Women Making Waves: Sara Sanford

Women Making Waves is a bi-monthly series by The Women Wave that spotlights badass women who are playing active roles in making waves in their communities.

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Instead of just talking about gender equity in the workplace and hosting endless workshops on the topic with no real results, what if we used data to spur change? What if, when applying for jobs or using our purchasing power, we could look for businesses that are certified in gender equity just like food is certified organic?

These questions led Sara Sanford, Executive Director of Gender Equity Now, to jump into action. After years of experiencing gender bias in the workplace and hearing similar stories from female colleagues, she realized the efforts to address this problem are simply not working. But instead of resigning herself to this reality, she decided to create something new.

She built a team and created a data-driven approach to bring gender parity to the workforce. GEN’s data-driven toolset for fighting gender bias in the workplace is unprecedented and so necessary.

Sara is an absolute badass and an ally we are lucky to have in this fight. And she’s had a big f*cking year.

A few months ago, she received a resounding standing ovation for her incredible (and must-watch) TedX Seattle talk, which brought Tricia to hopeful tears. And Nia Impact Capital, a female-led investing and asset management firm focused on investment solutions to address critical social and environmental issues, recently became the first GEN-Certified company in the United States.

At The Women Wave, we want women to know their power and get the opportunities they deserve. And we’re so honored to highlight Sara and her team at Gender Equity Now who live and breathe a similar mission every day.

1. What advice do you have for women who may have faced similar struggles as you/look up to you as a mentor?

Stay bold. There’s a quote I love that says, “Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure.The fearful are caught as often as the bold.”

I’ve acted out of fear and I’ve acted out of bravery. I can’t think of a single time in which I acted out of fear that I would look back on and say, “I’m so glad I was timid. I’m glad I dimmed my light.” Whatever the thing is that you fear, it still comes for you. Wouldn’t you rather it came for you knowing you were true to yourself, that you had acted with integrity? Aren’t you coming out of that fire with your head held higher? I’ve endured consequences for being bold, and I don’t regret a single one of those decisions. If a job or a relationship doesn’t thrive in the midst of your strength, it means it’s not right for you; it doesn’t have enough to offer back to you. If you act boldly, you will find the people and the work that honor your strength – but you won’t get to that place by acting out of fear.

I want to be clear that this is not the same as telling women that ‘leaning in’ will be a magical antidote to the obstacles they face because of gender. It’s about not having to look back and wonder ‘What if?’ Every time I considered giving up on some stage of growing this business, I’ve asked myself “Could you, in good conscience, look back on this moment from the future and know you were as bold as you could have been, or will you wonder ‘what if’?” Women who strive will inevitably face the consequences of their gender – You can’t beat that by acting out of fear. So, stay bold.

2. Who are your heroes?

They change somewhat daily, but these three show up in my thoughts pretty often:

Patti Smith – Women quickly learn how easy it is to get labeled as ‘hysterical’. So, seeing a woman so publicly refuse to let that threat constrain her, and instead snarl in the face of it, inspires, no matter your musical tastes. For me, she has always symbolized a woman who dares to take up space as freely as men. In one of my favorite essays that all restless, badass women should read, Patti’s journey seems to be the story of so many women. She sensed, innately, that she could do what she saw the men around her doing, but doubted her own power and ability. Even when she stepped into the role of front-woman, she doubted that it was her doing. The woman that howled wild punk rock poetry took a long time to see herself. The essay ends by saying “There is a reason ‘boy genius’ rolls off the tongue more naturally than ‘girl genius.’ By the time most of us accept the fact that we have earned this label for ourselves, we are most decidedly no longer girls.” I look back at younger me, and wish I had given myself the credit to make a move, earlier, instead of waiting for it from everyone else.

Arlan Hamilton – The founder of Backstage Capitol. She is the only Black queer woman to have built a venture capital firm from scratch. With no background in finance, she arrived in Silicon Valley with no college degree, taught herself investing, slept on the floor of the San Francisco airport, and pursued investors by day. She is unapologetically direct – especially about Silicon Valley biases – in a world that asks her not to be, all while disrupting the way funders pick winners and create wealth. When I feel like I’m lacking bravery to do this work and be authentic at the same time, I look to her story for inspiration.

Beyoncé – For revolutionizing women’s relationship to pleasure, even beyond sex. Yes, she called out the double standard of contemporary sexuality with sex-positive anthems for women. But, I think she doesn’t get enough credit for going beyond that, for expanding the definition of female pleasure beyond the bedroom. Her videos and storytelling around her work put the pleasure of running your own world, as a woman, on full display. There is a pleasure that comes with achievement. There is a pleasure that comes with setting your own standards. There is pleasure in insisting that you get to tell your own story. There is pleasure in upending the status quo. Beyoncé encouraged us not just to strive, but to fully indulge in the striving, like we would good love or good food. I know so few women that sit cozily in their success the way that men do. It’s still this little unspoken sin for women to say “Yeah, I did that, and It. Felt. Good.” I think we underestimate how revolutionary that was for her to do.

3. What makes you hopeful?

The relentlessness of women. It feels like a new level of consciousness has been reached that makes it impossible for us to accept anything less than full equality of opportunity. I think we’re finally moving on from saying “Women can be as strong as men,” to seeing that we actually are, and always have been, and that our systems have failed to honor that kind of strength. Given that we’re 47% of the workforce, and we make the majority of purchasing decisions, the businesses that want to stay relevant will be forced to catch up to us. Businesses that continue to view equity as a compliance requirement will be left behind, and those that understand it as a business imperative will prosper. We’re not going to be loyal to businesses that just pinkwash their advertising but don’t truly value what women have to offer. Those days are done. We have the tools and the knowledge now to know what steps businesses need to take to be good enough for us. Relentless women won’t be settling for anything less.

5. What do you do when you’re feeling uninspired?

Dance! Or read anything by Annie Dillard.

Let’s all take a page out of Sara’s playbook and demand more of our workplaces, shall we? You can follow and support GEN’s work here.

Xo, Tricia & Sterling