The Illinois Diversity Council held their Women in Leadership Symposium at the University of Notre Dame’s Chicago campus. One speaker who truly exemplified the theme of “Center Stage: Standing Out and Speaking Up” was Cherita Ellens, CEO of Women Employed.
Women Employed is an advocacy group on a mission to “improve the economic status of women and remove barriers to economic equity.” Since 1973, they have been clearing the way for women to achieve success in the workplace and to attain the education and training they need to achieve their goals. Historical accomplishments include:
- promoting fair employment practices in banking, insurance and retail during the 1970s; and helping to draft new federal rules to define sexual harassment as illegal sex discrimination;
- publishing a first-ever set of recommendations for corporate policies to promote work/family balance and a handbook for working mothers in the 1980s;
- helping pass the Family and Medical leave act in the 1990s;
- expanding Illinois’ tuition assistance by over $50 million in the 2000s; and
- winning paid sick time for working people in Chicago and Cook County in 2017.
We at the ILDC had a chance to catch up to Cherita and find out how she stays focused on driving positive change through her organization. Our interview follows.
ILDC: Cherita, thank you for taking some time for us! We appreciate it; we know you are busy saving the world, being a boss lady and looking fabulous while doing it. So we’ll get right to our questions.
You say on the Women Employed website: “WE do not accept the status quo. WE do not ask permission. WE do not wait for things to happen.” You’re driving change at a state and national level — what advice do you have for women who are trying to do the same in their smaller organizations?
First and foremost, practice what is right within your own sphere of influence. Check your own biases, behaviors and practices that might be holding back the women who fall under your responsibility. You can set a powerful example for those around you, and that will help to shape the culture in your workplace.
Additionally, where you are able, be an advocate for equity within your own organization. You may not carry the power to change policies in your workplace, but you can talk to your HR department, your Employee Resource Groups, and your organization’s leadership about ways to advance equity. Some suggestions you can make include:
- Implementing policies like paid family and medical leave, fair and predictable scheduling practices, and paid sick time.
- Conducting regular pay audits to identify any wage gaps or pay inequity and then sharing the results along with an action plan on how they intend to do any course corrections. You can also ask them to provide pay transparency by sharing salary ranges and wages. Analyzing compensation decisions before they are finalized can help mitigate instances of gender bias that might stem from conscious or unconscious attitudes that often lead to pay discrimination for women.
- In addition to looking at pay data, sharing advancement and promotion data as well. We know one of the biggest drivers of pay inequity is the opportunity gap. There are simply not enough of us being promoted into leadership roles compared to our male counterparts. Looking at advancement and promotion data can help identify those gaps. It is vital to ensure that opportunities for advancement are equally distributed.
- Implementing new protocols—like blind resume reviews and diversified interview teams—to limit bias. Bias can slip into multiple areas of the hiring process, from application to interview.
And, use your voice. If you see someone experiencing harassment or discrimination, speak up. Women Employed has a tool with bystander tips to help you do that. You can download that tool at https://womenemployed.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Combatting_Sexual_Harassment.pdf
ILDC: Women Employed advocates for programs regarding “financial aid and student debt, career pathways, student success, bridge programs and career foundations, paid sick time and paid leave, sexual harassment, equal pay, fair scheduling, minimum wage, and pregnancy fairness.” PHEW that’s a lot! What is the most pressing issue in the workplace today? How do you prioritize?
I think the most pressing issue, and the one that binds so many of these things together, is a lack of respect for working people—especially low-paid working people—and an undervaluing of certain types of work, in particular caregiving work and jobs in retail, restaurants, and other areas of the service industry. These are jobs that are traditionally held by women. And they are plagued by low wages, unstable and unpredictable schedules, and sexual harassment. They typically do not offer paid sick time or paid leave. And because women—and women of color–are concentrated in these low-paid jobs, these jobs are a significant contributing factor to the wage gap. We won’t resolve any of the issues Women Employed works on until we can improve the conditions in those jobs, for those working women. That is the driving force behind much of our work.
ILDC: One recent accomplishment of Women Employed includes passing a no salary history law in Illinois, which amends the Illinois Equal Pay Act to prohibit employers from asking job applicants for their salary history. This is a common historical practice, but it was perpetuating both gender and racial wage gaps. You have a lot to be proud of! What are you most proud of, both personally and professionally?
In relation to No Salary History, what I’m most proud of is our persistence. Women Employed worked with Rep. Anna Moeller to craft the original bill, and we mobilized to build broad support both in the Illinois legislature, and among the public. The bill first passed in 2017 with bipartisan support. And then our former governor vetoed it. We passed it again in 2018. And he vetoed it again. But we weren’t backing down. In 2019, we ran the bill again, and we had to stand strong against competing, less progressive versions. But we persisted. And we won—for a third time. And this time, Governor Pritzker signed the bill into law. And, it’s one of the strongest bills of its kind in the country. So I’m proud of our tenacity. We were not going to stop until we got this done. That’s how we approach all our work!
ILDC: Your leadership team and your board of directors are all women, with representation from women of color. Share steps you’ve taken to be intentional about hiring a diverse and inclusive team.
It is so important to us that we walk the walk. We want to make sure that we’re not advocating for employment practices that we’re not practicing. And that’s not easy. It is constant work.
We’ve been intentional about how we approach hiring. We prioritize transparency regarding salaries. We have looked at the language in our job postings to ensure they are not unintentionally excluding diverse candidates. We’ve done our own internal pay audit and have worked to ensure we are paying everyone equitably. We’ve ensured that we have inclusive work policies and benefits—things like paid leave, flexible scheduling and work from home options, vital health and life insurance, and more. In terms as our Board, we are very intentional about board recruitment to make sure we have diversity and representation.
And let me say that all of this is a work in progress. We are working hard to improve our retention of women of color on staff. We’re still building pipelines to bring on more diverse board candidates. We are not perfect. But we are looking hard at the areas where we need to improve, we are committed to continuous improvement, and we’re taking the necessary steps to get there.
ILDC: One might assume that the work of Women Employed is extremely rewarding, but also often discouraging when faced with persistent systemic barriers. What keeps you up at night?
As the leader of this dynamic organization, I carry the responsibility of ensuring we have the financial and human resources to execute our mission today and a decade from now. I stay awake thinking about securing our sustainability and vision for the future to ensure we remain as relevant as we were in 1973. I worry that in our current climate that those in positions of power don’t get it or don’t care, and that too many of us are too consumed with fighting for survival to join the fight.
ILDC: That said, what gives you the most hope for future generations?
My daughter, who is a 20-year-old college student, and all the young adults of her generation. They are what gives me hope. There is a whole generation of young people entering the workforce right now, or poised to enter the workforce in a few years, who understand the importance of activism. Who aren’t afraid to use their voice to speak out for change. Who are energized by social justice. We’ve already seen the difference this generation will make. The Parkland students, and the GoodKids MadCity activists in Chicago fighting gun violence. Autumn Peltier, Greta Thunberg, and other young climate activists. The young DACA activists who have risked deportation to stand up to injustice. This generation is going to change the world—they already are–and I’m here for it all!
ILDC: Thank you very much Cherita, we’ll let you go now. You need to put your cape back on and keep saving the world. To our readers, if you’ve been even half as impressed by the efforts of Women Employed as we have been, please head on over to their website to donate your time or your money to drive more positive change in our workplaces.
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