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What to do about strong-willed female employees

I recently left a job at a company that had no idea why good employees were suddenly quitting. The individual reasons for quitting were not all the same. Some of us left because of incompetent management, some left because we weren’t being paid enough, some because we often felt like we weren’t being given opportunities to advance, or a combination of all of these things. However, what we did all have in common was that we were all women.

During my exit interview, I spoke with an executive about my reasons for leaving and I received feedback that surprised me. He said that he felt the manager I had primarily worked with was struggling to deal with the “strong-willed females” in his department. He believed this was the reason we were all quitting. I had already decided to leave for a host of personal reasons, but after hearing this I was sure I hadn’t made a mistake.

My coworkers and I had been labelled “strong-willed females” by managers and it all came crashing down on me that I had spent way too much time giving them the benefit of the doubt that they saw us as equal players. Flashbacks of the harsh reality washed over me like visions in a horror film.

I recounted the time my coworker told me she asked for a raise that would bring her up to the salary.com average for her position and was told that her request was ridiculous. After two years with the company, she was barely at the bottom of the income range for her position, with considerably more responsibility than others at the same level. She was told she might get a raise if she kept up the good work for another year.

I recalled the departmental meeting we had after the Fair Labor Standards act was changed to double the minimum salary threshold. Anyone making less than $47,476 would be paid hourly and be eligible for overtime. The affected employees who were being made into hourly workers were given envelopes. A manager walked around the room, slowly placing the crisp, white envelopes on the conference table in front of every other person in the room. I recalled our stunned expressions as we realized that the only envelope recipients were women.

Or the time a different co-worker and I were talking about our collaborative writing assignment on the topic of the importance of maternity and parental leave and our manager overheard our conversation. He pulled her aside later that day to tell her that she should “not get too into all that feminist stuff” because it would be bad for her career.

And all the occasions we were spoken over or ignored during meetings. The instances where we would share our idea and then it would be repeated moments later by a man who would instantly take credit. That we were told not to work on anything perceived as a technical project like website coding, even when we possessed the skills because there were men in the department who could “do it better.”

Everyday reality had become a miserable experience for us. We were meeting our deadlines and performing good work, but we were fighting a current of misogyny and didn’t even realize the full extent of it. We internalized our frustrations and thought of the individual negative instances as personal problems instead of as a systemic problem. This is what our corporate culture pressured us to do. If we were experiencing what felt like discrimination, we were encouraged to say nothing, because making it an HR issue was more of a headache than it was worth and likely nothing would happen. Eventually we started sharing our stories and frustrations with each other. Much like how the #metoo movement revealed how many of us felt like we couldn’t or shouldn’t speak out about sexual assault — we soon realized that we weren’t alone in facing workplace discrimination.

I thought about how we came to be labelled as “strong-willed females,” and all that term implies. The term seems so antiquated and obviously offensive. I see now that we were viewed as too demanding, too forthright, too opinionated, too impervious — when we were just trying to be respected, be honest, be heard, and be given equal space at the table. Wanting fair pay, opportunities for advancement, and to be treated as professionals doesn’t make women pushy. This is what all employees want and deserve.

A quick Google search of the term results in countless articles written by men who are trying to understand women. Advice for other men on how to deal with our dominant personalities, to identify what we really want from them, the pros and cons of dating us. Change the key term and you can see how ridiculous the concept is:

The Unique Role God has for Strong-Willed Christian Men

9 Things to Expect on a Date with a Strong Man

14 Things to Know Before Loving an Ambitious, Strong Willed Man

The immediate response would be, “What’s wrong with a strong man? Isn’t that something to be admired?” Don’t tell me the argument for feminism is dead. It isn’t. Skewed opinions about women, their rights, and their worth are as abundant as they ever were. The president himself had a reality television show where he openly and enthusiastically discriminated against his female contestants. It’s everywhere and it is largely ignored.

Even Google, revered as a great employer, is in the middle of a gender pay gap lawsuit on behalf of all female employees who worked there over the past four years. (Don’t try Googling the lawsuit, you’ll find better results Yahooing it.) They’re not alone either. Uber, Oracle, JPMorgan and many other companies are facing similar lawsuits. How many executives at these companies complained about strong-willed females as the problem?

I have a solution for the problem. Replace the term “strong-willed female” with “self-respecting individual.” Self-respecting individuals are great in leadership roles and on teams. They are honest and trustworthy. They are exactly the kind of dedicated workers that our economy needs. Or replace the term with nothing at all. Delete it from your vocabulary. Save the strong-willed talk for your livestock and acknowledge women for their achievements. Offer them well-deserved raises and promotions. Value their achievements and give them a seat at the table before you lose them. You might be surprised what happens when you do.

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