Better Life Lab

Let’s Praise the Women We Lost and Mourn Those We’ll Never Know

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Thinkstock, Getty Images.

In the 1990s, I worked with a young journalist who was talented beyond her years. Savvy. Poised. Dispassionate and fearless in her reporting and super scary smart. She could unravel the most convoluted financial and legal wranglings and write with the kind of clarity and urgency that holds the powerful to account and moves people to action. She became a top editor of a respected national publication at the age of 30. A columnist for a major newspaper. Wrote award-winning stories. And then, a few years ago, her regular byline simply vanished.

My friend, Elizabeth Lesly Stevens, wasn’t groped in an elevator, shown a dick pic, or locked in an office and assaulted by a man with the power to make or break her career who controlled the door with a button under his desk. Instead, what silenced her are the same forces that have sidelined, undermined, and thwarted multitudes of women: the constant drip, drip, drip of toxic work cultures designed by men for the benefit of men that keep men in power and that have been stubbornly resistant to change.

But it’s not Elizabeth’s byline that has vanished. Enough about the loss of the flawed, fired, and contrite men whose genius is now tainted. Instead, how about a rageful eulogy for all the talent we’ve already lost?

The promising female actors who decided to leave the profession or who struggled to catch a break after run-ins with Harvey Weinstein. Rising-star comedians whose careers were sidetracked after encounters with Louis C.K. The women who lost confidence in themselves, struggled with depression, or left the theater altogether after their “mentor” playwright Israel Horovitz was done with them.

But let’s not forget that while the white hot spotlight of shame has centered on the latest high-profile sexual harassment perpetrators, there are thousands of more ordinary stories in the shadows of lives altered and livelihoods thwarted not just by harassment, but by a work culture that appears oddly mystified by the fact that women are in it.

Stories of women that rarely get much notice, like that of Ari Blenkhorn, a computer programmer who left a dream job when her all-male team sabotaged a project she was directing and won accolades for coming up with a competing version. Or Leigh Kunkel, who left a good job at an advertising agency in Chicago with no backup plan because she couldn’t face the demeaning and disrespectful work environment one more day. (Her boss, for instance, described editing her copy as “molesting” it, she reported. And he didn’t leave the metaphor there.) “I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t work. I was so angry and disgusted by how we were being treated and so burned out trying to figure out what I was doing wrong that these men had no respect for me or my work,” she said. “So I quit.”

Just about any statistic around—the dearth of women CEOs, law partners, top managers, Wall Street executives, engineers, Silicon Valley programmers, directors, advertisers, producers, show runners, doctors, scientists, tenured professors, politicians, you name it—shows beyond a reasonable doubt that it’s not women who are broken and in need of fixing, though that’s the convenient excuse. It’s corporate culture in America.

Not convinced? How about this one: 40 percent of the women who graduated from top engineering schools in recent decades left the field because of hostile work environments.

Frankly, I’m so tired of hearing about how the world will suffer from the loss of the rogues’ gallery of “great” male artists and leaders now out of jobs whose work—at least for now—is considered too tainted to support.

Let us instead lament a masculinized work culture so colossally blind that it devours dreams large and small, stymies talent, and holds women back, despite research clearly showing that having women in leadership leads to higher returns, lower risk, and more innovation. Let’s rage against a workplace that forces pregnant workers out of jobs and into poverty because they can’t lift heavy things for a few weeks and that silences voices like that of my friend Elizabeth Lesly Stevens.

“I was always trained to soldier through. There’s nothing more pathetic in journalism than someone who can’t take it,” Lesly Stevens told me. “But I’m realizing how in much of my work life, more than half of my energy was taken up in managing, coddling, kowtowing to, and massaging the egos and bad habits of the men I worked with.”

When the going got tough, when she was criticized for having “sharp elbows,” Elizabeth, like many women of our generation, just put her head down and worked harder. Doing a good job, she said, that was her only strategy. But that strategy failed when her boss began sabotaging her, sending inappropriate messages about sexting, arranging meetings with top editors and purposefully leaving her out, then portraying her as a flake who didn’t show, and demeaning her for not being present late in the office, even though she often worked through the night at home.

“It wasn’t any one thing; it was 100 petty things. It was without cessation. And at the end of the day, he won. He drove me out of the business,” she said. “I’m ashamed that I let him get away with it. I’d like to think I’m tougher than that. But I was just exhausted. I’m a journalist. And I miss not doing that.”

Amy Nelson misses being an attorney. She went to NYU law school and worked on Wall Street as a high-flying corporate litigator and then for firms in Seattle for 10 years. When she went for a promotion after having her second child, her new male boss told her it wasn’t the right time because she’s just had a baby. He then put a man above her who she’d previously beaten out for her job. She decided to leave and start her own company. “He told me, ‘I think you’re going to go home, have a latte, and decide to stay home with your kids,’ ” Nelson said.

Instead, she’s had a third baby, raised $1.5 million in angel investor and venture capital, and last May opened the Riveter, workspace and community platforms for female entrepreneurs and business owners with two sites in Seattle and 420 members and counting.

Nelson is passionate about her start-up. But it’s a hard road. She chose it because she felt she had no other options in corporate America. And she’s not alone. Studies have found that 43 percent of highly qualified women with children leave the workforce at some point in their careers. And women are starting their own businesses at four times the rate of men.

“I would have stayed in law,” she said. “I lost a career I spent a decade building. Half of all law school graduates for decades have been women, and yet women leaders in law firms are a real rarity. That’s a real loss for everyone.”

By failing to see women as people and value them as such, we’ve been losing for ages. To take on the prevailing views of the day that no woman could ever write like Shakespeare—and my, doesn’t that sound familiar, given how men still win the lion’s share of literary awards and glowing reviews—Virginia Woolf imagined what would have become of Shakespeare were he born a woman or if he’d had an equally gifted sister. The girl would never have had the time or the ability to develop her genius—barred from school, told to mind the stew, expected to marry young, and beaten if she didn’t. In Woolf’s telling, despite her great gifts, Shakespeare’s sister wound up crazy, dead, or shut up in a cottage in the woods and mocked as a witch.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Woolf imagined that, in the future, a woman with genius would be born. Her ability to blossom, not to be lost, not to vanish, would depend entirely on the world we decided to create. “She would come if we worked for her,” Woolf wrote. And even all these years later, what this painful and enraging #MeToo moment has shown is that we haven’t worked nearly hard enough. Not yet. And it’s long past time we begin.