A touch of humanity

A dear friend of mine is just about to embark on a new exciting journey. She is going to retrain as a nurse and I am so excited for her. She is following her heart and her dream.

She is doing this after having left a career in business, and what I find so interesting is that she isn’t the first person I know who has decided to become a nurse after having opted out of a corporate career. Not too long ago I interviewed a man who had done the same. And he apparently knew of a whole bunch of people who had opted out of different careers to become nurses. I quote:

“When I started [studying to become a nurse] I was 45 years old, but surprisingly I wasn’t the oldest in the group. As a matter of fact, just in my course, there was a small group of older men like me who wanted to change careers. So I’m not really a unique case.”

He’s right; he isn’t a unique case. Come to think of it, although everyone didn’t choose nursing, most of the people I have interviewed for my research – both men and women – have left corporate careers to do something that involves caring for and helping people. Two became life coaches. A few became teachers, teaching everything from preschool to college. One started working with immigrants, giving legal advice. One became a nutritionist and works with schools to make sure kids are provided with healthy food. A few started working pro bono and many are involved in charities of different kinds. I could go on.

All of a sudden I realize that I see a pattern here. A common denominator seems to be opting in to work where they can help others. And I don’t think this is a coincidence. I do, however, think it says something about the corporate environments they chose to leave.

We focus so hard on productivity and profit, and organizations are streamlined to the point where we seem to forget that they are made up of people; people with human needs. When people finally have enough, when whatever happens that pushes them to take the step and leave a career behind, they choose a road that provides them with the coherence and meaning that they didn’t get in their previous jobs. And apparently also one that provides a touch of humanity.

Not only that, all of them, every single one of my interviewees, talk about the people in their lives. They talk about family and friends, and about having a job and a lifestyle that allows them to be there for those who are important to them.

And that’s what I’m going to do now. I’m going to take some well-deserved time off to spend with my loved ones. Because to be honest, as clichéd as it may sound, it really is the people in my life that make life worth living.

I’ll be back in August with more blog posts. See you then!

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People who just don’t listen

I had the most frustrating experience a while back. I was giving a talk on my opting out research for the employees of a company. The talk as such wasn’t frustrating; I had a great time. It went well and my audience engaged in a fantastic discussion with me. I love it when that happens. The best talks are the ones where the audience has so much to say that I have trouble getting through my material because I keep getting interrupted with questions and comments. It sort of becomes more of a dialogue than a monologue and that is just more meaningful to everyone I think.

So it wasn’t the actual talk or the audience. On the contrary, they were really engaged in questions around opting out, like wellbeing at work and sustainable working models. It also became clear during our discussions that, in addition to them having lots to say about it, there was also a lot of frustration regarding their situation and the policies in their company.

Their HR director was there and many of the comments were obviously directed at him in the hope of starting an internal discussion about perhaps making some changes regarding real flexibility (not just the usual flextime that doesn’t really provide us with a lot of flexibility at all, read more about that here) and the possibility of working offsite more.

Well, after I finished my talk I felt really good. I felt like I had really made a difference in these people’s lives if I, by being there and talking about my research, had helped them by kick-starting a discussion to change things for the better. This feeling stayed with me for about five minutes until the HR director came up to me to thank me for a very good and informative talk. So far so good, but then he goes on to say that the clock cards that they have (that had been criticized quite a bit during the discussion) are really great. That people actually really like and want them. What? Were we just in the same room listening to the same comments?? Then he goes on to say that allowing people to work offsite is just too hard because how would you know that people are actually working if you can’t see them…

By now I wasn’t feeling quite as hopeful anymore. I had just spent a lot of time talking about and citing research on the benefits of real flexibility and the possibility of working offsite. I mean just because people are in the office and you can see them is no guarantee that they are actually working. The thing is though, if you do allow people the freedom to have more control over when, where, and how they work you need to develop new management routines. In this company, they use the clock card to do the managers’ work. I hope I don’t have to explain what is wrong with using a clock card time system to manage your people instead of doing it yourself. And yes, he was right in that if people don’t come into the office to stamp their card, the system won’t be able to know if they are working or not. The manager would actually have to step in and manage.

But it saddened me. I felt sad for the employees who, after that great and open discussion, hadn’t been heard. And I felt disappointed that the HR director who should know better just wasn’t listening. He was just hearing what he wanted to hear and the rest just didn’t register.

So next time someone is talking to you, take a moment to consider this: are you really listening to what they are saying or are you just hearing what you want to hear and confirming what you already know?

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.

 

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?

Enough is enough

A good friend of mine said something very interesting the other day. She said that people just don’t know when it’s enough. She was talking about exhaustion and how someone she knew was on the brink of burnout and had actually already approached her boss to say that if she takes on any more she will break. My friend’s comment was that she, in reality, wasn’t on the brink of exhaustion anymore, she was already beyond that. You don’t generally go to your boss before you have too much to handle. Because the threshold to bring it up at work is so high, you only approach someone after it’s gone too far.

She sees things very clearly sometimes, my friend; I admire her for that, and this time I think she really hit the nail on its head. As a society, we really don’t know when enough is enough. We kind of go overboard with most things, whether it’s consumerism, depleting our planet of its natural resources, health trends, makeovers, parenting, or just simply work. How do you know at work when you’ve done enough? When you’re good enough? Your employer will take whatever he or she can get and you as an individual are responsible to draw the line. But in this age of major and multidimensional insecurity, how do you know you’ve done enough to stay safe and stay in the game? With an employer who is always asking for more it’s impossible to know.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with a colleague a while back. He was recounting an interview he had seen with Rod Stewart, I think it was, or someone equally rich and famous anyway. And Rod was talking about how he wakes up every morning, thinking, “Am I comfortable yet?” And he’s a multimillionaire! This sounds pretty idiotic, but it kind of epitomizes the fear of disposability we suffer from that I wrote about last week. Even (or especially?) a talented, rich, and famous rock star doesn’t feel comfortable with the fleeting nature of success and security. The fact is, in this day and age things can change very fast.

So how can we possibly know when enough is enough if we don’t feel secure or comfortable in our jobs? When we constantly try to live up to unrealistic expectations?

Well, that’s a rhetorical question. In the meantime I’m going to try to recognize when enough is enough in my life, and actually slow down enough to enjoy the holiday season with family and friends. I’m going to take some time off from my blog and will be back after the New Year. Until then Happy Holidays and all the best for 2016!

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.

Julia and me, Part 2 (and some thoughts on being a (bad) feminist)

The other day I was having lunch with a colleague and we were talking about how torn we both sometimes feel between having to be a good feminist and just wanting to be there for our children, without having to overthink whether or not we’re setting a good example. In many ways I do think I am a good role model for my children. I work with something I am passionately interested in and I regularly lose myself in this work, which admittedly often frustrates them. I hope I’m teaching them by example to dream big and work hard.

Like many women who have opted out and in, I also organize my work so that I can be there for my children when they need me, which feels both important and meaningful. For example, I work out of my home office several days a week and I have a lot to say about when and where I work, so I really am around when important things happen in their lives. One thing that I am especially proud of and that makes me very happy is that my children tell me that they can really talk to me about anything, and I believe one reason they feel that way is that I am actually around when they need to talk.

But also like many women who opt out and in, one of the results and perhaps downsides of organizing my life to better accommodate my care responsibilities, is that, as a result, I can take even more responsibility for childcare and household chores than I would if I had a job that kept me out of the house all day every day. So while women like me are able to better combine different areas of life, it really doesn’t do much for gender equality in the home sphere, nor in the work place to be honest. At least not in the short run. And being the gender scholar that I am, this bugs me a little.

Well, as my colleague and I were talking about this, we came to the conclusion that yes, it’s good to be a good feminist and set a good example, but we (women) also just need to give ourselves a break sometimes. Strange as it may sound, we are actually only human.

So I felt especially comforted when I stumbled across a book by Roxanne Gay called Bad Feminist. Gay is an academic and a feminist, but she calls herself a bad feminist because she just can’t seem to live up to the somewhat unrealistic expectations she argues many feminists place on women. She writes, “For whatever reason, we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choice.” So in order to be a good feminist and a good example to other feminists, we have to always make the right decisions, always have the right opinions, and never slip up and God forbid do or say anything unfeminist. Well, we do. We slip up all the time. According to Gay, feminism should be about supporting equality in whatever way we can and do, and it is better to be a bad feminist than no feminist at all. And to be honest, like many other women I am often too hard on myself, so I feel pretty grateful towards anyone who gives me a break and permission to be human.

One feminist who I really admire is Julia Kristeva. As I’ve mentioned before, I became acquainted with her work while working on my doctoral thesis, and there was something about her take on issues like feminism and feminine identity that really appealed to me. Her approach to womanhood differs from that of many other feminist theorists, who, in turn, have accused her of being an essentialist (believing in traditional concepts and ideals) and just unfeminist in general. And she is neither. One reason she is seen as something of a threat to the feminist movement is that she has introduced the body to the feminist debate, and argues that motherhood is, in fact, “at the crossroads of biology and meaning”. The reason this doesn’t appeal to many other feminists is that they worry that bringing the body and motherhood into the debate could easily be misconstrued and used to argue that a woman’s calling is to have and care for children and that her rightful place is in the home. I want to be perfectly clear here and say that neither Kristeva nor I believe that. On the contrary, Kristeva recognizes that not all women even want to be mothers. But to be fair, I can also understand what it is feminists are afraid of.

But being a mother and having given birth to two children, I can certainly appreciate Kristeva’s thoughts. Although I am a strong believer in that we are shaped and conditioned by socially constructed societal norms and expectations (i.e. we are taught to believe that women are the ones who are best equipped physically and emotionally to care for children, which really isn’t true, men are just as good given half the chance), social construction still doesn’t seem to quite adequately explain the entire mothering experience. Giving birth and becoming a mother is a powerful physical and biological experience. And there is a bond between mother and child that goes beyond gendered expectations and norms.

So maybe, like Roxanne Gay, I am also a bad feminist. Or maybe, just maybe, being a bad (read: human) feminist is what makes me a good one?