The International Women’s Day (IWD) theme for 2021 is “choose to challenge.”
What a fitting theme for a year when 5.4 million women lost their jobs and over 2.1 million women left the workforce, while the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc, and social and racial inequity issues were raised to the forefront of the international consciousness. There was certainly no shortage of challenges for women to choose from this past year.
However, the IWD initiative website elaborates on the “choose to challenge” theme by noting that “a challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change.” It is that idea that should really resonate with us, as we move past 2020 and into 2021. There have been many examples this year of women who have chosen to rise to the challenges presented in 2020 and by doing so, have created change for other women.
In keeping with this theme, Lighthouse is featuring five such women in the legal and technology fields. Five women who have risen to the challenges presented this year and created change. Those five women are:
We had the honor of interviewing these inspirational women about the “choose to challenge theme” – including the stressors of 2020, how to empower other women, how to leverage innovation to shape a more gender-equal world, and how to address social justice issues. That discussion led to some powerful lessons on how to rise to our current challenges and create meaningful, lasting change.
EMPOWERING WOMEN DURING A PANDEMIC
Like any societal change, empowering women starts small, at the individual level. We do not have to wait for some grand opportunity or postpone our effort until we have the time to volunteer – especially during a pandemic when our personal time may feel even more precious and many in-person volunteer opportunities have halted. Empowerment can happen by simply reaching out to the women around us – women we work with, women in our personal lives, and women within our own families.
Laura Ewing-Pearle noted, “One principle to keep in mind is that women are not a monolithic bloc, and that empowering women usually means empowering the individual. A woman with twenty years’ experience in the legal world caring for aging parents has a different set of stressors and goals than a woman fresh out of school with a toddler, especially under the new Covid protocols…Seeing past “woman” to the individual brings us all closer to a more gender-equal world.”
In our professional lives, empowering at the individual level can mean reaching out to our women co-workers, teammates, and those that may be on “lower rungs” of the corporate or law firm ladders and offering them a chance to sit down (virtually) for a cup of coffee to talk about their personal goals and challenges. This provides women a space to be heard and seen, first and foremost. It is from these conversations that the seeds of change are often planted.
Rebecca Sipowicz stated, “During the summer I became responsible for co-oversight of our back-office team in India, which is approximately 25% female. For at least the past 10 years, the India team has not reported, directly or indirectly, to a woman. I have reached out on an individual level to these women to discuss their career goals and how we can work together to achieve them. I also started a monthly “catch-up” where, in this virtual environment, we can meet for 30 minutes to talk about work, life, and the state of the world. Through these conversations, I have not only gotten to know better my colleagues who are located off-shore but also have been able to share life experiences, such as how to take advantage of our remote work world while parenting and managing online school. The continued growth of this group of employees is one of my most important goals for 2021.”
These conversations often help us learn not only about individual ambitions and challenges, but also may help us learn about unsung accomplishments and milestones that women often are less apt to tout about themselves within their own organizations and networks. In turn, this can provide an excellent opportunity to be a champion for those women, by calling out successes that would otherwise go unrecognized.
Gina Sansone said, “I am a strong believer in being a vocal cheerleader for the women around me who may be less comfortable with promoting their strengths and accomplishments. Women often play multiple roles at work and at home that are not obvious to others and get overlooked because they tend to be less measurable in a traditional sense. These contributions are nonetheless valuable and crucial to an organization and the lives of others, and it’s really important to notice and appreciate them along the way.”
Empowering at the individual level also means leading by example during these conversations. The stressors of the pandemic have changed our lives dramatically, both professionally and personally. It is unchartered territory for everyone, and studies are showing that women are shouldering the brunt of the burden at home – often juggling full-time virtual schooling with children while working full-time jobs or dealing with the bulk of household maintenance. Leading by example and being honest about ourselves and our own hurdles during our conversations can empower women to be honest about their own struggles and needs.
Jenya Moshkovich stated, “[I empower other women by] being honest about my own challenges and creating and holding space for others to be their true, authentic selves with all the complexities and messiness that can bring. The line between our private lives and work is blurrier now than it has ever been and we have to let go of trying to pretend that we have it all together all the time because no one does, especially these days.”
The example we set and the honesty with which we portray ourselves can especially be important for those closest to us – the people within our own families and homes.
Rebecca Sipowicz mentioned, “…Having my children home from school for six months enabled my 11-year-old daughter to witness firsthand how involved my job is and to learn how difficult but rewarding it is to juggle parenting and a career. This is a valuable lesson for all children, not just girls.”
LEVERAGING INNOVATION TO SHAPE A MORE GENDER EQUAL WORLD
If the legal and technology industries have anything in common, it is that women have been historically under-represented in both spaces. Fortunately, technological innovation can help close the gender gap in both industries:
Rebecca Sipowicz shared, “The pandemic really pushed all of corporate America to take steps that will help to advance gender equality in the workplace – namely the move from in-office to remote work. This unquestionably provides working mothers with more equal access to the workplace. Through the use of video software such as Zoom and Teams, and the ability to work around parenting responsibilities, fewer women should feel the pressure to leave the workforce in order to parent….This flexibility allows women to continue to contribute to the workforce and grow in their careers while caring for their families, without feeling like they are short-changing either side. This should enable women to continue to take on more prominent roles and push women throughout the world to request an equal seat at the table.”
Technological innovation can also help people push their organizations and law firms to empower women and support equality. Many companies have seen how innovation and technology can help close the gender gap, and we can work within those systems to further those efforts.
Gina Sansone said, “I really don’t know how we can begin to work toward a gender-equal world without leveraging innovation. To me, innovation means creating a dynamic work environment that encourages everyone to move forward, which could mean training and managing members of the same team differently. While consistency is important, recognizing differences, being flexible, and empowering people to think differently and not simply check a box are steps toward shaping a more gender-equal world.”
Laura Ewing-Pearle added, “Encouraging and leveraging more on-line training certainly helps anybody juggling family and career to keep pace with new technology and change. I’m grateful that Baker Botts as the firm encourages everyone to create new, innovative ideas to improve business processes and culture.”
Jenya Moshkovich mentioned, “I am very fortunate to work for a company that has started innovating in this space years ago and where I am in the position to benefit from these efforts. Since 2007, Genentech has more than doubled the percentage of female officers from 16 to 43% and today over half of our employees and over half of our directors are women. In our legal department, ALL of our VPs are women. Genentech’s efforts to move towards gender equality have included senior leadership commitments, programs to drive professional development and open up opportunities for career advancement, among others.”
Going forward, it will be equally important to continue efforts to support changes in our industry. While we have come a long way and made considerable progress, it is still important to push companies and law firms to recognize equity gaps and encourage the use of innovation and technology to help close those gaps.
Amy Sellars stated, “Corporate practices favor men, and Covid exacerbates this problem. Will companies acknowledge that women took on most of the additional burdens of children at home, education at home, of people at home all the time (more dishes, more cleaning, more cooking, less dry cleaning, and more laundry)?”
Rebecca Sipowicz said, “It is up to all of us to make sure that the realization that flexibility can result in increased productivity and satisfaction continues long after the pandemic, allowing women (and men of course) to have the best of both worlds.”
ADDRESSING SOCIAL JUSTICE AND EQUALITY ISSUES
2020 was also a devastating year for people of color, as well as underrepresented and low-income communities. The tragic events throughout the year brought social inequality issues and systemic racism to the forefront of the conversation in many families, workplaces, and social circles. Many of the lessons learned in the fight for gender equality can also be applied to the fight for racial and social equality. For instance, just as empowering women can start at the individual level, the fight for social and racial equality can also start with small, individual acts.
These acts can be as simple as personally working to educate ourselves on the work to be done, so that we can act on social justice issues in the most impactful way:
Jenya Moshkovich said, “2020 was a difficult year in so many ways including the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery and many incidents of xenophobic violence against Asian Americans. My personal focus has been on educating myself, speaking up for others, listening, and fostering belonging. And there is so much more that needs to be done.”
Gina Sansone added, “The social issues raised in 2020 were unfortunately just a magnification of issues that have existed for a long time. It was a perfect storm of events that certainly made me and others face the thought patterns, inequalities, and general civil unrest that has been festering in our society. It is very easy to live in a bubble and lose sight. I think one of the most important things that happened was people stopped being quiet and just accepting. Change will not happen unless it is absolutely forced and we need to continue recognizing that the world is not equal.”
Creating social justice change also can mean utilizing the education we do have about these issues, and working within our communities to help in any way possible – both at the individual level and on a broader scale:
Amy Sellars stated, “My husband and I have always been passionate about voting rights and participate in get out the vote efforts. 2020 was a particularly important year for voting issues, as so many people were isolated and had even less access to register to vote or get to polls than normal. Working with the League of Women Voters, we did neighborhood registration drives, and we volunteered as non-partisan poll watchers. We also picked up Meals on Wheels shifts. All around the country, meal recipients who used to be fed at central locations were transitioned to home deliveries, and it has taken an army of volunteers in personal vehicles…We are also volunteering on the domestic crisis hotline.”
We can also leverage the networks and programs put in place within forward-thinking organizations to help bring about social change. More and more law firms and organizations are working to help close the gender gap and fight racial and social inequity. Employees of those organizations are in a unique position to join those initiatives to make more of an impact:
Laura Ewing-Pearle said, “While (Baker Bots) had resources in place prior to the events of last year, the firm has also increased efforts over the past twelve months to address social issues including greater outreach to diverse communities, and creating a significant pro bono partnership with Official Black Wall Street, among other major initiatives.”
Rebecca Sipowicz added, “I am a member of the Ocwen Global Women’s Network (OGWN), which supports the attainment of Ocwen’s goals in diversity, inclusion, and talent development. I am also on the planning committee for the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) mid-year meeting. NAWL’s mission is to empower women in the legal profession, while cultivating a diverse membership dedicated to equality, mutual support and collective success. Membership in and support of organizations such as NAWL and OGWN provide me with a platform to address the diversity and social issues that permeated 2020.”
The lesson learned from these strong women during a year full of challenges is that seemingly “small” acts can have big impacts. Change starts with all of us, at an individual level, working to empower women and make impactful societal changes – one person, one organization, and one community at a time.
Thank you to the five women who participated in our 2021 International Women's Day Campaign! Take a look at our 2020 and 2019 International Women's Day campaigns for more inspiring stories of women in our industry making bold moves to promote gender equality.