Well, it’s International Women’s Day, again, and we are living in interesting times.
Some two years into the pandemic, women are still lagging behind in job recovery and workforce participation. According to gender economist Katica Roy, we are years behind where we were before COVID; currently, gender equity in the workforce is hovering around 1993 levels. Child care shortages have disproportionately impacted women, particularly women of color, who are dealing with higher rates of job and income loss and all that goes with it.
Every expert I’ve spoken to confirms that so much of the good work on gender equity now hangs in the balance.
So, I’d like to spend some time with you on what I think we can do together to turn things around.
To do that, I’m going to tell you the story of how I became an 11-year-old Avon Lady. (Trust me, I can defend this.)
I’d originally gotten the idea from a notecard pinned to the corkboard in the laundry room of our apartment building. A woman named Renee was moving and wanted to pass on her Avon business. She had a route, regular customers, a whole supply of Avon things, like samples, brochures, order forms, and the like, so it was just a matter of signing a form and letting the company know. We bought from her from time to time, so, my 11-year-old self decided, how hard could this be?
I nominally ran my plan by my mother and off I went.
To put things into a bit of context—this was the 1970s, which was a dark, dark time for the beauty business. There was no Instagram or YouTube, no online beauty influencers, and women’s magazines were expensive and made of paper. And most beauty products, even the affordable ones, were a car ride to the mall away. Drug stores had baby aspirin and nail polish remover, and the Piggly Wiggly had lettuce. That was it. Those were your options.
So, if you liked the products and you were on a budget, your Avon lady was an important person in your life. For those unfamiliar, she was part of a national army of Avon trained beauty entrepreneurs, who built kitchen table businesses by selling affordable beauty products produced by the Avon company to friends, family, and neighbors. And you wanted those samples.
But I didn’t know to think about any of that—I was an actual child. It was still a bit of a stretch for me to reach the washing machine. Eleven-and twelve-year-olds today are running major brands and climate movements. When I wasn’t doing homework or delivering Avon, I still played in a treehouse in the woods near my house.
But, we really needed the money.
You see, this particular apartment complex was in the low rent, kinda working-class side of a lovely shoreline Connecticut town called Branford. It was no one’s forever home.
Some people got there because they were in their first jobs, starting their families, on their way up. But plenty of us got there because life had knocked us back one, two, maybe six pegs or so.
And that was my mom and me. Hanging on by a thread.
A couple of years prior we had fled our Harlem apartment in the middle of the night, finally escaping the decade of violence in our home. We’d been unmoored since then, bunking in, staying with—all the things you say when you don’t have a permanent address—until she finally got an office job. Then a promotion.
Then our own apartment. Near Renee, our Avon lady. But we still didn’t have much.
I was the only Black person in the entire complex, which was a change from my old neighborhood. Some people were known to use the N-word without thinking about it. Some were comfortable using “Jew” as a verb. A bunch of people were weirdly attached to Lynyrd Skynyrd, which I don’t like thinking about much.
And then there was me, your friendly neighborhood prepubescent beauty consultant.
While plenty of my customers just wanted their monthly order of Skin-So-Soft, there were plenty of women who really got what I was trying to do. They tried my samples and shared tips and helped me grow my business. They sat patiently as I demonstrated makeup I would not wear for at least five more years. They looked the other way when I delivered their orders in a red wagon I borrowed from a kid down the hall.
They invested in me.
For two years, I made SERIOUS WHIP for a kid! I could finally afford new clothes and school supplies, and take some burden off my mother. And, the part that typically gets left out of the Oh! You’re Suddenly Poor brochure? The unique humiliation of not being able to buy anyone a Christmas present.
These women—many of whom looked like or were the mothers of the kinds of kids who made the sanctuary of the Black kid’s table in the cafeteria necessary—saved me.
Looking back, I now see that my experience as an 11-year-old Avon Lady was the first time I understood the complexity and power of a fully intersectional women’s network. Flawed and biased, hopeful and loving, different from each other, with one exception: A commitment to invest in the most vulnerable around them.
And that’s what I think we need now.
Not to form a network, but to understand that we are already part of one whether we see it or not.
It’s an opportunity to invest, in whatever way that’s available, in the uplift of women who are facing barriers specific to them or imposed by the society in which they live. With male allies, on speed dial, of course.
In the workplace, that can mean understanding how the “glass ceiling” has evolved over time, and for whom, and what that means to your company. Advocating for gender pay equity, even if it means exploring additional legislation. Asking why you can’t keep your female talent of color at your company, and creating a plan that works. Understanding the growing risks facing transgender women, particularly women of color. Getting serious about childcare solutions for working mothers and families—without overburdening single women. Making unequal racial outcomes in education and health your problem, regardless of your race. Becoming an advocate for the AAPI women and elders who are being targeted by violence. Thinking about how any woman with any disability can succeed at work.
All of the intersections, all of the time.
It’s the only way I can think of to get to the beautiful world we all desperately need.
This edition of raceAhead was edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.
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