During a recent seminar on business strategy, a woman asked me how she could be "more strategic." I made a few suggestions, each of which she met with resistance. Too many tasks during the day. Not enough opportunities to be strategic. No time.
Finally, I suggested that she think more broadly about her role, using some of the techniques we used in the session during her long commute home when there were no tasks to tend to and nothing but time on her hands.
Her response: "I can't do that."
"I'll be thinking about what to make for dinner."
I convinced her that making time for herself and her career needed to be a priority if she was serious about developing her "strategic muscle". She finally agreed to allocate a couple of hours a week to execute on some ideas we discussed.
However, it raised an interesting question about the distribution of responsibilities at work and at home, what we expect of others and ourselves, and how many of those expectations are rooted in beliefs about gender roles.
Expanding Choices For Women And Men
The term "working mother" belies the assumption that women still hold primary responsibility for the home. After all, you don't hear the term "working father" even though there are plenty of great, single dads who balance work and home. And don't get credit for it.
While it is the right of every woman to choose to work, or stay at home or do both, that same choice is not as freely offered to men. Couples who do make that choice are often faced with criticism (he doesn't do anything) or pity (poor guy couldn't get a job). And yes, some women are criticized for making that choice as well.
Nearly every woman I know who has advanced to the highest levels in her organization has phenomenal support at home - the kind of support that allows her to work late nights, travel and really focus on her career. That is not unlike the support that enables successful men to also work late nights, travel and free up mental space to think strategically about advancing their careers.
There does seem to be a difference though... women are often made to feel guilty about that choice in a way that men are not. Sheryl Sandberg writes about this in Lean In, in which she calls out the penalty women pay for career success because there is still a reverse correlation between success and likability for women. In other words, when women succeed their likeability diminishes.
Living Up To Expectations
The Atlantic Monthly recently had as its cover story, The Confidence Gap, an article that explores a dearth of confidence even in successful women, much of which is tied to our expectations about gender rather than actual individual ability.
For instance, if we dig deeper into data that suggest that women don't negotiate as effectively as men do, we start to see that some women may hold back but not for lack of confidence - but because when they do, it is not received well and may even backfire.
We don't like seeing women violate the norms of femininity - asking for more, taking credit where it is due, and having the wonderful audacity to know they can succeed even in roles they have not performed before. We call that "acting like a man."
On the flip side, there are still numerous pop-culture portrayals of men as apparently incapable of caring for children, nurturing, or reading others well. Sometimes, when couples choose for men to go to work and women to stay home after baby, they do it not because it makes economic sense or even because the woman wants to be home, but because of deeply held beliefs that men are not as capable of raising children or they were never taught how.
And yet so many men do a great job on that front, as they strive to overcome the stereotype of being emotionally truncated, an issue that is explored alongside the one-dimensional portrayal of women in the outstanding documentary, Miss Representation. Both sets of stereotypes hurt everyone.
Being Coached Into Femininity
In addition to consulting, I teach in a MBA program. Over the years, several female students have approached me telling me that they have or are going to receive "coaching" to learn to be more collaborative, less direct, softer. In other words, they were coached into more "feminine" behaviors. Why? It is uncomfortable for both genders when they behave in ways that go against the grain of expected feminine traits. The reverse is true for men.
We continue to want women to be a certain way, and men another, instead of allowing people to live up to their own qualities - whether it is nurturing, collaborative, aggressive, assertive, confident, strategic, career-oriented or happy at home. We are getting better at making it easier for those who choose to tackle the home front and work front by offering onsite daycare, flextime and more. And we should continue to do so.
But we are still not challenging the underlying assumptions that pose problems for those who step outside expected, gender-based behaviors.
Same Behavior, Different Understanding
Often, the same behavior from women and men, girls and boys, is interpreted in a way that suits our gendered expectations. I know two children, a brother and sister, about 2 years apart. Both are young kids who are prone to crying, running off in a huff and getting offended easily. The sister is described by her parents as "highly sensitive." The boy is described as "highly aware." Same behavior, different interpretations.
Rambunctious boys are tolerated because they are boys. Rambunctious girls are quickly brought into the fold of being "ladylike", not "too bossy." On the other hand, sweet, nurturing boys are quickly "cured" of those very traits that are encouraged in girls. Or they are offered a different, more powerful interpretation of those same traits - in other words, they are given a more powerful self-image.
Getting Beyond A 50-50 Split
Gender equality means far more than a 50-50 split of chores in the home.
It is about giving equal leeway for women and men, girls and boys, to be who they are, even when they violate socially expected gender norms.
It is about recognizing the diversity among women and among men. It is about celebrating that some women are more outspoken, bold, determined and confident than other men and women. That they are not "acting like men" but are being who they are. And that is okay too.
It is about making it okay for men to have a widely and socially supported choice to stay home if that is best for the family, and relinquish the imperative to be breadwinners, caretakers and hide their own emotions in the service of being masculine. Right now, they don't really get that choice in a way that is widely approved.
Family Issues Apply To Both Genders
So-called women's issues effect all of us, men and women, and we should all be held accountable for them. It is about time we let go of the imperative for women to be "superwoman" who assumes primary responsibility for the myriad of things we ascribe to the realm of "feminine" and recognize that that these things - kids, work, home, family, balance - are really family issues, not just women's issues.
Would more women stay in the workplace and positively impact the current 3% representation in the ranks of Fortune 500 CEOs if they had support at home and were not measured against a "feminine" rubric? Would more men report higher levels of satisfaction with life if they were free to choose to stay at home? And celebrated for it?
Why not make it not just acceptable, but desirable for both men and women to choose home, or work or both? We will have equality in the workplace when we have equality at home.
Let's start by celebrating the remarkable diversity of personalities, ambitions, strengths and challenges that define each of us as well-rounded human beings, rather than limiting ourselves and others by the gendered expectations that define so much of our culture today.
This article was written by Sangita Kasturi