Work-Family Guilt Is Wasted Energy

Most of the women I meet in the US are torn between familiar female twin guilts — not enough time with their kids, and not enough time for their work. Men are increasingly sharing in this guilt. Much of the Anglo-Saxon debate about "women in leadership" is framed as an issue of women's "choices." The implication is that women "choose" to gear down their careers in favor of work-life balance. This is nonsense. The reality for most women — indeed most parents — is that there is no choice. And a growing number of voices are now, thankfully, saying so.

There are three levels at play here, which are often unhelpfully confused with one another. I call them the three C's: countries, companies and couples. And there are some short-cut metrics at each level to evaluate how we're doing. The three are interdependent, but they each require specific actions and the involvement of different players.

1. Countries — Public Policy. What is the public policy context in your country? Has it recognized, like Norway, China or France, that 21st century parents both work and that infrastructure, day care and tax systems ought to recognize this basic fact? Or has it, like the U.S., ignored the consequences of women's massive arrival into the labor force and framed the issue of dual incomes and childcare as a matter of individual "choice"?

The problem is, of course, that in many countries there is no real choice. As Stephanie Coontz wrote recently in the New York Times, "Today the main barriers to further progress toward gender equity no longer lie in people's personal attitudes and relationships. Instead, structural impediments prevent people from acting on their egalitarian values, forcing men and women into personal accommodations and rationalizations that do not reflect their preferences."

Given no way of conciliating work and parenthood, people feel like perpetual failures. They somehow can't live up to a rather normal human goal of being able to both earn a living and procreate, which is recast as some kind of ridiculously utopian myth of "having it all." Yet in other countries, policies have adapted more quickly to the consequences of women's massive educational and economic rise.

Key Metric: birth rates. Countries that facilitate and recognise the need for parents to work enjoy higher birth rates. Those that don't see their birth rates fall below replacement ratios and their populations shrink, as in Germany and Japan.

2. Companies — Corporate Culture & Policies. The national frame affects how business leaders perceive female ambition and motivation. In countries without policies that facilitate conciliation, managers overwhelmingly think that women "choose" family commitments over work. When companies in these countries seek to gender balance, they often over-focus on this analysis and ignore the bigger issue that underlies the challenge facing the private sector: That the dominant group in companies is men, and that this group sets the rules, the norms and the expectations for how leaders look and behave.

Anne-Marie Slaughter points to this issue of the still-unquestioned dominance of historical male norms in an Atlantic article. "Until we change the norm itself, learn to reshape our workplaces and our expectations around a different image of what normal is, those differences will still be penalized."

This is, I would argue, the problem with many current diversity approaches to gender. "Diversity and Inclusion" efforts focus on making the various "out" groups comfortable by organizing them (or allowing them to organize themselves) into affinity groups or employee resource groups. That way they can talk to each other and feel better. They are happy and feel cared for. And the "in" group feels happy too, as they are being nice and "inclusive" of the "out" folk.

The real issue is to develop the corporate leadership skills to manage a feminizing talent pool and a feminizing customer base. This requires managers who are fluent and familiar with the differences between genders and able to manage both. These skills are still scarce. And diversity training that focuses on 'self-awareness' and 'inclusion' isn't enough. This isn't about being nice, it's about being skilled. You need to learn something about the Chinese to work with them. And you need to learn something about women to be able to work effectively with them too.

Key Metric: the ratio of men and women (and nationalities) on the Executive Committee is the clearest indicator of a company's openness to 21st century realities. More than the much-publicized debates around boards, the executive team is the result of years of talent development. Today, most companies are still far from any level of balance at this level. (See our 2013 Global Gender Balance Scorecard.

3. Couples — Personal Priorities. There is an irreconcilable conflict between the personal and professional in countries that have not built the infrastructure to manage the products of our unions: children. This is a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon and German omission. Coontz's article presents an embarrassing graphic showing that the US is the only developed country on the planet with no paid maternity leave, let alone more modern European innovations like parental leave for both parents. No wonder American parents are increasingly unhappy.

So why is this always framed as an issue of personal choice? For our species, having children is about as much of a choice as breathing is. Survival is more the issue. Most women in the U.S. don't have anything like what your average European woman would call a choice (without even getting started on whether men do — see my earlier post on Norway). Judith Warner starts her book on American motherhood, Perfect Madness, with the line, "I used to live in paradise and I didn't even know it." She was referring to the working woman's pleasure of having children in France.

Focusing the blame on women is so common it isn't even conscious. That's what Sheryl Sandberg does writing books telling women to "lean in." That's what companies do when they focus all their gender initiatives on "fix the women" programs (networks for women, conferences for women, training for women), reinforcing the idea that the reason there aren't more women in senior roles is because women aren't trying or wanting it enough.

This creates an enormous amount of individual guilt, something that is remarkably absent in countries and companies that have addressed the issues above. It causes conflict in couples who then need to battle it out over who does what at home and whose career takes precedence at work. Yet this is not a personal problem. It's a political, economic and social one.

It seems essential in 2013 to recognize the difference. When 60% of university graduates are women, does it make any sense to make the majority of the educated talent feel guilty about leveraging their skills in the economy? We need to stop blaming women and start designing policies to create more sustainable countries, companies and couples.

Key Metric: the divorce rate. If the divorce rate is too high in a country, it suggests there is still a lot of stress being put on individuals. It can also be too low, suggesting that women don't have a choice of leaving (the majority of divorces are initiated by women).

It would help all of us, men and women, to recognize the need for good policy design at each of these levels. The objective of every life is to work and love. That shouldn't be a cause for guilt. It should be our shared mandate for change.

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