It can’t be done… or can it?

One of the things I often hear when talking about sustainable career models is that in a family with children the parents cannot both have high-powered careers: if one parent pursues a career with everything that entails, then the other can’t or else no one will ever be around to raise the children. In most heterosexual families it’s the man with the career and the woman doing most of the childcare, but I have also seen families where the gender roles have been completely reversed. Instead of sharing responsibilities more evenly they have just flipped roles and the mother has the career and the father is the main caregiver of their children.

To reach the top echelons of corporate hierarchies, there is an expectation to climb the so-called career ladder in a timely fashion. Longer breaks or leaves of absence are often considered suspect. Only a few days ago this was confirmed to me once again by a corporate executive. I was told if a job applicant’s CV has gaps, or if the applicant hasn’t advanced as quickly as expected, he questions the person’s ability, ambition, and drive.

Yes, I know. Just because you choose to do something else for a while certainly doesn’t mean you aren’t able, ambitious, or driven, but that is how many still see it. And no, I don’t think that is the way it should be, and I am working on changing it, but for now that’s what we’re dealing with.

But let me tell you this. In my research, every once in a while, I see an exception to this rule. I interviewed a woman once who decided to just step off the career ladder. She was in a management position, she was exhausted, and she realized that unintentionally often took it out on her child, which she was distraught by. She decided she just couldn’t do it anymore, so after months of agonizing about what she should do, she walked into her boss’s office to hand in her resignation. As it turned out, she didn’t end up quitting. She managed to keep her job but started working part-time instead. No one in a management position had ever worked part-time in that company before, it was absolutely unheard of, and her decision was what we would generally define as a career-limiting move. She stopped caring about promotions, she was just happy that she could still work and be less stressed as a mother. Well, get this. When I met her two years later to follow up on the interview, she had been offered and had accepted a promotion in that very same company. The career limiting move turned out not to be. Yes, she was stressed again, and yes, she stepped back on the career ladder, but if you think about it, it is quite extraordinary as she originally thought her decisions would be anything but good for her career.

Then there was this man I interviewed. He had had several gaps during his career, when he had taken time off work to stay at home with all three of his kids while his wife pursued a successful career. In the interview he talks about how he and his wife thought about what the best solution for the family was, and they came to the conclusion that she should work and he should take care of the kids. His story isn’t very usual, but it’s inspirational because it also proves that interlacing a career with other things does not have to mean kissing a corporate career goodbye. He never disengaged completely; he always kept in touch with his contacts and did some consultancy work while he was away, but definitely didn’t climb the ladder in the expected way. He and his wife had decided to take turns. First she would focus or her career, and then a few years later when the kids were a bit bigger and she had achieved many of her goals, he would focus on his. And because he was never completely away he managed to do this and is now in a top corporate position pursuing the career he originally thought he would have.

His choices haven’t been completely unproblematic. Being away makes his ascent slightly slower than his peers’, but it is still possible. And if we make alternative career models the new normal it might also become possible for even more people.

But in the meantime, consider what these two stories tell us. They illustrate that what we think of as unheard of doesn’t necessarily have to be. You may think it isn’t possible where you work, but how will you know if you don’t ask? Sometimes it really can be that simple.

 

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Stay-at-home dads

I got back from the US a couple of weeks ago, where I interviewed men who have opted out of successful careers. By now I have conducted interviews in Finland, the UK and the US (and I am still looking for more men, so please let me know if you are or know of anyone in these countries who I could interview: theoptingoutblog@gmail.com. Thank you!).

Luckily everything I heard about interviewing men when I set out has been proven wrong. The stories I have collected are incredibly rich in detail and so interesting. I just love interviewing, and although I haven’t started to systematically analyze my data yet, I do have some tentative impressions. One is that although it at first seemed that men who opt out pretty much follow the same pattern as women (see my post Men who opt out), the more I interview the more complicated it gets. While the stories of the women I interviewed were all very similar, I’m finding that the men’s stories are all over the place. They are actually all quite different.

The decision to leave seems to have come about differently for men than it did for the women I interviewed. The women typically set out to have a career without any plan what-so-ever to ever leave, but finally did leave due to a crisis that pushed them to rethink their lives and their values (see for example How do you decide to opt out?). The decision for men to opt out on the other hand – not all of them but many if not most of them – seems to have been less about being pushed to make a decision and more about just doing it.

This, of course, could be because men aren’t potentially as forthcoming about talking about crises as women, but that is not the whole truth. Men are socially expected to work, to be the breadwinners, and to support their families, whereas women aren’t. If a woman pursues a career, she has to overcome social norms and expectations. In fact, we often assume that women who pursue careers do it for selfish reasons – self-actualization – while men do it for selfless reasons: to support their families. That is not true, however, both do it for both selfish and selfless reasons. Both may have families to support and both do it because they find it meaningful, but still this is how people often subconsciously see it. So a woman has more social barriers to overcome when pursuing a career than a man does, which probably means that if she has made it that far in her career, she has done so because that is what she really wants to do. And if that is true, she is not going to give it up very easily, unless something happens that makes her rethink her priorities.

Men on the other hand, are expected to work, to have a career, so all men who have risen in the corporate hierarchies might not have gotten there out of pure conviction and grit. So I’m thinking, maybe the decision to leave may therefore just be something they decide to do and not necessarily as a result of a crisis. Maybe it is just their next step, whether it is for good or for a period of time until they come back again.

Many of the men I interviewed in the US either are or have been stay-at-home dads. I suppose that is to be expected as there is no legislative parental leave and affordable high quality daycare is harder to come by in the US than it is in Europe.

For these men, it was therefore naturally often children that made them decide to leave. They saw their family as a unit and together with their wives (who also had successful careers) they decided that the best thing for the family whole was for the wife to work and for the husband to care for the children, and then that was what they did. And all of them were very happy about their decisions. Despite the hard work (because staying at home with kids really is hard work), it felt meaningful and they cherished the time they had with their children.

But, the truth is, when it comes to social standards they are the anomaly. In their respective communities, they are the only stay-at-home dads in what continues to be a predominantly woman’s world. And here are some of the frustrating things they hear from other women, often strangers:

  • “Oh you’re babysitting your kids today!” (How can a dad possibly babysit his own kids? They are his kids!)
  • “Oh you must have forgotten her jacket at home!” (No, this dad knew exactly how much his daughter needed to wear in that weather.)
  • “Oh how sweet, are you helping your wife out today?” (…)
  • “When are you going to find a job?” (Something you generally wouldn’t ask a woman in the same situation.)

And the most incredible thing I heard was something that one man told me happens on a regular basis when he takes his child to the park. Strange women will come up to his child sitting in the stroller and fix things like hats and jackets, thinking that this dad needs all the help he can get. Anyone with children will know how unsettling that is. You don’t want strangers touching your children and if a man did that – just walked up to a woman with a stroller and started touching the child – it would definitely be frowned upon, right?

It seems that although we are becoming more open to men and women breaking gendered norms, we really have a ways to go. Even in Finland, which is considered one of the most gender equal countries in the world, very few men actually take parental leave. Many men take out their legislated paternity leave and stay home with the mother and the new baby for up to three weeks right after the baby is born, but the percentage of men who actually stay at home and are the main caregivers until their children start daycare or school, is in the single digits. Last I heard it was about 3 or 4%. And a lot of it is due to organizations not supporting fathers who want to do this. Although they would never deny a Finnish mother to go on maternity and parental leave, I have heard many stories where employers have told fathers that it may be your legislative right, but here we just don’t do that.

So where does that leave us? Well, it leaves us with a long way to go. But based on the stories of the men I interviewed, it is a truly valuable and cherished experience for both the father and the child. Fathers can be just as attentive and caring as mothers and if we just give them the chance to participate in childcare on equal terms, I really do think the world would be a better place.

Flexibility is the future, so what are we waiting for?

I read an article in the New York Times the other day, about how job flexibility is the answer to closing the gender gap. This was great for two reasons. The first reason is of course the fact that articles like this prove that there at least seems to be some interest in closing the gender gap. The other reason is that it makes me very pleased that people more and more seem to talk about – and argue for – increased flexibility in the work place. Flexibility makes it possible for people to have a life not just a job, and it provides them with a sense of coherence and control, which is essential for their sense of well-being. And this is exactly what the article argued: how people want and need to have more control over their time.

The problem, however, is that this need for flexibility is seen mostly as a women’s issue, and this article was also mostly about women. The argument was that if women had more flexibility they could better combine work with children, which, in turn, would mean that they could compete for the top jobs they previously may only have dreamed of.

But here’s the catch. If it is only women who are considered to need flexibility and if only they are provided with this possibility, they will continue to be seen as deviants, people who for whatever reason don’t live up to corporate expectations. As a result, most of them will most probably not be able to compete for those top jobs after all. Because let’s face it, there are still a lot of companies who do not offer flexible solutions, not to women and especially not to men. A real man will just do the job, right?

No, that’s not right, but that’s the norm. However, the article did also mention that 48% of fathers rate flexible work schedules as extremely important. That’s right, that’s almost half. Despite popular belief there are many fathers who want to be able to be with their children more, and many of them have wives or partners who expect no less. So you see the problem here. Many men value flexibility, but as long as we only speak of it as something women need, it will not be offered to men, at least not readily. And as long as we continue to create solutions only for women so that they can combine a career with children, we continue to set them apart from men – they will continue to be seen as an exception – and men will continue to work the long hours that do not really make it very easy for them to be more present in their children’s lives. And as long as we do that, the gender gap will certainly not be closed.

But we’re in the 21st century. We need to break out of a mold that was created decades ago in a time long past. Creating more possibilities for flexibility, for combining work with other areas of life (because you know what they say about all work and no play), and making it possible for people to create their own individual solutions for how they can do that, is something we need to make available to everyone – men and women. If we do that, we create the possibility for men to be more involved in their children’s lives without the risk of seeming unmanly or not serious about their jobs. Like Anne-Marie Slaughter says, it is only if men also start doing more non-paid care work, will we stop devaluing it so much, and only then will the amount of men and women doing different kinds of work in the public and private spheres be more balanced.

A few months ago I participated in a seminar where a representative of DNA, a Finnish telecommunications company, presented their new HR solutions. They had turned conventional rules regarding time and place of work upside down. They had given their employees complete freedom in deciding where they wanted to work. They did not have to come in to the office at all if they didn’t want to.

This is quite unusual because many people I’ve talked to in the business world say that this is something you just cannot do. You can’t give employees complete freedom when it comes to where they work, because then no one would ever come in to the office. But this is not what happened in the case of DNA. You see, most people, despite not being forced to, really do want to come in to the office to work several days a week. Some might appreciate keeping work separate from their private life, some want to come in to meet colleagues, and then there are things like meetings that tend to gather people anyway. It is just that most people really appreciate the ability to choose, to have the option to spend some of their time working offsite, wherever that may be, when they want or need to.

This new arrangement naturally meant that the managers of DNA also needed to develop new management routines. After all, if all your employees aren’t physically in front of you at all times, you need to adjust to that. And they had the technology, but more importantly they had the will.

Another argument I often hear from companies is that if you have people working offsite, how do you know that they are actually working? Well, to be honest, how do you know that they are working when they are in the office? Just because they are there physically does not mean that they are working. Besides, I once heard someone say, if you can’t trust them, why did you hire them in the first place?

The ironic thing is that what seems to be a giant leap of faith for organizations, doesn’t necessarily mean that dramatic a change in practice, as most people will continue to come in to work regularly anyway. Although it will mean some new routines, the main difference is that this freedom provides employees with a sense of control, and a possibility of combining their work with the other areas of life that people invariable have, whether their employers like it or not.

Research has shown this is what a lot of people want, and that it is especially true for Millennials. Flexibility and individual solutions are the future, people. So come on, what are we waiting for?

The F-word

I got back from the Gender, Work and Organization Conference about a week ago, where I heard a presenter refer to feminism as the F-word. And in all honesty, even though this is the 21st century, that is probably what a lot of people still think of it as – a bad word. Still, feminism has enjoyed something of a revival lately thanks to people like Caitlin Moran and Sheryl Sandberg, who have made it sort of cool to be a feminist. This is, according to another speaker at the conference, apparently especially true among male politicians, although it ironically turns out that claiming to be a feminist tends to work against you if you are a female politician.

So we can safely say that feminism continues to be very controversial, even though the form of feminism that has been gaining popularity today really is quite moderate. The feminism we see today is a far cry from the radical feminism of the 60’s and 70’s. Radical feminists may have rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, but let’s also acknowledge what they and their contemporaries have done for equality. Without them, women today just wouldn’t have much of the opportunities they have.

But because it is so moderate, contemporary feminism worries many of the so-called old school feminists. This became clear during the conference and I have to say I do understand them. The thing is, we have something today that Linda Hirshman in her article ‘Homeward Bound’ has termed choice feminism. The rhetoric of choice is strong in contemporary society and choice feminism resonates well with that. It represents the belief that women can choose how they want to live their lives and whether or not they want to take advantage of their hard-earned rights to work and participate in the public sphere on equal terms as men. Since the assumption is that gender equality already has pretty much been achieved (which it hasn’t, trust me on this) women can choose to embrace traditionalist gender roles and still be considered feminists because they choose to do so. However choice is complicated. What we may think as free choice can actually be a lot of things. For example, generations of cultural conditioning regarding what is considered admirable and desirable for men and women, which informs our decisions without us even being aware of it.

So the reason older generations of feminists are worried, is that choices like this risk undoing much of the gender equality that we have fought so hard to achieve. In other words, many believe that the feminism of today is doing more harm than good in the name of free choice. While it may help the individual woman in her struggle to maintain coherence in her life and combine all the different parts that are important to her, it doesn’t do much for womankind as a whole, which is exactly what the gender equality warriors of the 60’s and 70’s were concerned with.

As Maria Laurino, author of Old World Daughter, New World Mother: An Education in Love and Freedom, writes, “Early feminist leaders were firebrands and iconoclasts who paved the road for changes that benefited the lives of women with more moderate views and temperaments. And today […] feminism – we hear time and time again – is about giving women choices. But outside the fight to protect a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy, that definition renders feminism virtually meaningless and politically toothless.”

I think that sums it up pretty well.

Well, I came back from the conference thinking about this, and when I came through the door, my daughter greeted me with a book* in her hand. She had just finished reading it and she seemed excited. She told me I have to read it; it was a book written for teens on questions of gender and power. And my thoughts went back to the women at the conference who are worried about the generation of moderate feminists who risk taking a step backward. Maybe, just maybe, they don’t need to worry so much. After all, there is a new generation of people – girls and boys – who seem to be both self-aware and very well-informed regarding everything from gender equality to environmental issues and animal rights. I’m very intrigued by this new generation and I can’t wait to see how things will evolve as they grow into their roles as the future leaders of the world. And yes, I’m definitely going to read that book.

 

*) A Swedish book: Tänk (tvärt) om! : tjejer, killar och makt by Anna Norlin

What is success anyway?

I’m reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s book Unfinished Business at the moment. You might remember Anne-Marie Slaughter; she was the one who wrote that famous article in The Atlantic titled ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’. The title of her book refers to the feminist revolution, which she argues isn’t finished yet. And I do agree, there is still work to do. Despite so much progress having been made for women, gender equality still hasn’t been achieved. I mean I come from Finland and Finland is considered to be one of the most gender equal nations in the EU (and in the world for that matter) although it is also one of the most gender segregated. However, although Finland is one of the most gender equal countries, there are about 25% women in top management positions and about 27% on corporate boards. The question is, is that gender equality?

I’m actually working on a paper at the moment with a set of interviews of gender equality workers in Finnish organizations. These workers have lead projects in their organizations to make them more gender equal. What I’m finding is that there is a lot of gender fatigue in Finnish organizations today. People don’t really want to talk about gender equality anymore; they think it’s a non-issue. The result is complete disinterest in whatever it is these gender equality workers have to say. No outright resistance; they’re not rude and people generally know what’s politically correct. No, it’s just total indifference, which is worse in a way. I mean if resistance comes in the form of indifference, it’s really hard to fight. You don’t really know what you’re up against. And not only that; it kind of makes the gender equality workers and what they do invisible and that’s just awful.

One of the reasons behind the gender fatigue we see in Finland is that people think that since things are so much better for women in Finland than in many other countries in the world, we need to just give it up and be happy for what we have. Well, I find it hard to argue with people who say that, it’s hard to make them see. But the fact of the matter is that if we say we shouldn’t keep striving for gender equality because we have it so much better compared to others, it’s like saying that we shouldn’t bother about high quality education in schools because in our country children at least get to go to school. Ok, so I’m not sure that was a very good comparison, but you catch my drift.

But back to Unfinished Business. One of Slaughter’s main arguments in her book is that we will never achieve complete gender equality until we start valuing care work. It is women who continue to do the brunt of care work in society – both in countries like Finland and elsewhere. And as long as women continue to be the main carers in society, this will come in the way of having a career on the same terms as men who don’t have as difficult a time juggling work with having a family. As long as this is the case, women will just not be able to have it all.

But if we start to value care work, Slaughter argues, if we start to value also other things than paid work and objective and traditional definitions of success, only then will men also take on other responsibilities and roles in greater numbers. This, in turn, will make it possible for all – both men and women – to care for a family (which is important!) and to have a career without feeling like they’re on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

When Slaughter had her crisis and quit her high status, sought-after, dream job in foreign policy to go back to her university position, she says “I was forced to confront what was important to me, rather than what I was conditioned to want, or perhaps what I had conditioned myself to want.” And that’s the thing. That’s what women who opt out do. They start questioning the objective definitions of success, and they create their own subjective definitions instead. They realize that maybe the high status, high salary, corner office and company car really aren’t what will make them happy. Like one woman in Lisa Belkin’s column ‘The Opt-Out Revolution’ said, the raises and promotions may have meant a successful career, but they didn’t necessarily mean a successful life.

So maybe that’s what we should all do. Maybe we need to think about what success is for us. I mean what it really is, not what we think it should be or what others say it is. What exactly is it that makes your life successful?

Extreme makeover for little girls

My daughter just showed me something pretty awful: a game on an online game site for children. It’s called ‘Extreme Makeover’, and yes, it is exactly what it sounds like. You have an avatar – a virtual doll – and you give her a makeover. You start with the nose – a nose job of course (you cut with a scalpel along a dotted line). Because all little girls need to think about having a presentable nose, any old nose (with character) will certainly not do. After that, it’s the cheeks: collagen cheek injections for plumper cheeks, and then the same of course – collagen injections again – for plumper lips. After that you use a hammer and a chisel to sculpt the jawbone (I don’t even know what the correct term for that is), and then finish with hair implants for thicker and fuller hair. Now the doll/avatar/virtual self is ready for the spa. But before that she needs to lose weight of course because that’s what you have to do if you’re a girl and you want to be pretty. Unfortunately I was so aghast that I can’t remember exactly how much weight this virtual doll managed to lose, but I think it must have been about 30 pounds or almost 14 kilos.

Let’s let that sink in for a moment.

Can someone explain to me how anyone in their right mind can think that it’s ok to develop a game like this for little girls? For anyone? Girls have enough to deal with as it is with the over-sexualization of girlhood and pressures to be thin, pretty, desired, and demure. We have cultural ideals that send them the most mixed and ambiguous messages, and now we’re not only teaching little girls that it’s what you look like on the outside that counts, we’re also normalizing going to any lengths to achieve that perfect look. It’s drastic plastic or nothing girls! It’s insane, it’s shocking, and, frankly, it’s disgusting.

Help me out here. How do we get this game taken off the internet?

The jealous employer

The other day while I was conducting an interview, I was told what I every so often hear, that in a family both partners can’t pursue a career. It’s either one or the other because a career is so time consuming and someone needs to take care of the kids. I’ve been thinking about this for a few days now, and I guess I reluctantly have to admit that this person had a point, considering the 24/7 commitment we expect of our employees, at least the ones that are headed for the top. It has been argued that prevalent career models aren’t created for only one person but for one and a half: the one with the job and the one that takes care of everything else. How this is supposed to work, especially in a country like Finland where I live, where there is a tradition of both partners working, and where nannies are rare, escapes me. Who takes care of the work that is supposed to be done by that extra half person? Even though Finland is one of the most gender equal countries in the EU (which is not to say that Finland is completely gender equal), it is often women who do most of that half person’s work. So we have women who not only have the all-consuming career, they also take care of most of the care and household chores, and as a result they are often exhausted. If I remember correctly, I think I read somewhere that in Sweden about 80% of the people treated for exhaustion are women. And it wouldn’t surprise me if the numbers were similar elsewhere.

A while back, a good friend of mine – a friend with a high-powered career – talked about this, about how completely exhausted she was. She’s very good at what she does; she simply had too much to do at work. I once heard someone say that if you want something done you should just ask someone who already has too much to do. I guess there’s some truth to that. Either way, it made me think about Sheryl Sandberg and what she says about women needing to draw the line. In her book Lean In, Sandberg explains that companies take what they can get and it’s up to the individual to say when enough is enough. Now I’ve been a bit critical of that because that may feel risky for a person who is well aware that if he or she doesn’t do the job, there are plenty of others who will – we are all replaceable, right? And besides, we have a structural problem on our hands, not an individual one, and trying to create individual solutions doesn’t solve much in the long run, or for anyone else for that matter. But I was thinking, that for someone as senior and appreciated as my friend is, drawing the line and setting some terms of her own is probably possible. We’re so worried what might happen if we say no, but maybe the sky won’t fall if we try. Still, I’m the first to admit, that it is hard to do, even for someone like me who has a pretty clear idea of what my terms are.

I was discussing these thoughts with another good friend of mine, and ironically (because I think I don’t generally generalize) I was accused of generalizing! I was explaining how companies take everything they can and he interrupted me and said no all companies don’t. He apparently actively tells his team members they need to stop and rest and take time off. Which often throws them, ironically; they are so set on working long hours and looking busy because that’s what all important career people do, right? Well, I was impressed and I honestly think he must be a pretty great boss who really cares about his people, despite maybe just seeing wellbeing as a means to efficiency, which in turn is good for the company. But I do wish more bosses were like him because we really need to understand that working people harder isn’t necessarily better. Quantity is not the same as quality.

In Sweden some organizations are experimenting with six-hour days, as opposed to the standard eight, but for the same pay. This has been quite controversial, but the organizations trying this have apparently had very positive results. They say that their employees get the same amount done, if not more, because they don’t get so tired during a six-hour stretch. And then when they finish work they still have half an afternoon and a whole evening left of the day, which means they have time and energy for all the other things they want and need to do. Sounds like these employees have a much more well rounded life than most. Because despite what my friend says about not all companies sucking their employees dry being true, a lot of companies still do.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we have to stop assuming that working more means working better. I don’t know why we think people have to dedicate their whole lives to work. Just because they have other things that are equally important to them in their lives, it is not a threat to how well they do their jobs, so why do we make it so difficult for them? It’s like the employer is a jealous friend who doesn’t want you to have any other friends. Put it like that and it just sounds ridiculous.