Friday, November 28, 2014

Take the kid gloves off

Women + careers = not where it needs to be.

But not necessarily for the reasons one may believe - or intuitively suspect.

Harvard Business Review published an article titled "Rethink What You “Know” About High-Achieving Women".

The article is a bit all over the place - but the subject matter is complicated and it's not a crime to overcommunicate.

Some interesting snippets:

Even for HBS women who are currently out of the workforce to care for children, “opting out” is not an accurate description of their experience. Our survey data and other research suggest that when high-achieving, highly educated professional women leave their jobs after becoming mothers, only a small number do so because they prefer to devote themselves exclusively to motherhood; the vast majority leave reluctantly and as a last resort, because they find themselves in unfulfilling roles with dim prospects for advancement. The message that they are no longer considered “players” is communicated in various, sometimes subtle ways: They may have been stigmatized for taking advantage of flex options or reduced schedules, passed over for high-profile assignments, or removed from projects they once led. One alumna, now in her late fifties, recalled, “I left my first job after being ‘mommy-tracked’ when I came back from maternity leave.”
More than half the men in Generation X and the Baby Boom said that when they left HBS, they expected that their careers would take priority over their spouses’ or partners’. The vast majority (83%) of the graduates in these generations reported being married, and because we don’t have reliable data on sexual orientation, we assume that their partners are of the opposite sex. Thus we call this expectation “traditional,” to denote an arrangement whereby the man’s career takes precedence over the woman’s. Notably, this expectation was less prevalent among men of color than among white men. Forty-eight percent of the former—compared with 39% of white men—anticipated that their spouses’ careers would be of equal importance. Meanwhile, the vast majority of women across racial groups and generations anticipated that their careers would rank equally with those of their partners. (Only 7% of Gen X and 3% of Baby Boom women, and even fewer of their male counterparts, expected that the woman’s career would take priority over the man’s—an arrangement we call “progressive.”)
Most graduates went on to lead fairly traditional lives on this score. Close to three-quarters of Gen X and Baby Boom men reported that their careers had indeed taken precedence—more than had originally expected this arrangement. Meanwhile, many women’s expectations for career equality were disappointed. Though majorities of Gen X and Baby Boom women reported that they were in egalitarian or progressive partnerships, the remainder found that their careers took lower priority. That figure—40%—is almost double the proportion who left HBS expecting a traditional arrangement. This outcome varied significantly among racial groups, with black women being the least likely to end up with a partner whose career took precedence.
Ultimately, more-traditional arrangements did win out. Healthy majorities of Gen X and Baby Boom women took responsibility for most of the child care in their families. Even higher percentages of Gen X and Baby Boom men reported having spouses who did so. Black men and women were the least likely to have a traditional arrangement; their numbers were lower by roughly 15 to 20 percentage points.

The good news is a decent percentage of all genders come out of business school expecting to be in an equal partnership as far as careers are concerned. The bad news is that more couples end up in a "traditional" arrangement they were not planning on and that result has different impacts on the well-being of each partner.

Things need fixing. And everyone may be approaching the problem in the wrong way.

What is the typical assumption when it comes to women in the workplace?

The usual scenario plays out in many people's minds:
  1. Woman finishes degree
  2. Woman lands great job
  3. Woman has a child
  4. Woman experiences a fundamental work-life balance problem due to childcare concerns
  5. Woman decides to quit as her husband's career has eclipsed her own
  6. Woman either works only part time or is a full-time homemaker 
The "solution" to this problem is a long list of proposed accommodations. One classic example is longer maternity leave, which may only widen the wage gap. Changing schedules, childcare benefits, etc. Companies need to be more flexible, it is often said.

In reality, some evidence suggests the following scenario is what is really happening:
  1. Woman finishes degree
  2. Woman lands great job
  3. Woman has a child
  4. Woman witnesses responsibilities slowly erode at work 
  5. Colleagues shield the "working mother" from having to know what is going on
  6. Woman finds not much to speak about during annual review
  7. Woman is bored or feels undervalued
  8. Woman leaves to find other opportunities
  9. Woman may ultimately quit work altogether as other workplaces prove to be similarly dysfunctional

It is that women at the workplace are often thought to be preparing for or recovering from motherhood.

At the same time, men's time is thought to be cheap - the only thing a man is assumed to be nursing is a hangover. Tasking a man with more work is not thought to be homewrecking. Piling work on men is perhaps thought to be giving them an opportunity to display their macho work ethic while overtime for women is assumed to be killing the development of the next generation.

The remedy is to not give women more slack at the office. The solution would be to push men out of the office (literally if needed) with the expectation that they have some sacrifices to make in home as well. 

Businesses do not need "flexibility" as much as they need rigid and consistent expectations for everyone. Parental leave should be fixed lengths and be absolutely mandatory for all genders. Call it a "mandatory minimum sentence" if one so desires.

Another change to be made is to make uniform expectations based on age and family status - no more overtime based on age or whether or not one has children. Employees should feel absolutely comfortable with leaving work at a sane time with nothing more substantial to do than work through a Netflix queue. Certain groups being more likely to work nights and weekends on a project can be viewed as an impediment to productive, sustainable teamwork and employee growth.

Some of this is purely fantasy as there is little reason for companies to participate in social experiments that they cannot easily measure. Without a simple number to track and correlate to revenue, the result a lot of wishy-washy statements about a healthy "culture" that an organization could simply continue lying about. If the corporate world is good at anything, it is lying about how awesome work environments are.

The simple fix short of the ideal is to stop putting women on the "mommy track". Heap responsibilities on them. What is important is to not manage women into a protective bubble, as if they are weaklings that will quit industry at the slightest provocation. Take the kid gloves off, and all will be well.

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