In August, I spent a frantic week creating a home away from home for my two daughters as they began their journey as students at Columbia Law School. After navigating New York’s crowded streets and elevators with bulky bags, boxes, and furniture, we quickly unpacked and then celebrated with dinner on our final evening together. I gave my daughters a pep talk about the importance of working hard, of reading every case and completing every assignment, and being not just prepared but overprepared.
As I offered this advice, I felt conflicted.
I inherited a strong work ethic from the women who raised me, and I’ve imparted the same to my daughters. I know the challenges they’ll face academically, having graduated from law school myself as a Black woman who was the first in her family to attend college. But I also know that the advice—that if we just work hard enough, we’ll succeed—is a lie.
Buying Into the Lies Society Tells Us
For generations, women have been told this lie, and we’ve bought into it. I’m more keenly aware of it as I watch my daughters and their peers head off to school, and as women everywhere return to their offices and consider what a reconfigured work-life balance might look like after COVID turned traditional workplaces upside down.
The lie that the system will recognize hard work isn’t the only lie society tells women. We’re lied to when we’re told we won’t be judged by our beauty. Or when others insinuate that we can’t be a working woman and successfully raise a family. Or when men suggest, subtly or overtly, that we, as women, are inferior. Or when we protest and are lied to yet again when we’re reassured that the system works; it just needs to be tweaked.
These are the lies built into our schools and societal structures to silence and suppress us.
Creating a More Equitable World Is Possible
But tearing down the systems built on these lies and creating a more equitable world is possible, and we’re seeing more evidence of this every day.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen powerful men held accountable for sexual harassment and abuse, from Harvey Weinstein to Andrew Cuomo, thanks to women who refused to stay silent any longer. We’ve seen talented women take control of their careers, from Britney Spears fighting back against an abusive conservatorship to the Black female hip-hop artists who’ve built unprecedented success without relying on the help (or blessing) of their male counterparts or white executives. And we’ve seen a powerful shift in workplace dynamics as women who have proven their worth throughout COVID are refusing to return to business as usual.
My daughters and their classmates have new role models, too, from Vice President Kamala Harris to Erika James, the first Black woman to lead the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
If our progressive leaders are truly committed to their vocal promises of allyship, we might eventually have the strength in numbers we need to challenge the system.
An Opportunity for Women Everywhere
Like many other mothers, I did tell my daughters to work hard—but I didn’t leave it at that.
I told them you have to do the work. You have to show up. You have to be prepared. But when you see lies in action, don’t be afraid to challenge them and call them out.
Mine was a generation of women who too often didn’t or couldn’t call out the lies. We suffered in silence and allowed these lies to be everything other than what they were. We blamed ourselves. We developed imposter syndrome. In contrast, today’s generation has the courage, confidence, and support to see the lies and name them.
This moment in time can be a great opportunity for women everywhere. I encouraged my daughters to seek the allyship of their fellow students and professors, women and men alike. Challenge them to commit to equity. In the classroom and on the corporate ladder, women have more power than we’ve ever had before. Those in leadership roles cannot continue to reject our demands for equity, as long as we refuse to let them.
About the Author
Areva Marton is an award-winning civil rights attorney, advocate, social issues commentator, talk show host, and producer. A CNN legal analyst and Harvard Law School graduate, Martin founded Martin & Martin, LLP, a Los Angeles–based civil rights firm, and is the CEO of Butterflly Health, Inc., a mental health technology company.
A best-selling author, Martin has dedicated her fourth book, Awakening: Ladies, Leadership, and the Lies We’ve Been Told, to helping women worldwide recognize, own, and assert their limitless power. Learn more at arevamartin.com.