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Women in the workplace and the unfinished fight for equality

Women in the Workplace: The Unfinished Fight for Equality
CBS Reports | Women in the Workplace: The Unfinished Fight for Equality 27:44

Watch the CBS Reports documentary "Women in the Workplace: The Unfinished Fight for Equality" in the video player above.

Women have long battled barriers in the workforce as they fought for equality with their male colleagues. Those battles continue as women demand equal pay and representation at the highest levels.

"The Me Too movement and the Time's Up movement have really been at the forefront of uncovering and exposing the biases and inequalities that women have experienced," said Dr. Tsedale Melaku, a sociologist and author.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed women back into traditional gender roles, Melaku said. The COVID-19 recession was the first where more women lost jobs than men.

"2020 in particular has seen women being pushed back into these gender roles and narratives around their home life," Melaku said. "Being relegated back into the default caregiver status, nurturing status also kind of reinforces those old traditional stereotypes that women were already fighting against in order to break into the public sphere, in order to break into access to being in organizations and in these leadership roles."

Tina Tchen, the president and CEO of Time's Up Now, said, "In a single year, we wiped out three to four decades worth of progress on women coming into the workforce and being able to make a living for themselves and their families and being able to realize a career and a dream."

CBS News spoke with women about the difficulties they've faced advancing their careers. 

Cate Luzio, CEO: "I realized that woman-ness was at a disadvantage for me"

Cate Luzio CBS News

"Women have a different road ahead of them, no matter how good they are. It's just societal norms and human nature," said Cate Luzio, the founder and CEO of Luminary, a membership-based growth and career accelerator focused on helping women advance their careers. 

Before starting her own company in 2018, Luzio held executive positions at multinational banks, including HSBC and J.P. Morgan. As she progressed in her career, she said she felt that being a woman put her at a disadvantage. 

"The first half of my career, it was just about doing well and doing better and being super competitive with my peers, which were mainly men, because I wanted to have that leg up. I wanted to be better and I wanted to be better because I wanted to aspire to be a leader," she said. "I aspired to be a manager as I sort of hit that second half of my career. That's when I realized that woman-ness was at a disadvantage for me."

Luzio also suggested that there was a double standard for how women are perceived in the workplace versus their male colleagues. She was labeled "emotional," "aggressive," "harsh" and "cold," which she said may have contributed to her being overlooked for promotions. 

"I never, as a manager, gave any of that type of feedback to men. So why was I getting that? I think there were multiple times where I felt like others were being promoted when I wasn't, mainly because of those labels. And I just wouldn't stand for it. I was always the dissenter. Like, how could you say that to me? Like, what do you mean? Don't just give me a label, explain what that means. And, a lot of times that bit me in the behind," she said. 

For every 100 men promoted to a managerial position in 2019, 85 women were promoted, according to a study from McKinsey & Company and In 2020, women held 38% of manager-level positions while men held 62%. 

"We're raising our hands in our companies and saying, 'Give me more responsibility. Help me move up. Teach me.' And the reality is for most women, the excuse they get when they sit in that room with their boss is, 'You're just not ready yet. You don't have all of these...' OK. So teach me," she said.

Mita Mallick, diversity, equity and inclusion leader: "I don't have enough fingers to count ... how many times credit has been taken or stolen from me"

Mita Mallick CBS News

"I don't have enough fingers to count … how many times credit has been taken or stolen from me. I'm sure many women of color can relate. You put in the work and you have great ideas and solutions and you're ultimately not the one who presents or gets credit," said Mita Mallick, a diversity, inclusion and equity executive.

Mallick, whose full name is Madhumita Mallick, said she has left jobs because of "excessive bullying." When she entered the corporate world, she went by her first name instead of her nickname, Mita. She said she was belittled by her boss who refused to learn how to pronounce her name and wouldn't call her by her nickname. Instead, he called her Muhammad.

"And so he would say, 'Muhammad, are we ready for the 4 o'clock call? Muhammad, are you ready to deliver the sales samples tomorrow? Muhammad, are you ready for lunch?' And that happened both privately and publicly. And I share that story because it's important to share, but it's painful to think that I responded to a name that was not my own for many months until I finally left that company," she said.

A McKinsey & Company and study found that women of color were a small percentage of the women in management roles in 2019.

To help women of color climb the ladder, Mallick said support from someone at least two levels above in an organization's hierarchy is needed.

"This individual will use their political capital, their social capital. They will have skin in the game and they will help me advance my career," she said. "We need more women of color to be sponsored so that they can get into the C-suite and board rooms."

Farida Mercedes, stay-at-home mom: "There is sacrifice"

Farida Mercedes CBS News

"I was raised to be an independent woman. You go to school, you get a job, you make a career. Then you get married, you have children, but you always stay independent — never depend on anyone. Now I was leaving my job and I was going to have to depend on my husband and I questioned it every day," said Farida Mercedes, who left her career at L'Oreal after 17 years to be a stay-at-home mom during the pandemic. 

Mercedes' last role at the company was an assistant vice president of human resources. When the pandemic struck, she and her husband, a corrections officer, decided that he would stay away from their home until they "figured out what the virus was, because there is no such thing as social distancing in the jail." 

She worked from home with two young children who were learning remotely.

"I remember the day distinctly when I made the decision in my heart, that I just, something had to give. That night I spoke to my husband and I said, 'I think I need to leave L'Oreal.' When my husband and I talked about the decision of someone having to leave, it just was not a question of who that person would be. It was naturally that it would be me because of the role that I play in our family dynamic," she said.

As of March, there were almost 1.5 million fewer mothers of school-aged children in the workforce compared to February 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Some women chose to leave their jobs, but many others were laid off. 

"People have said to me, 'You're so lucky you get to leave. You have a husband who supports you.' But there is sacrifice. There's sacrifice in the sense that I'm not necessarily feeling the same fulfillment that I had before. There's a gap in my career right now. And will an organization understand why I made that decision?" Mercedes said.

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