When I graduated from law school, men and women were neck-and-neck in their possession of advanced degrees. Last year women surpassed men on that front, but we’re still lagging on the executive front. Education has taken us this far, but I believe it’s up to women to close the gap.
Achieving equality in any setting is a two-way street. It demands both an institutional commitment to equality and individual people who are willing to do the hard work required to make it a reality. In today’s workplace, the institutional commitment is often there. Right or wrong, it is now up to us—women and members of other minority groups—to finish the task. Right or wrong, it is up to us, because it is our opportunities, salaries, and advancement at stake.
How do we get there? First, continue to be excellent. The opportunities and benefits we want (but only disproportionately achieve) demand excellent education and performance. Second, we must stay in the game. Even the most excellent will not advance if she abandons ship. Third, we must actively pursue our own advancement, and that of other women and minorities. Finally, we must speak up and be heard on policy issues that may impact our work and our lives.
Back in 2010, I represented the Pink Pistols in a case that illustrates this last point. The U.S. Supreme Court had agreed to hear a landmark Second Amendment case involving the right to bear arms, McDonald v. Chicago. On its face, the issue appeared to be one for groups like the NRA, avid sportsmen, and constitutional wonks. But the Pink Pistols, a nationwide group of LGBT gun owners, wanted to be heard. I represented the Pink Pistols in an amicus brief in the case. We explained that laws preventing the use of firearms for self-defense in the home disproportionately impacted those individuals who are targets of domestic violence or hate crimes. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed. The majority cited our brief in a companion case.
As that story illustrates, women and minorities often are uniquely positioned to offer insights that can help shape policies in ways that are favorable to their interests. It’s a huge reason why we’ve achieved such incredible gains in the arena of education. But to do that, we have to speak up.
Individual professionals must make the choice to stay at their workplaces and push change into those organizations. It’s up to each of us to say, “I’m here. It’s my responsibility to speak up and move the ball forward.”