D&I Heroes: Remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Christa Feazell
23 Sep

When Ruth Bader Ginsburg entered Harvard University, she was one of nine women in a class of more than five hundred.

She encountered resistance from students and faculty alike; the law dean demanded that the women within the program justify “stealing a spot” from hypothetical male students. Despite having to care for both her daughter and her husband after his cancer diagnosis, Ginsburg won a seat on the Harvard Law Review. In her last year of law school, she transferred to Columbia and again won a coveted seat on the university’s law review.

Being on both the Harvard and Columbia law reviews was an unprecedented accomplishment for any student, male or female. It's something very few people can boast, even today.

Future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was only just getting started.

The Life and Legacy of RBG 

A Jewish woman born to immigrant parents, Ruth Bader Ginsburg became a legendary champion of women’s equality. Her first encounter with institutionalized sexism began shortly after graduating from Columbia. Despite this initial setback, her career flourished: Ruth Bader Ginsburg became Columbia’s first female tenured professor in 1972. In 1973, she argued her first case before the Supreme Court. After the ACLU referred her to a great number of sex-based discrimination cases, she founded the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. 

Ginsburg became a regular face at the Supreme Court, arguing cases of sex discrimination. In Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975), she helped a widower secure Social Security child support benefits that had previously been only provided to widows. In 1977, she argued in Duren v. Missouri making jury duty compulsory for men and optional for women devalued their contributions as citizens of the United States. She became well-known as an advocate for gender equality, and eventually became the second woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court. 

On the high court, Ginsburg continued to champion women’s rights. Her decisions contributed to striking down taxpayer funded all-male institutions and defended women’s rights to reproductive health. She was instrumental in the historic ruling of Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage in the United States. After the announcement of her death at 87, a crowd of admirers formed outside the Supreme Court to mourn her passing. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, memorial, Supreme Court, vigil
Photo courtesy of WTOP/Alejandro Alvarez

A Champion for Women in the Workplace

Women in the workplace owe a great deal to the trailblazers that came before us, and few blazed as bright as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. A proponent for workplace equality, Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued key cases that laid the groundwork for many women in the workplace. Things have changed since Ginsburg first attempted to enter the workforce, in part due to her decades of activism. 

Today, we’re seeing an increased number of women in leadership positions. Women are now leading businesses large and small, a stark contrast to the workforce that RBG entered into. There is still more work to be done, however. Last year’s report from McKinsey reported that women still face obstacles when it comes to climbing the company ladder. According to 2019’s report, the largest hurdle women face is a “broken rung” early in the pipeline, at the first leap from worker to manager. 

Women, particularly women of color, are underrepresented at every level. White men still comprise 68% of company C-suites, while women of color make up a measly 4%. This is still an extreme disparity. While many companies believe they will reach gender parity within the next ten years, there is still the matter of fixing the “broken rung” that is holding so many women back from advancing. Women are still less likely to be promoted to managerial positions, stalling their careers and preventing further advancement. 

To fix this issue and achieve true gender parity, businesses must be willing to invest in Diversity and Inclusion efforts. These include setting goals to bring more women into upper level management, requiring diverse hiring slates for high level positions, and, of course: promoting more women. 

women working, women workplace

What Business Leaders Can Learn from RBG 

The long life and incredible successes of Ruth Bader Ginsburg should send a clear message: no matter who they are, where they come from, or what challenges they faced, when given the opportunity and tools needed to succeed, underrepresented candidates can completely change the game. 

The daughter of two Jewish immigrants, orphaned at 17, climbed her way to the highest court in the United States and improved life for millions of women in the process. Ruth Bader Ginsburg proved without a doubt that discrimination on the basis of sex is not only an archaic and reductive way of thinking, it also kept companies from accessing the wealth of incredible talent available to them. 

On average, Millennial women are more educated and dedicated to their careers than their male counterparts. Yet they still earn 93 cents for every dollar a man their age makes. Thanks to trailblazers like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, these women will have an easier time than their predecessors in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. But there is always more work to be done. 

As we mourn the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, business leaders should use this time to reflect on what they can do to fix the “broken rung” and shatter the glass ceiling— once and for all.

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