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Don’t Let the Pendulum Hit You: How to Make Lasting Change for Women’s Rights

Date: March 9, 2023

Elana Wien

Executive Director, SRE Network

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What will it take to make lasting change for women’s rights? The gut punch of last summer’s overturning of Roe v. Wade and the subsequent wave of state anti-abortion bans — on the heels of a difficult pandemic that disproportionately affected women — raises a critically important question: how do we safeguard the fundamental rights of women at home, in the workplace, and in society at large?

Practitioners addressing gender-based harassment and discrimination, reproductive rights, domestic violence prevention, and more, experienced increased attention and engagement in our work from funders, community leaders, and the media in the years since #metoo went viral in late 2017.

But after a few years of meaningful progress to advance visibility, access, and opportunities for women and people of all genders, we now find ourselves challenged by a wave of thought pieces, articles, and private conversations casting doubt on efforts to advance positive culture change: doubt about whether our workplaces, communal spaces, and society actually have an issue with gender or with a lack of safety, respect, and equity at all.

Many of us are experiencing a building pressure — from ourselves, our boards, peers, and funders — to demonstrate how we made change with this increased attention and investment over the recent period. We also are being asked to make the case for how positive change is still possible in this divided, complex time.

It is a natural and healthy impulse to reflect, take stock, and use our data to fine tune strategies and approaches for moving forward toward greater equity. And it is simultaneously important to recognize the high stakes of this current collective moment of reflection, which is not happening in a vacuum. Instead, it is occurring in the context of (and perhaps in response to) a complicated socio-cultural moment, that observers are alternately describing as “backlash,” “the pendulum swinging the other way,” or “a correction,” depending on your perspective. Nevertheless, we must persist. This work is too important. We must stay focused and effective in our work to advance women’s rights and safety, respect, and equity for all.

Since our launch five years ago this month, SRE Network (Safety, Respect, Equity) has served as the North American Jewish network focused on addressing gender-based discrimination and harassment and creating safe, respectful, and equitable workplaces and communal spaces for all. We have awarded $5 million in grants, grown to over 160 networks and organizations in our membership, guided dozens of organizations in refreshing policies and improving practices to ensure safety and accountability, and supported institutions in reckoning with past institutional harm in meaningful ways.

As a thought leader, grantmaker, and practitioner, we are uniquely positioned to take the 30,000 foot view. From that vantage point, we want to offer three parts of what we believe is a winning strategy for leaders and practitioners who want to sustain and build on efforts to create more safe, respectful, and equitable workplaces and communal spaces:

See The Current Gaps Clearly for What They Are

Today, women do not experience safety, respect, and equity on par with men in our workplaces, communal spaces, and society at large. Here are just a few statistics that demonstrate this truth:

  • Progress on the gender pay gap has stalled for the past 15-plus years. Women on the whole still make only 82 cents for every dollar men earn, while Black women make only 69 cents and Latina women make only 58 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men.
  • Nearly 42 percent of working women have experienced gender discrimination at work (versus 22 percent of men), with one in four employed women reporting they earned less than a man doing the same job (in comparison to 5 percent of men who report earning less than a woman doing the same job).
  • Eighty-one percent of women in the United States have reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime.
  • Over 85 percent of employees who experience sexual harassment do not file a formal legal charge, and approximately 70 percent do not raise concerns internally with a supervisor, manager, or union representative about the harassing conduct.
  • Remote work has not solved this workplace culture issue. In a 2021 survey, one in four respondents indicated they had experienced unwelcome sexual behavior online (via Zoom or Google Hangouts, text message, email, or internal chat programs).

For anyone who wants to advance change, we must continue to call out these shortcomings — even, perhaps especially, in the face of the current pushback. We can reference these data points with C-suite professionals, nonprofit funders, and others in key leadership roles in any sector to raise awareness and spark change.

Lift Up the Bright Spots

While the gaps persist, progress has been made. We also need to lift up those bright spots and leverage those gains. In 2018, SRE Network developed and published Standards For Creating Safe, Respectful and Equitable Jewish Workplaces and Communal Spaces, adopted by all of our 160 member organizations. Since that time, through tools such as our annual Standards Self-Assessment Report, we have tracked both progress and growth edges of member organizations in advancing safety, respect, and equity in their workplaces. The annual employee experience survey results of our partners at Leading Edge is a key resource in tracking progress toward addressing gender-based discrimination and harassment within workplaces. For example, the 2022 Leading Edge Employee Experience Survey found that 83 percent of employees reported that they know their organization has a sexual harassment policy and of that percentage, 93 percent know what to do if it is violated. In contrast, only 67 percent of respondents knew about their organizations’ sexual harassment policies back in 2017.

And we know that many organizations and individuals are continuing to make the time and put in the effort toward this important work. For example, over the past year, the online Keilim Policy Toolkit of Sacred Spaces, designed to guide Jewish organizations to develop policies and procedures to ensure safety, respect, and equity in workplaces and communal spaces, has been accessed by nearly 3,000 unique users.

Build a Broad Base of Support for Long-Term Change

Lastly, we need to develop a strategy that includes a diverse, broad base of support capable of withstanding (or potentially bypassing altogether) the fickle pendulum swing. We do this by continually and collectively making the case that this is not a “women’s issue,” this is a human issue, this is a community issue and this is a societal issue. Every family, workplace, community and society is negatively impacted when women and people of all genders do not have the ability to reach their full potential. Ensuring safety, respect, and equity for ourselves and each other is not and should not be a trend or a passing phase. It should be a long-term commitment to achieve together what we are truly capable of and what our values ask of us.

So, as we celebrate International Women’s Day (yesterday, March 8) and consider women’s history throughout this month, let’s neither forget what we have accomplished nor all that is still left to do, let’s derive clarity from where the gaps are and inspiration from the bright spots, and let’s commit to reaching out more widely and broadly to build the collective effort needed to make lasting change.

Elana Wien is executive director of SRE Network (safety, respect, equity), which inspires meaningful change in workplaces and communal spaces by bringing people together to address gender-based harassment, discrimination, and inequity. Find her on LinkedIn.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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