In college, Professor Lynn Davidman, taught me that you can’t simply “add women and stir.” The concept was simple. If you add a new ingredient to a dish, the flavor of the dish – and often the dish itself – completely changes. If you add women to organizations, roles, and communities that have been created by and for men, the very nature of these things change both in small ways and big ways.
In the hullabaloo following AnnMarie Slaughter’s provocative and thoughtful article, “Why Women Can’t Have it All,” men and women have been debating the concept of “having it all,” lamenting on feminism and women’s choices, discussing work-family balance, and noting the absence of economic status in many of the discussions about women and work.
Personally, I have two observations relevant to this debate.
1. Each time women achieve a new level of power and influence in the professional world, we move to a deeper – and often contentious – process of redefining our main societal structures: work, home/family, and community. If women grounded the family and wove community, we can’t expect family and community to look the same when women enter the workforce. We can’t expect foreign service to look the same when a woman becomes secretary of state, when women like Anne-Marie Slaughter have big powerful jobs.
2. American culture, built on the best and worst aspects of capitalism, places a high value on work and professional achievement – often above everything else. This is true for men and women of all backgrounds and economic statuses. We care about where people work, how much they work, and believe that work defines us as humans. Until 40 years ago, the workplace was primarily a man’s domain. This is now shifting dramatically, which is pushing the conversation about “work-life balance” and “having it all,” both of which are not women’s issues, but American issues.
So of course, in my never ending practicality and driver-like nature, I immediately go to what we can do to address these dynamics and push new thinking at an individual and organizational level. Or how can we all be radical feminists in everyday life?
Praise results, balance, and well-roundedness
Just a few weeks ago, I overheard someone boasting about how people on his team stayed late at the office. Rarely do I hear managers boast about the extracurricular pursuits of their employees. “Wow, John is awesome at his job, and part of the reason is that he spends so much time biking and reading novels!”. Ironically, there is evidence that taking breaks from a constant work mode actually increases productivity at work. Tony Schwartz found that people are fully engaged at work when their four basic needs are met: sustainability (physical), security (emotional); self-expression (mental) and significance (spiritual). By praising people who exercise, spend time with the people they love (not their colleagues), and take time out to find meaning in their lives, we are actually encouraging people to be more productive at their jobs.
Answer a different question when asked “So, what do you do?”
I have been trying to regularly answer this question with more than my job title. I’m a senior manager at a nonprofit, a volunteer, a mom, and a writer. I’m a jokester, a reader, and an introvert. Work certainly plays a role but it doesn’t have to be the whole thing. Don’t let work define you, and encourage others to talk about their interests and passions outside of work.
Male or female, lead by example
Stop sending work emails to your direct reports at odd hours. Is it REALLY that important? Your direct reports follow your lead, and think that there is an expectation to do what you do. Instead, save the draft and send it the next morning. Or be explicit that you don’t expect a response. Make people take their vacation and strongly encourage parental leave for moms and dads alike. Take your own vacation. There are a handful of people who truly deal with life or death emergencies at work, but most of us don’t, so let’s stop acting like it.
What are the things that you can do to change culture and gender norms in the work place? Do these things make you a feminist?