Not Before We Crack
Julie Savard Shaw, The Prosperity Project
Lesli Martin, Pollara
The modern embodiment of the perfect woman is a master of everything. She is poised, articulate, a captain of industry, and a devoted mother. She manages her work responsibilities and family matters without breaking a sweat, and she looks good doing it. There is no shortage of women in Canada who aspire to this ideal and who silently berate themselves when it doesn’t come naturally. But there is no real shame in their shortcomings. It isn’t their fault.
Women have been had.
The modern ideal woman is not a realistic expectation as America Ferrera so accurately describes in Barbie. Rather, it is an unobtainable, unreasonable goal that condemns women to the lot of Sisyphus, endlessly struggling with an uphill burden that no human should be suffered to bear.
At The Prosperity Project (TPP), we endeavour to support the success of women in Canada in the pursuit of national economic prosperity. We believe that all women deserve access to leadership roles in organizations and industry. We reject the flimsy notion that such advancement must be handled in addition to the heavy responsibilities that have already been thrust upon women through persistent social bias.
One of TPP’s key initiatives is a report called the Canadian Household Perspective. For four years, we have conducted polling to understand how women are faring in their professional and private lives. The quantitative data has repeatedly shown that women in Canada are plagued by burnout, stress, and undervaluation in the workplace. These numbers told an important story, but they had not quite gotten to the heart of women’s experience—they hadn’t quite captured the depth and breath of struggle.
Last month, we decided to take a more intimate look at the realities of Canadian women. In partnership with Pollara, we conducted a series of focus groups in which we invited women of various backgrounds and professional experience to lay bare their grievances. Their stories were familiar, but laced with the poignancy that can only come from honest self-reflection. The experiences participants related helped us better understand the complex barriers that women face on the wobbly corporate ladder.
“My manager just quit because of burn out,” one participant shared. “There was too much to do. Now it is falling on me… and I am afraid I am going to be next. It is like they are sitting back and watching, seeing how much they can pile on us until we crack. Maybe then they will do something… but not before we crack.” Almost all in the group shared similar sentiments about work. They report feeling overworked, undervalued, and subject to gender-based microaggressions like always being expected to take notes or make coffee for male colleagues despite holding senior titles. Some women report taking pay cuts with new employers to escape toxic environments. Many claimed they no longer saw any benefit in seeking advancement.
It doesn’t get much better at home. Outside of work, society and family expects women to manage and care for all. “The pressure of being a good mom and being a present mom is always there,” said a participant, “and I need to be on the ball all the time.” Other participants concurred, adding to a general consensus that, if they didn’t manage family responsibilities and crises, no one else would help. Some participants reported that family obligations prevented them from maintaining employment, especially women with young children who struggle to find access to childcare.
One might expect that the women who participated in these groups and reported everything from harassment to incessant anxiety and depression would be despondent, out of ideas, tired of trying. They were not. They came armed with ideas for improving work and home environments. They spoke about the power of mentorship and training programs for women. They expressed hope that increased access to affordable childcare would ease the burden of working mothers. Most of all, they talked of solidarity.
“We need to stand up for each other,” said one participant to a room of nodding heads. She added, “You need someone who will stand up for you.” At The Prosperity Project, we stand up for women because we know that women deserve to have it all, but they do not deserve the cost of having to do it all for everyone.