During Women’s History Month, we applauded the accomplishments of many women in myriad fields and cheered on those who are likely to have significant impact ahead. But, despite these strides, we cannot ignore the continuing challenges women face particularly in their professional lives. Women have carried a disproportionate share of the burdens associated with the pandemic. Over the past year, women lost their jobs or were forced to forfeit them in record numbers to care for children as remote learning replaced classrooms or for family members stricken by the pervasive the COVID-19 virus.
Looking beyond the pandemic, there have been other stories in the headlines this month that exemplify the struggles women continue to face professionally. We focus on two stories in particular that caught our attention – the first relates to the continuing exposure of sexual harassment and bullying by leaders who consider themselves unsinkable and the second highlights a big company exploiting women small business owners by placing orders for goods while planning to file for bankruptcy protection. Both of these exemplify the powerful societal forces women face when they try to advance in the work world. It is a lot like dancing the “Cha-Cha,” for every two steps forward, you take three steps back.
Let’s start with third-term New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, known for his bullying behavior generally and relentless self-promotion of his handling of COVID-19 in the Empire State. Now it seems the world is crashing in on him as several women, many of whom worked for his administration, have accused him of intimidating and humiliating predatory behavior. These instances go beyond bullying – the accusations include sexual harassment and unwelcome intimate conduct. It is unfortunately ironic that these incidents have come to light as we celebrate Women’s History Month.
Unsurprisingly, several of the women reported the incidents earlier, but no action was taken. They did so likely with fear that challenging someone of Cuomo’s stature would irreparably harm their careers in the political arena in which they sought to advance. For example, one accuser, Lindsey Boylan, is running for Manhattan Borough President and more than one commentator has questioned her motives for coming forward as a political stunt. Others left their hard-earned positions rather than continue working with the Governor given his overbearing overtures.
Although many leaders of both parties have called for Cuomo’s resignation, we can’t help but wonder whether these women would have received support if they unveiled their claims at another time. Would anyone have rallied behind them when Cuomo was at the height of celebrity for fighting COVID-19 in New York, rather than now when he is under investigation for allegedly concealing accurate information about the extent of deaths among nursing home patients? During rosier times for the Cuomo administration, many would have considered him untouchable and easily able to weather these claims through the sheer force of his bulldozing personality. The Cuomo sexual harassment scandal reflects how so many women have to dance the “Cha-Cha” at work; they may move forward, but forces beyond their control, push them farther back.
Another way in which women find themselves further hindered is evidenced by the recent actions of retail stationery chain Paper Source. If you missed it, Paper Source filed for bankruptcy on March 2, 2021, causing significant harm to the many women entrepreneurs who supply the company with products to fill their shelves. Now those women-owned vendors are out of luck as many will not be paid in full for products they delivered in the weeks leading up to the bankruptcy filing. Understandably, this has caused a backlash on social media because these female vendors claim that prior to taking this step, Paper Source placed sizable orders, which they insisted be delivered on an expedited basis with payment to follow 30-60 days after delivery. Now, these small women owned businesses will be lucky if they are paid pennies on the dollar for the amounts owed by Paper Source for orders delivered on the eve of the bankruptcy.
Paper Source is responding to this criticism with various explanations that ring hollow: the orders were needed to stock their shelves, it tried to avoid this with a new investor, it will educate vendors on filing claims, and it hopes these small businesses will get repayment priority in the proceedings. Paper Source’s statements do not help these women entrepreneurs, their families or their cadre of employees pay their rent or put food on the table. It is particularly hard to swallow that Paper Source’s Chief Executive, Winnie Park, is a woman and a mother. So much for sisterhood. The creative women entrepreneurs who are being shortchanged by Paper Source showed the fortitude to keep moving forward during the downturn, and now a big company pulled the rug out from under them.
As these recent stories and many others in the headlines reflect, working women continue to face considerable obstacles to advancing professionally. Whether they are paid less than their male peers, held to higher performance standards, ridiculed for taking time to care for family, harassed by a powerful boss or exploited by business partners, the challenges are pervasive and often unchecked. Despite their best efforts, hardworking women seeking to get ahead continue to dance taking two steps forward, then three back ….”Cha-Cha-Cha.”