Opening up real career choices for women

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What’s the thing that’s had the biggest impact on your career so far?

It’s a question I was asked on Friday. With International Women’s Day fast approaching I had the privilege of sharing a platform with two amazing speakers as we shared our insights into how we can all empower women’s progress at work.

Unsurprisingly my focus was on how too many working women currently hold themselves back, settle or leave the corporate world. When they become mothers the struggle to find work-life balance can become overwhelming. One of the spinning plates needs to be dropped and it’s highly likely it’s going to be the career one. Research evidence is increasingly showing women holding back from promotion; compromising by accepting any job that offers reduced hours, regardless of whether it plays to their talents or not; or being seduced into thinking that mumpreneur is a better career choice.

I talked about how employers remain ambivalent in their attitude to working mothers. While many have flexible working policies which ostensibly support better balance there’s very little follow through. In the UK uptake of flexible working has stalled for the past ten years as corporate cultures continue to force a choice between career progression or balance. Research has shown that grateful mothers granted the concession of flexible hours are now undertaking a ‘triple shift’ of work followed by childcare and rounded off with more work once the children are in bed. The mothers end up exhausted; yet only half of employers care enough to have a formal work-life balance policy.

I also talked about how previous generations of women had been at the forefront of pushing for workplace change. I shared a model that demonstrated how change started at grassroots level when large numbers of women entered workplaces in the last quarter of the 20th Century. They found themselves butting up against cultural expectations and working practices that failed to acknowledge their dual responsibilities as parents and workers. So they pressed for childcare support and the beginnings of flexible working arrangements to help with the juggle. Formal HR policies (and legislation) came later.

Those early workplace pioneers had few choices but to stay and change the system. As I write this on International Women’s Day I want to acknowledge and applaud their efforts which contributed so much to the progress women have made at work so far. They showed a determination we need to reclaim.

Facilitated by technology today’s working women seem to have many more options. In reality they have no more choices; although employers often ignore that reality.

It’s hardly a choice when a woman leaves her job because she’s been told all managerial roles must be worked full time and the resulting mental pressures are having a negative impact on her well being. It’s hardly a choice when a woman is forced to accept a more junior role as the prerequisite for working less than full time hours.

To open up real choice – I told my audience – we must take matters into our own hands and redesign our jobs. So that we can be both productive and live more balanced lives. It’s one way we can all be #EachforEqual and make things better for the generations that follow.

Returning to the question with which I began this blog: my response was that my career changed when I embraced my power. Given the way powerful women are pilloried on social media; and the fact that I rarely consider myself a powerful woman it felt uncomfortable to say. But the reality is we are all powerful beings; and we can all contribute to leaving the planet a better place than we found it. So this week, as we continue our rebalance journey I encourage you to embrace your power and see where it takes you.

Work-life balance, flexible working and men

Portrait of a Hispanic middle-aged business man smiling and look

My plan had been to finish off the topic of flexible working last week and turn my attention to other issues we need to consider as we #rebalance2020. Then I found myself thinking about International Women’s Day which is coming up next weekend. This year’s theme is #EachForEqual – a call to every one of us to strive for a gender equal world.

In the workplace flexible working is a key factor in achieving gender equality at all levels of seniority. And the relationship of men to flexible working is a complex one.

Many younger men are keen to embrace flexibility, both to suit their own life interests and to help them balance work and family when the time comes. Unsurprisingly those who do are finding themselves experiencing the same prejudices that women have. Namely: the unspoken assumption that wishing to work flexibly shows lack of career commitment; and is certainly not something that can be accommodated at senior levels. Men too are experiencing the challenges created by inflexible and outmoded corporate cultures.

There is however, another group of men that has the power to change these inflexible and outmoded practices. That’s the male managers who often find themselves faced with flexible working requests.

I’ve no wish to imply men deliberately get in the way. It’s simply that as hard-pressed managers who may have very little (if any) training in how to manage flexible workers the temptation is to refuse a request without discussion. If you’re faced with this potential scenario I’d like to offer some advice.

1 Start with the right question

That’s not “can I work flexibly” but “tell me about your experiences of flexible working”. Find out if your manager has ever worked flexibly himself; and whether he’s previously managed flexible arrangements. Follow up by asking who he knows within the organisation or in the industry that is a good manager of flexible workers, These questions will help you understand your manager’s concerns; and identify who might be able to lend you a supportive hand.

2 Think about what’s in it for him

I’m assuming you’ve figured out your business case; so how does that benefit him? Is it a simple case of he gets to keep you as an employee so his time is not tied up in recruiting a replacement? Or does it go further in that switching your hours will – for example – make you more productive or more available to a currently under-served segment of your customer base?

3 Create a compelling vision of a better future

Rather than focusing on allaying concerns raised as a result of your initial questions; use positive psychology to co-create a vivid picture of how the new arrangements might look when working well; and the benefits this will create.

Evidence suggests that in the workplace the majority of men ‘want to do the right thing’ but are not always clear on what it is. Rather than assume it would be pointless, I encourage you to start a conversation and see where it leads. You might not only re-balance your own life; but also find yourself contributing to establishing a more gender balanced corporate world.

#BalanceforBetter – IWD 2019

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Another year has gone by and once more we’re getting ready to celebrate International Women’s Day. This year’s campaign theme is #BalanceforBetter – urging us to take action and build a gender balanced world.

There are plenty of economic, social and moral arguments for gender balance in all aspects of life. In the business world there’s mounting proof that achieving gender balance at all levels will have a positive impact on the bottom line. And in my experience achieving that balance requires an employer to support good work-life balance.

There’s growing evidence that mothers (and an increasing number of fathers) are compromising their careers in their efforts to achieve work-life balance. There’s also considerable research evidence confirming that flexible working is a key factor in supporting women’s career progression. Wider access to well-structured flexible working arrangements often has other benefits. For example, it allows fathers to be more involved in child rearing; which in turn enables mothers to participate more fully in the workplace. In an ideal world our employers would be fully convinced of the benefits that accrue when everyone can work flexibly; and would have practices in place to make that happen.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world and we still have a way to go. Waiting for our employers means we could be waiting a very long time. If we want change then it’s down to us to make it happen. To guide our actions we can draw on lessons from previous generations of working women:

  • We embrace our pioneering role. The corporate world needs a new band of leaders ready to complete the workplace revolution by modelling new possibilities. Not just for our own sake, but also for the benefit of future generations. Do we want our daughters and sons to struggle with work-life balance in the same way we currently do?
  • We connect with our power to source the courage we need to ask for #better. It’s easy to feel disempowered in the face of embedded cultural norms that tell us we must choose between career and caring – we cannot have both. When we dig deep we remember that we’re not only entitled to live a balanced life but that doing so is essential for our wellbeing.
  • We take the first step recognising that change often happens slowly and incrementally: and that’s no bad thing. When we’re pioneering new ways of working things will not always run smoothly. We’ll need to make adjustments on the journey; to pause and reflect. And we’ll need to remember that as our life circumstances change we’ll want to restructure again to hold onto our work-life balance.

The International Women’s Day website reminds us that it’s a year-long campaign, not a one-day event. So if you’re ready to join the call and #BalanceforBetter why not make that the focus of your life in 2019? Connect with me and let’s work on Balanced Leadership together.

Pressing for Progress

International Women's Day Equality Rights Graphic

International Women’s Day falls in early March and this year’s theme was #PressForProgress.

From the moment they entered the corporate world in large numbers – back in the 1960s and 1970s – women have been pressing for progress at work. And yet they still face the same challenges: working practices structured around men’s career patterns that make it impossible to combine a senior role and caring for family. And corporate cultures that pay lip service to supporting work-life balance while penalising those who actively seek it.

Those pioneering women showed courage when they pressed for progress. They challenged notions of how work should be done and gained concessions such as term-time working and job-share.

Fast forward fifty years and the business case for gender balanced organisations is well documented. We’ve been waiting for our employers to act; and little has changed.

If we’re going to #PressForProgress we need a new generation of women to step up to leadership in their working lives; and to change things. We must embrace what Stewart Friedman calls Total Leadership

‘Total” because it’s about the whole person and ‘Leadership’ because it’s about ‘creating sustainable change to benefit not just you but the most important people around you.

What it means to be a leader is constantly being redefined. From the early days of ‘command and control’ through heroic models of charismatic white men to the broader definitions of the 21st Century. We’ve also come to understand that women’s approach to leadership differs from that of men. Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe found that women place more emphasis on the relationship between a manager and their direct reports. They work to a concept of ‘empowerment’ that includes principles of interdependence, co-operation and connectedness; and the sharing of power,

This feminine approach ties in well with emergent thinking about leadership not as an act of heroism, but one of serving and enabling others to display leadership themselves. It is not about being an extraordinary person, but rather an ordinary, vulnerable, humble, accessible and transparent one.

Choosing to become a Balanced Leader is an act of courage that will change our lives and those of the people around us. We all have the capacity to make that choice. Indeed as corporate women’s development programmes encourage women to find their authentic leadership style we must embrace Balanced Leadership as ours. In this way we continue to #PressForProgress as we skilfully combine our journey to the boardroom with other aspects of our lives.

Friedman’s approach is to do something new for a short period and see how it affects all aspects of our lives (work, home, community and self). If it doesn’t work out, stop or adjust, and little is lost. If it does work out, it’s a small win. Over time these add up so that overall efforts are focused increasingly on what matters most.  Just as I did in this earlier blog, he recommends taking small steps that minimize the risks and enable us to overcome our fear of failure.

Alimo-Metcalfe recommends linking our actions to our employer’s business objectives. So in pressing for more balanced working arrangements we are supporting the drive to encourage women into senior roles. And at the same time we’re enabling better work-life balance for everyone.

We must embrace the fact that – as with previous cohorts of working women – it’s down to each and every one of us to #PressForProgress. We don’t need to wait for employers and we don’t need to wait for permission. We simply need the courage to ask.

 

The “genius, power and magic” of boldness

IWD 17 Twitter

It’s International Women’s Day and this year’s theme is #BeBoldForChange.

My dictionary defines bold as meaning both (1) confident and courageous; and (2) without feelings of shame, impudent. I suspect I’m not alone believing that bold actions in women are more often seen as the latter than the former.

For example: in their book “Why Women Don’t Ask” Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever point out that women are much less likely to use negotiation to get what they want than are men. They tend to view it as a masculine and competitive strategy. They prefer not to rock the boat. And in my experience, when faced with the work-life balance challenges of being a working mother they prefer to simply “fix” the problem by moving themselves onto the “mommy track”. They don’t want to be seen as asking for concessions because they’re not coping.

The thing is – as I’ve pointed out in previous blog posts – if we don’t ask nothing will change. Our mothers and grandmothers asked. For part-time and term-time work. And women made progress in the corporate world. Then things stalled.

By not asking we become complicit in covering up the fact that existing corporate cultures clash with women’s lives. We give our employers a “get out of jail free” card that allows them to suggest it’s something lacking in women. And the consequence – as revealed by recent Chartered Management Institute research – is half a million women missing from management.

Coaching a junior manager recently she concluded that she lacked the confidence to apply for a middle manager role. It’s a widely held assumption that poor confidence holds women back. But in her case she had a very real concern about being able to spend time with her family if she took on any more work responsibilities. And that’s what’s really holding her back.

With the right tools we’re crafting a job she feels confident she can do: and that makes best use of her skills while enabling a balanced life. It has required her to #BeBoldForChange and in her case this has paid off. Her manager is supportive – recognising and valuing her talents.

Most of us are willing to be bold on behalf of others – particularly family members. But when it comes to working practices we often shy away from asking for what we want. Because it’s not been done before. Because we’re worried about being seen in a negative light; our commitment being questioned. And we worry we’ll be seen as impudent rather than courageous.

So this International Women’s Day consider being bold not just for yourself – but also on behalf of the people around you. In negotiating better balanced working arrangements you’ll be opening up new possibilities for them as well.

I recently heard a working mother say: “I hope things are better for my daughter when she goes out to work”. But hope alone will not change anything.

We must #BeBoldForChange. In the words of Goethe:

Boldness has genius, power and magic in it