On the sunset of Women’s History Month and the dawn of World Health Day, I took the time to reflect on the first few months of 2022 and all that we’ve learned so far. These first few months of the second year of the second decade have been challenging and thought-provoking.
In the transportation and infrastructure industry, we’re on the cusp of a once-in-a-lifetime investment in systems that will help promote safety, equity, sustainability, public health, and more fair and equitable outcomes for communities that have long been underserved and ignored.
One of the items I’ve learned this month that has stuck with me is a partnership we’ve convened with McKinsey & Co. and their amazing Kweilin Ellingrud, who champions the research and thought leadership around the annual McKinsey & C./LeanIn.Org Women in the Workplace Survey and annual report. Now in its seventh year, this work is known as the seminal report in understanding the barriers women face in the workplace and how we must vigorously challenge the status quo to overcome them. We now know that to change the World Economic Forum statistic that women in America will not see gender equality for another 208 years, we must activate our networks, launch powerful platforms for change, and demand better from a system that has disempowered us.
I was also reminded of McKinsey’s research on “onlies”, defined as being the only person of a particular identity in a room, like the only woman in a meeting. As a woman in tech, I’m often the only woman in the room, the only non-engineer, the only non-executive, the only “X-ennial” (for those of us on that shadow between Generation X and Millennials), the only Midwesterner, the only trained negotiator or lawyer. And the list goes on. Twenty percent of the women report they are commonly the only woman in the room; for women of color, that number is 45 percent. Compared to men who are only the person of their gender in a meeting 7 percent of the time.
Being an only is a terrifying, isolating, and humbling experience: Feeling alone, like you don’t have a voice. It brings anxiety, pressure, and the feeling of ‘having to be on’; if we say or do something perceived as wrong, stereotypes can get reinforced or prejudices confirmed. Not having a sponsor or mentor to support and guide you, you start to believe those gaslighting around you, questioning your self-worth, your value, your knowledge, and abilities. You question your power.
This is compounded by the immense privilege I have as an educated, middle-class white woman – this powerful privilege cannot go unseen. McKinsey and other research shows us that “double onlies” who face two identities, like black women, are even more often the only people who share that lived experience in a room of other races, identities, and aspects of power.
How do we overcome these challenges? How shall we, in the words of Alfred Tinsley, overcome?
Today, we celebrate World Health Day. This year’s theme is “Our planet, our health” and the goal is to “focus global attention on urgent actions needed to keep humans and the planet healthy and foster a movement to create societies focused on well-being.” While my career and our work at ITS America has been devoted to environmental justice and sustainability, the World Health Organization (WHO) reminds us that the climate crisis and global COVID-19 inequities have exposed us to a wider awareness of our society’s failure to uphold more sustainable well-being practices. WHO describes a ‘well-being economy’ in which we celebrate the intersection of economic wealth, equity, and ecological sustainability by investing in our common dignity and lifting up others.
So why do I write about women’s history and the isolation of being an ‘only’? All of this is connected to our health. When we experience micro-aggressions, street harassment, don’t have anyone to turn to for help, and we feel disempowered, that trauma builds upon trauma. Like a thousand little papercuts, collectively if left untreated, we fall into a thousand little pieces. It is then nearly impossible to put ourselves back together when these pieces of us are tending to professional careers, commuting, buying groceries, planning after school activities, finding the next bus stop, hiring a rideshare when the train is late, managing unrealistic societal expectations of body image, trying to speak our voice but not being ‘shrill’ or ‘aggressive’; sometimes it’s hard to just simply be as an only – or double only – in our society without needing health and well-being resources…particularly in a world where these challenges are amplified by the toll of air pollution and the impacts of climate change.
What will you do for a #HealthierTomorrow?
Sometimes it’s daunting to read these articles and hear the statistics without feeling overwhelmed or anguished. We ask ourselves, what can we do to save the world? While it is impossible not to think about the horrific situation in Ukraine, perhaps it is also a time to celebrate our common humanity and dignity and honor the extraordinary acts of selflessness in these times of hardship and pain.
As Dr. King noted, the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” We may not see changes in our world, or ourselves, overnight. But that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate ourselves with joy and commit to small acts of change.
So – what do I do for a #HealthierTomorrow?
- I walk to my local grocer
- I inhale the smell of the fresh, organic, local fruit as I pick it
- I practice gratitude
- I’m grateful for the amazing humans in my life
- I take public transportation and celebrate the diverse stories I see on the trains
- I bring my reusable water bottle with me
- I meditate and practice mindfulness
- I find joy in the small things, like the steam coming up a fresh cup of coffee or the flutter of cherry blossom leaves falling to the grass
- I take a breath
Yes, change will take enormous acts of commitment from leaders, governments, companies, and communities. But change also takes place in our hearts, with small acts committing to a better tomorrow. On this World Health Day, join me in our movement of ‘onlies’ so that we aren’t the only ones vying for a better tomorrow but instead create a collective movement of common hope and humanity to drive towards a better future – one that advances the mission of ITS America that is safer, greener, smarter, and more equitable.
Kristin White is ITS America’s Chief Operating Officer