Friday, March 7, 2014

Happy Friday: International Women's Day

Happy Friday to all the women out there! I have just been to a fabulous Australian Institute of Management luncheon to celebrate International Women's Day (which is tomorrow), and it was inspiring. With a lunch-time debate focused around the question "Women have to lean in, or they miss out", it made for an interesting afternoon.

Many of us working girls have probably read at least the first few pages of Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In. If you haven't, it makes for pretty interesting reading (I got to 1/3rd of the way through and found myself reading Vogue magazine - oops! I keep meaning to finish). Having spent a solid period of time reading that book nodding my head vigorously in agreement and exclaiming "YES!", I expected I would fall squarely on to the side of the affirmative debate team.

Not so. A very clever, articulate woman from the law firm I used to work at made the very persuasive case that it is not, in fact, women who need to lean in (as we are already fabulous, hard-working, authentic-living good people) but that it's the system that needs to adapt to the rise of the working woman. She made the excellent point that the reason so many of the women that reach the dizzying corporate heights do reach those heights is not because they leant in (although, pretty sure they did), but that the environment they were in - e.g. a husband/family/nanny that helped out a lot at home, a workplace that was supportive, flexible and personal development-oriented AND (importantly) which felt comfortable with women at the top - was what was essential to the success of the modern female. She explained that most of the top executives around the world were (a) men; and (b) their mothers were stay-at home mums. Women as underlings was simply familiar to them, and they are not always the misogynistic pigs they are sometimes made out to be.

Mark Zuckerberg is Gen Y. His mum has a career, and he is a member of an entire generation where women in senior roles is becoming the norm. It is familiar to him to have a female COO or CEO or Head of Risk or whatever senior role you want to name. She pointed out that it's not women who are getting in the way of themselves (although to quote Madeleine Albright via Taylor Swift "there is a special place in Hell for the woman who doesn't help another woman out"), but the system.

The conversation should be beyond women being bitches to each other. It's the system y'all!

The system that has been created by men who are older and - dare we all say it - a little out of touch with the modern world and the demands that exist within it.

This really resonated with me.

I'm married now, and I'm in my early 30s. I want a family one day, even though I know it means I'll be broke for the rest of my life and will not be able to plan a trip to Europe in August at a moment's notice. So naturally, thinking I need to contemplate my future, I have started thinking about maternity leave. There is an amazing array of corporate attitudes towards women's longevity within an organisation, evidenced in no small part by maternity leave and flexible parenting policies. No small part you say? Unless you've been living under a rock, women have to take time off to have kids, and then they need flexibility in order to balance being a good employee with a good mum. If women are expected to flourish within an organization, there must be acknowledgement and support of these very basic facts. To me, maternity leave and flexible parenting policies speak directly to a company's attitude toward the continuing role of the female in the workplace. Some companies simply secure your position for a year, and provide no maternity leave entitlements. Other companies will pay 16 weeks at full pay, which you can elect to spread over 32 weeks at half pay, in addition to having your job secured for up to 2 years. Yet others will pay you 3 days' full pay with the advice from your "joking" middle-aged male manager that "you better have a natural birth then!". It's hard not to be offended when you see some of these policies.

Leaving aside whether some women see another woman's leaving work early to pick up her kids each Wednesday as an opportunity to ascend in an organization, simply just that organization's attitude to the fact that women have to give birth in order to have a family (except adoption, right-o) and need time off to recover from the strenuous activity of child birth and breastfeeding and caregiving is the central issue. I tend to agree.

You can attempt to work through your issues with a competitive female colleague, but how do you change the system? Move to another job that provides the support you're looking for? Or demand better for yourself and your current female colleagues? Is being a pioneer for change worth the effort, and do you have the energy after you've survived another bruising day in the corporate world?

Hate the system, not the system's analyst.

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