Having it all as a Woman

International Women’s Day will be celebrated all around the world on 8th March 2015 – acknowledging the achievements of women and calling for greater equality. This year the theme is Make It Happen.

When women come together, support each other and believe in ourselves, we do make things happen.

We have demonstrated this since International Women’s Day was first observed in the early 1900′s and women became more vocal and active in campaigning for change. We have achieved a great deal, from better pay and voting rights, to female astronauts and prime ministers.

Yet, more than 100 years on and women are still not paid equally to men, not present in equal numbers in business or politics, and globally have a long way to go in terms of improving women’s education, health and the presence of domestic violence.

Can we really have it all?

I believe it is possible to ‘have it all’ in the sense of enjoying all aspects of one’s life and feeling fulfilled by one’s career, love life and family relationships. I believe we can play bigger, achieve more and Make it Happen - in the sense of closing the gender gap.

In order to achieve all of this we first need to recognize the following:

- We cannot make things happen if we are burning out.
- Self-care must come first (we can not put an oxygen mask on others if we are not wearing one ourselves).
- It is not possible to give 100% of one’s energy to everything simultaneously
- There is a difference between having it all and being everything to everyone.
- It is important to share responsibilities and be willing to accept help.
- Having it all does not mean ‘doing it all’.

Attempting to do it all at the same time is where many women trip themselves up.

For instance, despite recent studies indicating that the gap in employment rates between men and women (with and without children) has narrowed over the last fifteen years(1), studies also indicate that the gap in division of housework has remained largely unchanged(2). In the UK women were recently found responsible for twice as much housework as men(3), and in the USA less than 10% of working couples said that they equally shared household chores(4). This is not the only issue preventing them from advancing.

Recent research by McKinsey in the United States(5) stated that:

Young women, just like young men, start out with high ambitions. But while they never lose belief in their own abilities, they do frequently turn down advancement opportunities because of commitments outside work, risk aversion to positions that demand new skills, or a desire to stay in roles that they feel provide personal meaning. A reluctance to promote themselves is also an issue.

The corporate and political landscape is still predominantly influenced and informed by males.

It has traditionally been structured by men and therefore naturally promotes male-orientated values and behaviours. In order to succeed in male-dominated environments, women have had to demonstrate their ability to perform ‘like men’.

For several decades women have attempted to emulate men as a means to gaining equality in the workplace. While this arguably helped women progress in the past it is now hindering women from creating the careers they want for their future.

The world of work has changed significantly since the early 20th century, yet women continue to experience challenges in advancing their careers to senior leadership level. Recent global statistics show that women hold only 20% of seats in government and far less than 20% of executive officer positions and board level seats. A report issued in 2008 by the Equality and Human Rights Commission suggested that ‘at the current rate of change it would take over 70 years to achieve gender-balanced boardrooms in the UK’.

There is clear evidence that having women in leadership results in better decision-making(6).

Companies with a strong female representation at senior management level perform better than those without(7). Gender-diverse leadership groups are more able to consider issues in a rounded, holistic way and offer greater attention to detail(8).

Women think, feel and behave differently than men. These differences are what make women so valuable in leadership positions but are also ironically what prevent women from breaking through the glass ceiling, regardless of qualifications and achievements.

Women are noted as being more nurturing, empathic and responsive, whereas men are perceived to be more action-orientated and task-focused(9). It is often said that women ‘take care’ whereas men ‘take charge’(10). It is my intention to highlight this as a strength that women innately hold, rather than a stereotype that should hold women back.

The very qualities that make women great leaders need to be actively acknowledged, appreciated and encouraged at every stage of the pipeline, from entry level through to senior management.

Many of the high-achieving women I work with burn out because they feel over extended, not just in one area, but across all aspects of their lives. They don’t feel sufficiently supported either at home or in the workplace. Rather than asking or demanding the help they need, they develop ‘Superwoman Syndrome’(11) in attempt to overcome support deficiencies.

Superwoman Syndrome is not sustainable. I believe it is one of the key underlying reasons why there are currently so few women in leadership positions.

In order for women to establish themselves equally in positions of leadership the balance of values within our corporate culture needs to shift away from competitive command and control leadership towards a more collaborative, open, and authentic way of conducting business.

Instead of women being forced to choose between their family and their career, we need to find ways for women to continue contributing towards both, without being over extended, and without feeling like they need to sacrifice one in order to have the other.

For both men and women to enjoy successful careers and satisfying personal lives it is necessary for us to find new ways of supporting each other in the workplace and at home.

In doing this perhaps we can ‘be’ more fully present in all areas of our lives rather than running an uphill race to try and ‘have’ it all. Individuals and organisations both need to take action in order to make this happen.

One of the key elements in enabling women to succeed at senior level and seeing them stay there is the provision of sufficient support to allow them to devote time and attention to their families, not just their jobs.

Many women choose not to advance their careers because they value their family more than their employer does. This has to change.

Organisations need to value the contribution that women make, not just in business or politics, but to society as a whole when they are given the opportunity to be both great leaders and great mothers. It should not be about choosing to be one or the other.

When women focus on caring both for themselves and for others we can truly come together and move forward as leaders for the next generation. The change begins with every woman being the change she wants to see in the world and leading by example.

To close the leadership gap we need to shift our definition of success from money, power, and competition towards well-being and collaboration. In doing this more women will be able to access and maintain positions of power, and most importantly, be able to play their part in creating a new, more balanced and caring global community.

Here are some suggestions for how you can begin making this change for yourself:

Within your home life
- Take care of your own needs as a priority so that you can support your family from a place of plenty, rather than running on empty.
- Ask for help rather than trying to do everything by yourself.
- Have an open dialogue with your partner, family, flat mates about equal distribution of tasks around the home.
- Outsource as many routine tasks that provide you with little pleasure as possible, within your financial means.
- Lower the bar on perfectionism.
- Address feelings of guilt.
- Devote more time to be more present to the experience of your life.
- Avoid criticising other women; instead acknowledge that every woman is doing the best she can do in any given moment.
- Avoid comparing yourself to other women and indulging in self-criticism.

Within your career
- Be a shade braver when opportunities for career advancement become available. If a new role requires acquiring new skills, have greater faith in your ability to acquire them and ask for support in developing them.
- Re-establish boundaries with your workload and working hours.
- Practice saying no.
- Commit to leaving work on time.
- Take your full paid leave entitlement.
- Ask to renegotiate your salary, benefits, work setup, or workload if you feel you are not feeling satisfied with your current arrangement.
- Request career coaching.
- Attend networking events and actively seek out exciting advancement opportunities.
- Approach someone in a senior position within your organisation or via a programme like The Aspire Foundation(12) about being your mentor.
- Avoid self-criticism and criticism of other women.
- Ask for more flexible working arrangements.

Sources:

1. Report issued by Office for National Statistics, 31st March 2011, Mothers in the Labour Market http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_234036.pdf
2. Melissa A. Milkie, Sarah B.Raley, and Suzanne M. Bianchi, “Taking on the Second Shift: Time Allocations and Time Pressures of US Parents with Preschoolers”, Social Forces 88, no 2 (2009): 487-517
3. Deborah Lader, Sandra Short, and Jonathan Gershunny, The Time Use Survey, 2005: How We Spend Our Time: Amendment, ‘Table 3.5: Time Spent on Housework and Childcare as Main and Secondary Activities with Rates of Participation by Sex, 2000 and 2005′, Office for National Statistics, Crown, 2006.
4. Scott S. Hall and Shelley M. MacDermid, “A Typology of Dual Earner Marriages Based on Work and Family Arrangements”, Journal of Family and Economic Issues 30, no 3 (2009):220.
5. Women Matter: Making the Breakthrough, McKinsey 2012
6. Women on Boards, Gov.uk report, February 2011 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/31480/11-745-women-on-boards.pdf
7. Women Matter 1012: Making the Breakthrough, McKinsey & Company
8. Government Equalities Office, conducted by Ipsos MORi, sample of 1,071 adults in Great Britain aged 16+. 20-24 February 2010, published 11 March 2010. (59% of those surveyed believe that single-sex senior management teams were more likely to think the same way and so make poor decisions and 61% believed that businesses are losing out on talent by having fewer women in senior roles).
9. Do Men and Women Lead Differently? Who’s Better? 23rd March 2010, Ronald E Riggio, Cutting Edge Leadership: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cutting-edge-leadership/201003/do-men-and-women-lead-differently-whos-better
10. Women Take Care, Men Take Charge: Stereotyping of US Business Leaders Exposed, 19th October 2005, Catalyst Study, Knowledge Center: http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-take-care-men-take-charge-stereotyping-us-business-leaders-exposed
11. Superwoman Syndrome is the term being used to describe women who struggle to ‘be all things to all people’. Linda Ellis Eastman, ed., Overcoming the Superwoman Syndrome (Prospect, KY: Professional Woman Publishing, 2007).
12. http://www.aspirewomen.co.uk

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