example, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer made headlines in 2013 when she banned telecommuting at Yahoo. As Los Angeles Times reporter Jessica Guynn points out, “…working moms are in an uproar because they believe that Mayer is setting them back by taking away their flexible working arrangements.” Mayer’s decision was seen as anti-working mom even though she also increased paid leave for both mothers and fathers (Carlson).

Steve Jobs and other top male executives and leaders are often lauded for their assertiveness. Would we feel the same way if Steve Jobs had been Stephanie Jobs?

What bothered me most about the portrayal of Mayer in the media was that it felt like people were quick to find ways to criticize Mayer’s policy change without seeing what else the company offers. Telecommuting can be a good option for some companies, but it does not always work well everywhere. Rather than criticize Mayer for the telecommuting ban, why wasn’t there more attention on the ways Mayer and Yahoo provide other benefits for working parents? And why did the headlines seem to avoid pointing out how Mayer’s decision could improve a failing business? As Guynn’s points out, Mayer’s decision to ban telecommuting was part of her efforts to help turn Yahoo around. Guynn notes that Mayer was hoping to improve the company by bringing employees together in the same space rather than remotely. Given that Yahoo offers some generous benefits, was it fair to paint Mayer as a woman who did not support other working moms?

Why is Work Still Gendered?
Women have made major inroads in the workplace in the last few decades. We see women in a lot of positions, yet the age-old arguments about why women cannot do certain jobs still exist. Whether it is hormones, mood swings or lack of physical strength, there seem to be those out there who present these things as reasons why women cannot do certain jobs.

With Hillary Clinton’s recent announcement that she is officially running for president, her detractors wasted no time in leveling criticism at her that focused on her femaleness rather than her abilities as a leader. Cheryl Rios recently posted on Facebook about why she thought a woman should not be president. Rios stated, “If this happens—I am moving to Canada. There is NO need for her as she is not the right person to run our country—but more importantly a female shouldn’t be president. Let the haters begin…but with the hormones we have there is no way we should be able to start a war. Yes, I run my own business and I love it and I am great at it BUT that is not the same as being the President, that should be left to a man, a good, strong, honorable man.”

Rios is the CEO of Go Ape Marketing, so one would think she would be supportive of a woman in a prominent leadership position. What is interesting is that Rios is relying on this outdated notion that a woman’s hormones may cause her to hit the proverbial red button and cause a nuclear apocalypse. Why is it that people are still hung up on thinking a woman is less capable than a man because of her hormones—something which both men and women have in their bodies? I would have more respect for Rios’s opinion if she focused on what she did not like about Clinton’s politics or experience as a politician.

This line of thinking also comes up in regards to physical strength. Women are often perceived as physically weaker and thus not fit for some jobs. Certain jobs are especially physically demanding (e.g. fire fighter, construction worker, oil rig worker), and women in these positions should be expected to meet the rigorous physical requirements. While it is true that some women will not meet the requirements, the same is true of men. Being a man does not necessarily physically qualify someone to be a fire fighter.

In addition, there are many jobs where the physical requirements are no more rigorous than sitting at a desk for long hours. Technology has made it possible for workers to perform many jobs with limited physical strain; however, lack of physical strength is still seen as something that may prohibit women from getting ahead.

In the 1960s, my mom worked as a computer programmer for NASA. One day she showed us a company picture of everyone she worked with. In a large group of well over 50 people, there were only two women, so it was not hard to pick her out. Back then, it was not common to see women in such professions, but this has changed quite a bit in the last 50 years. During my lifetime women have become heads of state and CEOs of companies, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space and women scientists are changing the world. Yet people like Rios still use the tired, old argument that women’s bodies somehow limit their abilities to work.

Navigating Hostile Waters
Women who make it into leadership positions or male-dominated fields must find a way to navigate the hostile waters created by negative perceptions based on gender. Sociologists Deborah Harris and Patti Giuffre conducted a study, which involved interviewing 32 female chefs about their experience in the culinary industry. Harris and Giuffre pointed out that, “Women described themselves as ‘invaders’ of men chefs’ turf, and their male supervisors often had preconceived ideas that women were not physically and emotionally strong enough to work in kitchens and would give them fewer high-status jobs.” Harris and Giuffre ultimately conclude that men and women chefs are not much different when it comes to their skills and abilities; it is perceptions of men and women that differ. These perceptions shape both how we all think about women as well as how women think about themselves.

Women can work hard to navigate the hostile waters and silence the internal gender critic, but until we all shift our thinking about women in the workplace, we can never really have an equal workplace.

Women deal with external forces that can make the workplace hostile. Such things come in the form of comments like Rios made about Hillary Clinton not being suited to the job of president because of her femaleness. But women also must fight against internalized oppression. These are the things women begin to believe about themselves because of all those comments they hear about women being less qualified and able. If you are a woman, have you ever believed you cannot do something because of your gender? In a way, women fight the battle on two fronts: in the outside world and in their own minds. Women can work hard to navigate the hostile waters and silence the internal gender critic, but until we all shift our thinking about women in the workplace, we can never really have an equal workplace. If we focus only on the individual as being the site of change, then we are not really fixing the problem that is making the woman worker believe she isn’t capable.

Am I Leaning In Enough?
When it comes to women in the workplace, change needs to happen everywhere and not just with the individual. After Sheryl Sandberg published Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead in 2013, she created an organization to take the Lean In philosophy out into the world. I commend Sandberg for her efforts to draw attention to unequal treatment in the workplace. It is important for women in power to draw attention to the continuing inequalities. But I also question an approach that asks women to lean into a system that still operates based on outdated gender norms.

Sandberg’s approach places the burden on individuals to change, and she acknowledges her critics: “I know some believe that by focusing on what women can change themselves—pressing them to lean in—it seems I am letting our institutions off the hook. Or even worse, they accuse me of blaming the victim. Far from blaming the victim, I believe that female leaders are key to the solution” (10-11). As I said, I like that Sandberg uses her position as COO of a major company to draw attention to women’s issues; however, I think change is going to require more than female leaders like Sandberg. There needs to be an institutional shift.

Sandberg’s approach aims to give women confidence to speak up, and she encourages women to support each other. These are good things, but at what point do we end up with a bunch of women asking, “Am I leaning in enough?” Women have been “leaning in” at work for a long time, and while there are more women in professions that tend to be male-dominated, women still face the negative perceptions I spoke about above. As Harris and Giuffre’s study on women chefs points out, “…it’s likely that men and women chefs (on the whole) are not radically different in terms of skills, leadership qualities and professional drive. What are different are the perceptions and experiences of men and women chefs.” It's true that having women in more positions of power and in traditionally non-female jobs will help turn the tides, but women entering into those positions still have to work really hard to battle sexism and essentially prove they deserve to be there. If the problem is with perception, will leaning in really change the way women are perceived?

The Lean In philosophy falls short in that it asks women to work within the existing framework instead of ripping it apart and creating something new. In effect, it asks women to be responsible for creating the change that will end unequal treatment. Women are going to space, running major companies, saving lives and leaning in all over the place, yet there is still this perception that women are not capable because of their gender. At what point do we stop asking women to lean into a broken system and instead ask the system itself to change?

Why these Perceptions Hurt Everyone
When work is perceived as gendered, everyone gets hurt. Think of the men working in typically female professions such as nurses, nannies and teachers. How often are these men seen as somehow lesser because they work in a feminine profession? Their work is seen as less valuable. Look no further than the male nurse jokes made in Meet the Parents, and TV shows and movies still rely on making jokes about a male nanny.

When work is viewed through a gendered lens, we miss out on all the things people are capable of. I am not making a call to erase gender. Instead, I am arguing that workplace success needs to stop being tied to gender. Some women are good at being firefighters, and some men are good at being nurses. Even though these jobs have been historically perceived as gendered, it does not mean they need to continue being seen as such.

Is a Sexism-Free Workplace Possible?
So, what does a workplace free of sexism look like? How do we create the cultural shift necessary to make a big change in the workplace? For one, we all need to stop creating and paying attention to messages that reinforce gender stereotypes. Every time Hillary Clinton’s fashion choices are offered up  as proof of her inability to be president, whenever a woman is criticized for working and raising a family and each time someone says a woman is too emotional to handle the pressures of a restaurant kitchen, the gendered perceptions that underpin our current system are upheld.

It starts with asking ourselves if we are judging a worker based on performance and skill or on gender? Yes, more women should be in leadership positions and jobs in male-dominated fields, but there also needs to be emphasis on destroying the age-old tool of evaluating workers based on gender. Until then, women may find themselves leaning in until they fall over.

Carlson, Nicholas. “Marissa Mayer Doubles Yahoo’s Paid Maternity Leave Gives Dads Eigh Weeks Off.” Business Insider, 30 April 2013. Web. 18 May 2015.

Guynn, Jessica. “Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer causes uproar with telecommuting ban.” LA Times, 26 February 2013. Web. 16 May 2015.

Harris, Deborah and Patti Giuffre. “A Sociological Study of Why So Few Women Chefs in Restaurant Kitchens.” The Feminist Kitchen, 18 July 2011. Web. 12 March 2015.

Sandberg, Sheryl. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. Print.