On March 8, 1917, female textile workers in Petrograd, Russia protested for better working and living conditions. One hundred years later, women in the U.S. and around the world are striking and protesting for the same. International Women’s Day—once known as International Working Women’s Day—has a long legacy of bringing women together to demand the world to recognize and value our contributions.
As a millennial woman who graduated college during the Great Recession, I’ve watched myself and my friends scramble to seize any opportunity that came our way. We tucked away our diplomas to don the uniforms and name badges of low-paying, hourly jobs that college was supposed to insure against. Twenty-somethings like me went straight from the dorm room to the childhood bedroom.
These dire times gave employers and managers incredible leverage over us. Unpaid internships became plentiful. We worked long hours, hesitated to ask for raises and promotions, eagerly signing on the dotted line for depressed salaries. I knew women who cried in their cars or in bathroom stalls during lunch breaks because they hated their jobs or their bosses but didn’t feel as if they could quit. It was the equivalent of staying in a bad relationship because you didn’t think you could find anyone better to love you. It stifled our creativity and made us risk adverse.
The recession might be over, but the mentality persists. Employers continue to have the expectation that younger employees must make do with whatever circumstances they provide us. I know. I’ve been there. After a fulfilling career in sales and marketing, I left to get my MFA in creative writing. When I graduated, I desperately wanted a copywriting position. I also desperately needed a job because two years in grad school completely decimated my savings account.
For the first time, I found myself facing the disappointing reality my peers had faced in 2007, except it was nearly 10 years later. As I prepared to move back to my hometown and in with my mother in Kentucky, I scoured job boards trying to secure something in the writing field. The job I landed paid $15 an hour, less than what I’d made selling cosmetics at Nordstrom, and I’d have to wait three months for my health insurance to kick in. But they were excited to have me and I was told if I “knocked it out the park,” I’d be given a raise in December along with everyone else.
I’ve always been an achiever, someone who constantly strives to be greater at their work, but now it was as if I was being told to shrink myself.
In less than two months I was told I was the best writer they had on staff, selected over more experienced team members to train a new hire. I had ideas, and I was there whenever my boss needed me. But when I asked about the raise during my review, my boss seemed taken aback. I wasn’t asking for anything more than was promised, but it was as if he was offended I’d even mentioned it. I didn’t know what to do. If he’d simply said I hadn’t earned it, I could work harder. But it was clear I was worthy of a raise, he just didn’t think it was my place to bring it to his attention. I’ve always been an achiever, someone who constantly strives to be greater at their work, but now it was as if I was being told to shrink myself.
I clasped my hands together in front of me on the table and smiled. He made feel small, like a little girl. A little girl who didn’t know her place. The conversation continued, but my mind was stuck on the raise. Without even knowing it, I began to channel those 1917 women, the Russian textile workers who wanted better, who knew they were worth more. I started to mentally list my strengths—my work experience, my professionalism, my skills as a writer. I knew I had to leave because this man was never going to honor my value.
Over the next few months, I took on freelance copywriting assignments, established columns with local newspapers and pitched my work to national outlets, eventually making as much on the side as I was at my low-paying day job. So I quit. It wasn’t easy. Freelancing is hard. I never understood the “No Days Off” fanatics until I started working for myself.
But I determine the value of my work. I don’t watch the clock to get through the work day. I choose when and with whom to work with, and ensure that I’m being respected for what I bring to the table.
Things are changing. Women, it’s time for us to honor our own value, to own it and to demand more from our employers, find new ones or do it ourselves.
But before you can, you must believe you can. Sit down and make a list of your profitable skills. Get together with your friends and honestly evaluate each other’s résumés. Reach out to your mentors and ask for an appraisal. If there are weak spots in your résumé, take classes or teach yourself the skills you need to increase your value and network with other women who can help you move forward in your career.
If you’re being undervalued in your role, explore other opportunities that might be available to you, or create your own—the YouEconomy is growing. You don’t have to quit your job today, but it never hurts to start putting a plan in motion. For more than 100 years, working women have had to agitate for respect in the workplace. Now it’s our turn to join the fight.