While Time Magazine debates whether the word "feminist" should be stricken from the English language, my recent research into disability employment issues has made me reflect on the parallels between problems faced by women and those faced by individuals with disabilities. Not only am I still convinced that feminism has a purpose and should be discussed, but I think that initiatives for women's empowerment could hold a lot of promise for ameliorating the issues faced by persons with disabilities in the workplace. The following are four similarities between the workplace challenges faced by women and individuals with disabilities.
Note: I am writing this from the perspective of my experience with my invisible autoimmune disease. I realize that the following list is not exhaustive of the many examples of discrimination and challenges faced by individuals with mobility issues, learning disorders, mental illnesses, or other disabilities. I would love to hear how these issues interact with disabilities of all kinds.
Just like women, persons with disabilities face bias and prejudicial statements in the workplace. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand made news earlier this year when she wrote in her recent book, Off the Sidelines, that a fellow senator made sexist comments about her appearance. This revelation supported her larger argument that women still experience prejudicial comments in the workplace. Similarly, a British study found that individuals with disabilities experience greater amounts of insulting comments and workplace violence.
Although these comments vary based on the individual and disability, they evoke the same sense of shame and the idea that one facet of an individual's personality is casting a negative light over the rest of their work. For women in the workplace, hearing inappropriate comments about their appearance may lead to the belief that their looks are receiving more attention than the quality of their work. For persons with disabilities, issues can run from passive aggressive comments about missing work due to illness to slurs about an obvious disability. Even a comment of "but you don't look sick" may seem innocent enough, but particularly for persons with invisible disabilities, it often evokes accusation of faking or exaggerating an illness, or taking more sick time than they actually need.
Just like women who balance families and careers, individuals with disabilities have unique needs. One of the larger topics in Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In is the balance of career and family. Women are often the primary caregivers in the household, so many are expected to sacrifice a greater portion of their careers than their husbands to raise children and take care of the home. One of my takeaways from Lean In is that women can develop innovative options to continue working while taking care of their families. This requires flexibility, use of resources including vacation time, and recognizing limits.
For individuals with chronic conditions, life is often in flux. Some patients may have progressing conditions; some may have conditions that experience periods of remission and relapse; others may have conditions that are well-controlled, but to remain that way, they require more than the standard five or ten sick days per year to make all of their doctor's appointments and treatments. These challenges complicate the 9-to-5 work schedule with everything from routine infusions to spontaneous hospitalizations. This requires employers to be flexible and to understand that performance should be valued over time on the clock. Individuals with disabilities have to recognize their limits, as overtaxing themselves, such as through working a 60-hour workweek, could lead to a negative impact on their health. Therefore, the fight to change workplace attitudes to allow for greater flexibility and understanding of personal limits is vital for both women and persons with disabilities.
Just like women, persons with disabilities are underrepresented at leadership levels. It is no secret that women fill a substantially smaller number of leadership roles and face negative stereotypes when they reach higher levels of an organization or business. A report from the Center for American Progress states that women hold only 14.6 percent of executive offices, although they make up over half of the professional workforce. Furthermore, women in leadership roles are seen as overly aggressive (and less effective), while similar traits in a male leader are deemed acceptable and even positive.
If overall statistics on leadership are available for persons with disabilities, they are not as easy to find as those on women. According to the Office of Personnel Management's (OPM) FY 2012 Diversity and Inclusion statistics, only 4.68 percent of the government's Senior Executive Service (SES) members had disabilities. The number increased to 5.16 percent if 30 percent or more disabled veterans are included in the data. Although companies' diversity and inclusion initiatives in workplaces work to elevate minorities, women, and persons with disabilities at higher levels, the process of increasing representation of persons with disabilities at leadership levels still does not receive very much widespread attention. It is a work in progress that will require a significant effort.
Just like women, individuals with disabilities face a wage gap. The gender pay gap is a hotly discussed, though controversial, topic. Women make 77 cents on every dollar earned by a man. This number is a subject of debate due to many factors, including the differences in professions to which each gender tends to gravitate, reduced hours and time off work due to family care, and gender differences in negotiation of salary and raises, but it has received the attention of lawmakers and advocates.
Persons with disabilities also face great, but less publicized, wage discrimination. Goodwill made the news last year when it was revealed that the organization legally pays its workers with disabilities far below the minimum wage, as low as 22 cents an hour for one worker. Meanwhile, the organization's top leadership makes hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. While Goodwill may be an extreme example and not representative of the true 8 to 10 percent wage gap that exists in the United States for individuals with disabilities, it is a reminder that these workers face similar wage discrimination, though it is given less media attention.