Women, the lesser gender at work

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A friend of mine recently asked me what I thought about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Unfortunately, while I’ve heard of this popular book and the cult following it has amongst women, I have not read it. To be honest, motivational self-help books is my least favourite genre. So, even though I’ve added Lean In to my reading list, it will probably take me a while to get to it. (If you’re reading this, R, sorry and please be patient!)

In the meantime, let me share my thoughts on gender equality at work and the possible reasons for the imbalance. This issue has been on my mind recently as I attended a talk on Women in Business last month which I didn’t find particularly useful. I’ve also been toying with the idea of going part time in order to spend more time with my daughter. So that has led me to question whether I’m falling behind in my career and is it a result of gender inequality.

Let’s start with the statistics. Globally, the odds that a woman will participate in the labour force are almost 30%[1] less than they are for a man. Women hold only 12% of the world’s Board seats and earn 77% of what men earn. I’m sure you didn’t need these figures to realise that the issue we are discussing today is real. Feminists blame the lack of support from companies and society, while books like Lean In and the talk that I attended try to encourage women to change themselves and behave in certain ways in order to climb the corporate ladder.

Yes, I agree that women are generally at a natural disadvantage in the corporate world. To begin with, as there are more male leaders, they are more likely to favour male subordinates, whether in terms of opportunities or promotions. Subconsciously, most of us have a natural bias towards people who are similar to us so being able to discuss football with our bosses could be a big help. Women are also more cautious and prone to self-doubt and hence, may come across as less confident. I believe that Sandberg’s book terms this the ‘impostor syndrome’. Another reason is because women are naturally nurturing resulting in more responsibilities at home, especially when it comes to parenting. As a result, women are more likely to compromise their career in order to support their family.

Generally, women also place less importance on their career than men. For most men, while they have their hobbies and social lives, having a successful career is critical to their sense of achievement. On the other hand, women tend to place importance on a number of things and career is probably just one of them. Based on the law of averages, women tend to be less focused on work. I personally know a few women who declined promotions because they were content with their pay and did not want to take on more responsibility or manage people. I also have a few friends who chose to be stay-at-home mums despite their husbands’ encouragement to work.

These disadvantages are a result of gender differences. I once saw a documentary which showed a group of baby chimpanzees that were exposed to different toys. Pretty much all female chimps went for the dolls, while the male chose the cars and trucks. The simple fact that women are the chosen ones to bear and give birth to children is one of the key gender differences, not only because of the need to take time off work but also because of the unique bond that forms between mother and child.

I have quite a boyish personality and was occasionally mistaken as a boy when I was a teenager due to my short hair and dressing sense. I am independent and ambitious (and impatient too, if I’m being honest). I love action, horror, fantasy and sci-fi but I’m not a big fan of rom-com. Getting married and having kids were not the highlights of my life plans.

Even so, when I read ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’, the typical conflicts covered in the book were very similar to the arguments I’ve had with my husband. After becoming a mum, whether I liked it or not, my maternal instincts kicked in. Although I tell my husband to be more hands-on, my daughter generally prefers to have me around because I’m more aware and sensitive to her needs. Without intending to, my husband and I have ended up with clearly defined roles – he is the fun and active dad, while mummy gives out cuddles, food and security.

While advice to be more assertive, vocal and confident is useful towards the beginning of our career (and this is true for both genders) and women who are able and want to commit the time and energy to driving their career, it is probably less relevant for others who are not as focused on work or those like me who cannot afford to work long hours. I’m certainly not looking to take on more responsibilities and be more visible (social committee, anyone?) given that my daughter clings to me whenever I leave for work.

During the talk that I attended, senior representatives from a few companies said that it is important to have gender diversity at work. Companies want to be more supportive of women and to me, the most obvious ways of doing so are to allow flexible working hours, the ability to work from home or part time work, and yet not penalizing women for not being sat at their desks as many hours of the day.

My guess is that this is more achievable at newer industries such as tech and media but less so in traditional ones such as banking and insurance where being seen to be hard working is still very important. It may also be difficult to achieve this without coming across as unfair to other employees. This is an extreme example, but when a colleague of mine who was on maternity leave for half a year told me that she got paid a full year’s bonus (this was in the UK), that just seemed ridiculous to me.

In summary, I think that gender imbalance at work, especially at senior levels, is due to a combination of things, majority of which are borne from fundamental gender differences and social norms. Therefore, I doubt that we would see a clear shift anytime soon. Unfortunately, I still think that women can’t have it all. I don’t think that I’m being defeatist, just realistic. Maybe Sandberg’s Lean In book can change my view.  

[1] Source: Catalyst Inc.

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