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Women in the Workforce, Gender Equity, and Trauma Informed Systems Change

The history of women in the workforce sheds light on gender-based inequities we still see today. Understanding the cultural context of historical bias is a small step on our journey towards safe and equitable working environments.

Women protesting during the civil rights' movement, holding signs that read "Wilson is against women" and "Vote against Wilson. He apposes national women's suffrage."

It’s Women’s History Month, and you’re likely going to see highlights of the achievements and successes of women throughout the month.

While, yes, we can and should be celebrating women’s achievements, we also need to ground in an understanding that women’s history has been defined by inequity—and that our history of structural violence provides the cultural context we need to understand how we can achieve equity in the workforce today.

Last year, we explored some foundational concepts of feminism in honor of Women's History Month. This year, we're diving deep into the history of women in the workforce.

Women’s History: Women in the Workforce

The history of working women is a brutal one. Inequity and violence underscore Women’s History, especially when it comes to work. From the beginning, the US workplace has been a site of immense inequality, with Black women, under the conditions of slavery, being forced into labor long before the concept of a "workforce" included white women.

"Feminism and women's history often leave our Black women. Enslavement is a big part of women's history, and we can't forget that." - Shenandoah Chefalo

While Black women were being forced to work, white women legally couldn’t earn wages or own property, under what is known informally as coverture laws. The legal framework in the US significantly restricted married women's rights to own property or earn and manage their own wages.

Then came the Married Women’s Property Acts. These acts allowed married women to own property in their own names, enter into contracts, and engage in business and legal actions independently of their husbands.

Although Mississippi was the first state to pass the Married Women’s Property Act in 1839, discrimination against women didn’t end when they changed the policy. It took other states decades to catch up, and reforms against coverture laws continued all the way up until the beginning of the 20th century.

While these reforms improved conditions for some women, the story of the working woman remained structurally violent. In the early 20th century, women in the US continued to face perilous working conditions. One notable tragedy that influenced reforms in the 20th century was the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which took 146 lives, most of whom were young immigrant women.

An illustration from a NYC newspaper, two men oversee 50+ female workers in a factory

Women’s Rights, Workers’ Rights, Equal Rights

Women played pivotal roles in labor movements and strikes, advocating for safer working conditions, reasonable hours, and fair wages. These efforts were instrumental in the establishment of labor unions and the passage of legislation aimed at protecting workers, marking a turning point in the fight for workers' rights and safety standards in the United States.

And the fight for equity for women and workers was also a fight for racial equity. While we often see these movements in history as separate, the intersectionality of the reforms made in our recent history mirror the need to address structural violence today as an intersectional issue.

Many powerful women fought to improve social conditions, end segregation and lynching, improve working conditions, and work toward gender equity, despite facing ongoing violence that upheld some of our most deeply held beliefs in this country, including white supremacist colonial patriarchy.

Then, 104 years ago, women gained the right to vote.

In a nation that was founded on the outcry of “No taxation without representation,” women were granted the right to vote 144 years late.

"Women in the US have been without the right to vote longer than they've had it" - Shenandoah Chefalo

Since then, we’ve identified ongoing problems (like pay disparity and discrimination), and have addressed some through legislation, (like the Equal Pay Act in ‘63 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in ‘64). But even though we’ve made the technical changes to our policy, our culture is still behind.

Current Challenges in the Workforce

While the ink has dried on policies like the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the lived experiences of women in today's workforce continue to tell a story of ongoing struggle and inequity.

Women are undervalued at work—and women of color, even more so. On average, women earn 82 cents for every dollar earned by men, a disparity that widens for women of color.

In addition to what we can see, there are disparities that often go unnoticed, even when we’re the culprits. Implicit bias is something we all take part in. It is a harmful and insidious psychological process that works to uphold violent norms and practices. And, implicit bias isn't only present in toxic workplaces. It's in every workplace.

For example, studies have shown that there is clear implicit bias that negatively impacts women across hiring practices, performance evaluations, leadership stereotypes, promotions, and everyday workplace interactions.

These biases extend beyond gender, intersecting with race, age, and other identities, creating compounded challenges for women of color, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities. Discrimination, both overt and covert, continues to mar the professional landscapes for many, manifesting in unequal treatment and limited access to career advancement.

Protesters at a women's march in DC

Equity Through Trauma-Informed Systems Change

Between the history, the research, and our lived experiences, many of us know, on a deep level, that there are issues and inequities in the world, including in our workplaces.

We know that structural violence, including overt and covert discrimination, is a contributor to individual experiences of trauma and organizational chronic stress.

But for some reason, we're still stuck.

Trauma-informed practices offer a framework for addressing both systemic and individual challenges by building cultures that emphasize safety, trustworthiness, and empowerment.

At its core, trauma-informed systems work is about identifying, understanding, living, and shifting our values and norms. By moving away from harmful cultural norms that include violent practices and toward organizational cultures grounded in the key principles of trauma informed systems change, we can build a better future.

It is possible for organizations to create more equitable and supportive workplaces. Trauma-informed practices not only aim to achieve gender-based equity but also enhance overall organizational health and productivity.

Trauma Informed Tips! When beginning a trauma informed organizational systems change project, acknowledge that it's a minimum 2-3 year commitment!

Strategies for Employers: How to Support Equity at Work

To advance gender equity at work, employers can adopt various technical strategies, such as conducting wage gap audits, providing bias training, supporting work-life balance through various policy changes and initiatives, and establishing clear policies for reporting harassment.

In addition to technical changes, organizations must also focus on cultural changes, which are much more difficult to achieve. However, when successful, cultural changes are sustainable and impactful, influencing an organization for years to come.

In my Foundational Training Program, participants learn various tools, frameworks, and models that support equity work. Here are some of the most impactful recommendations for those who want to start shifting their workplace.

1. Model desired behaviors.

Think about how you would want others to change at work. Then, reflect on your own behavior. What can you change? Are the changes you want to see in other people things you’re willing to change about yourself? Behavior modeling is an extremely useful strategy for changing behaviors in an organization.

2. Empower yourself and others.

Understanding that we are capable of change is sometimes a difficult belief to hold. Often, we inadvertently disempower others through criticism, micromanagement, or neglect. Consider how you can empower yourself and your team across all areas of your lives.

3. Build community to build resilience.

Strong communities are a pillar of trauma-informed systems change. To achieve equity work, we must see each other as human on both an intellectual and an emotional level. This starts with building stronger, more connected, and more resilient teams.

4. Foster open communication and feedback.

Honest, transparent, and connected communication pathways enable us to have the hard conversations and build healthy professional relationships. Encourage regular check-ins and forums where employees can share their experiences and suggestions without fear of retaliation or judgement. This is easier said than done, but it is possible and important.

5. Promote diversity and inclusion in leadership.

DEIB practices are crucial for agencies working toward trauma informed systems change. And, while we’re seeing a rise in diverse staff members, we can’t forget that diversity in leadership is also important and needed. Shifting our idea of what leadership means has also been beneficial to many of my clients.

“It is not inclusion if you invite people into a space you are unwilling to change.” (Dr. Muna Abdi)

6. Prioritize safety and wellbeing.

In today’s world, many of our organizations, even nonprofits and government agencies, are obsessed with a bottom line. Everything is urgent. Everything is an emergency. We are in a constant state of rush—trapped in our survival brain.

One big shift we can all make is to prioritize our own and others safety and wellbeing. This means caring for staff wellness as well as client, patient, or student wellness. Too often, our workers are left behind.

When prioritizing safety, that includes all types of safety.

Final Thoughts: We Are Empowered to Create Change

As we reflect on our violent history and the journey toward gender equity in the workforce, it's clear that achieving a truly inclusive work environment requires continuous effort and commitment to systemic change.

The principles of trauma-informed systems change offer a roadmap for creating workplaces that are safe, empowering, and equitable, while addressing the root causes of inequality. While the truth can be hard to swallow, there is hope, because there is a path forward.

If you're interested in learning more about how you can improve your organization or community through trauma informed systems change, check out our free Guide to Trauma-Informed Implementation.

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