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Women in Sales: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Gave Me My Career

In 1933, companies were allowed to pay women less than men solely because they were women. Thousands of women, who worked in factories to support the troops in World War I, were forced back into domestic roles simply because of their gender. Universities were allowed to discriminate against women on the basis of sex. Abortion was a criminal act that led to thousands of desperate women in jail or dead due to complications from illegal procedures. Women were not allowed to have a bank account in their name if they were married. One woman had made it to the US Senate (in 1932), and only one woman had ever held a cabinet position (1933).

This was the world that Joan Ruth Bader was born into in Brooklyn, New York, to Polish immigrants. Joan’s older sister died young, and she adopted using “Ruth” in school because there were several other “Joans” in her class. Her life was far from easy, but she transcended the societal, economic, and political hurdles and rose steadily throughout her life with intelligence, endurance, and aplomb.

It’s hard to imagine as a woman of the 21st century the small and large injustices she conquered in law school, academia, arguing before the supreme court (winning 5 of 6 cases), and eventually being named to the court. We know she was demoted in 1955, while employed by the Social Security Administration, when she became pregnant with her first child by husband Martin Ginsburg. We know the dean of Harvard Law asked her (and the other eight women enrolled in her class), “why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?”. We know she was a devoted mother who (shockingly) co-parented openly with her husband as they both navigated highly successful careers.  We know, to borrow a common saying from the period, “Ginger Rodgers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backward and in heels.” Ruth did all that and more – at 5’1”, she was in every sense of the word, a giant.

Justice Ginsburg fought to eliminate the ability for employers to discriminate or pay women less on the basis of sex. She fought to get women the rights they deserve by arguing cases to get men benefits that were typically reserved for women. She flipped the establishment on their head and turned their own game against them – repeatedly.

I owe Ruth Bader Ginsburg and every other woman who fought for suffrage, equal rights, and true justice a debt that cannot be repaid. Eighty-seven years after Justice Ginsburg was born, women still don’t make the same as men – but we’re a lot closer than we were in 1933. Women have legal protection against discrimination on the basis of sex in the workplace and the laws passed by our government. Simply put, without Justice Ginsburg, I would not have my career.

From a young age, my mother, like Justice Ginsburg’s mother, Cecilia, fought for my education. She made sure I not only had the support to thrive in school but that I knew my history and the names of the women who fought for the rights I enjoy daily. She never let me take the numerous paths in my life for granted – and instilled in me the idea that the best way to honor their fight was to chase my dreams because they, in many cases, could not.

The passing of Justice Ginsburg has reminded me again not only of her impact but the importance of learning from those who have come before us. These are just some of the lessons I learned from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s remarkable life – in her own words.

“When I’m sometimes asked ‘When will there be enough (women on the Supreme Court)?’ and my answer is: ‘When there are nine.’ People are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”

The past year, I’ve spent a lot of time working and advocating for more diversity, equity, and inclusion in sales as part of my work as a consultant and with Other Side of Sales. This quote has come up multiple times when sales leaders ask me, “wow many women should be on my sales team?” or “what percent of my team should be ‘diverse’?”

Only once in my career was I a member of a female leadership team – and only for three months, and only within my department, which reported to a man who reported to a male CEO. Women have made incredible strides in the past 20 years, but I cannot name a single sales organization of more than 20 people where all leaders are women. I can name dozens of companies whose leaders are all men.

I look forward to the day when I struggle to name leadership teams who are not diverse from the top down.

We’re closer than in 1933 – but we’re not there yet. I will remember Justice Ginsburg’s words and continue the fight.

“My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent.”

Justice Ginsburg was two years older than both my grandmothers (one survived World War II by living in a cave with her mother and younger sister while the other was the wife of a minister who fought to become the first female elder in their worldwide church). I like to think the three of them would have fast been friends. All three raised women who demanded the ability to chart their own course and chase their dreams with wild abandon.

My first day in sales, I was assigned to New York because “you’re a girl and you talk fast – the IT engineers should like that.” Several male interviewers have pushed for details about my husband’s employment or whether I have children.

While I wasn’t always able to walk away or push back from the “slights”, I have always been able to find employers who were not threatened, but welcomed, my strong ambition, keen wit, and creative problem-solving. I am not punished, discriminated against, or held back because I choose to be my household’s primary income. My family planning decisions are my own. Even if women sales professionals are not guaranteed maternity leave or pay, I can make those best choices by myself without sacrificing my entire career.

I sell like a girl. Proudly empathetic, passionately collaborative, strategically savvy, and fiercely competitive.

We’re closer than in 1933 – but we’re not there yet. I will remember Justice Ginsburg’s words and conduct myself like a lady.

“If you have a caring life partner, you help the other person when that person needs it. I had a life partner who thought my work was as important as his, and I think that made all the difference for me.”

Justice Ginsburg and her husband had nearly the same age difference as my husband and me. Both the Ginsburg’s and the Early’s met during our undergraduate studies. I am grateful every day that I have a life partner who believes in me and supports me unconditionally. He has moved five different times to allow me to take jobs that would further my career, stayed up late to keep me company while I finished out a quarter, and never once made me feel like his dreams and ambitions are worth any more than my own.

He, just like Martin Ginsburg, shares in the housework (actually, my husband is FAR better with housework than I am) and all of the emotional labor in our relationship. He is the single most significant factor in my success – I am grateful for him every day and do my best to return the respect, support, and love. We’re still unusual – partnerships where the woman has a high-powered career or “outranks” their male partner are rare. But they’re becoming more and more common.

We’re closer than in 1933 – but we’re not there yet. I will remember Justice Ginsburg and her partner Martin when I think about the difference the support of my husband has made for me.

“It helps sometimes to be a little deaf (in marriage and in) every workplace, including the good job I have now.  When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.”

No one is perfect, from leaders, to clients, to peers. Picking your battles and reading another’s intent is essential to building relationships that lead to career growth and closed deals. It doesn’t mean you ignore or dismiss unethical behavior, but you allow grace to keep moving to the ultimate goal.

As someone with a fiery spirit and passion for diversity, equity, and inclusion, this is a lesson I continue to learn. Sales leaders are starting to see that diversity must be an integral part of every successful team. But not everyone prioritizes it the way I want or deploys policies that can make significant impacts.

So, I will remember to be “a little deaf” as I continue to advocate for the changes, I know we need to make a profession that ensures everyone can thrive, regardless of gender. As Justice Ginsburg did, I will trust that with time these thoughtless remarks and unkind words will fade away to the annals of history. But don’t think I’ll stay silent or fail to defend myself against slurs when needed – because she fought to get me that right.

We’re closer than in 1933 – but we’re not there yet. I will remember Justice Ginsburg the next time I go a little deaf to focus on larger goals.

“I would like to be remembered as someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability.”

I do not have Justice Ginsburg’s intelligence, patience, or organization. (I have no idea how any woman balances a career that required 60-hour weeks with the challenges of raising small children). I can hope to live up to the same goal she had – to use what talent I have to the best of my ability.

Regardless of your political opinions, it is impossible to deny the impact she has had on our country. I encourage you to respect her memory by participating in the discussions she fought for us to have. Register to vote and participate in the political process by researching all candidates and ballot measures from the Presidency to city councils, to education and civic bonds. She fought so everyone, not just women, could have a life of chasing their potential limited only by their dreams. Let’s keep the fight going for those who come after us – so they have even more opportunities than we can imagine.

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