Can We Achieve Balance?
April has seen a greater focus on the role of women, thanks to International Women’s Day. There has also been much controversy over Meghan Markle, centred around her role, her race and her mental health. What ever your opinion about Meghan and the choices she has made, or about the push for gender equality, it does prompt an opportunity to pause and reflect on our role in the systems we’re a part of. That’s whether you’re a man or a woman.
When someone pushes back on their role due to the impact it has on their wellbeing or other priorities, what is your initial reaction? Is it one of recognition of the strength of character it takes to reject a position of status, in favour of more personal meaning? Or do you sigh and mutter, ‘she should have known?’ I think it’s an interesting dynamic, particularly when a number of my professional friends have taken a step back down the ladder in favour of more time with their family.
The Best of Both Worlds?
And that leads me on to question the notion that we can have it all.
As many people celebrated International Women’s Day last week, the focus is back on gender equality. Almost 90% of both men and women are biased against women, according to the United Nations Development Programme Report 2020. There is a huge disparity between what people believe is the case and the stark reality, and it transpires that’s for a number of reasons.
It seems to me that, as women have become increasingly career orientated, working hard to ‘prove’ themselves as capable as their male counterparts, they continue to hold the responsibility for family and home. We have been told that we can ‘have it all’ – the ability to be top of our work game, the capacity to be an inspiring mum, and a home to be proud of. Yet, that means we are pushing ourselves beyond our limits and when the reality hits that acing all these is near-impossible, we’re left with a feeling of failure.
And that’s not just failure in the sense that we forgot to grab some apples from the grocery store. It’s a sense of failing that pervades and it can knock our self-worth and self-confidence. Even admitting this is making yourself vulnerable. In a conversation last week with an two incredibly successful women (an MBE and a business owner)… they questioned the roles they automatically assume outside of work. It seemed to be part of their identity and one that they firmly wanted to detach from themselves but to which they felt stuck.
What is the Barrier?
As Pedro Conceição, head of UNDP’s Human Development Report Office, states,
“Today, the fight about gender equality is a story of bias and prejudices.”
On one hand we might feel like we’ve made huge progress but until there is an equal playing field outside of the office, progress is going to be limited. Just the amount of information and actions that I hold onto and process throughout the day, for my family and our home, can get to the point of overload when coupled with work. And I know all about the need to limit mental load and the brain’s very limited ability to work well when holding on to too much… that’s my job!
When a male states that he is finishing early to pick up child care, he is often considered a modern man balancing responsibilities. However, how many women have the confidence to state this, guilt-free? From my experience of talking to women in the workplace, they ask only if they have to, and then with a sense of failure at not being able to juggle it all. Whether that is a reality in terms of response or our perception, it is a barrier to women being able to engage with what they feel is most important. Can we really achieve a balance that fulfils our values?
Your Driving Force
So ask yourself this, what are your values? What is important to you now? If you were knocked over by a bus tomorrow, how would you want to be remembered? Identify your priorities and place them in a list in order of what is most important. Remember, that if you fill your capacity with ‘tasks’ that don’t reward you as much as others, you won’t have the space to add the activities that really provide you a sense of fulfilment, purpose and status. If you’re a leader of women, ask them these questions.
In work, how is achievement measured? Is status about promotion/ pay/ hours? Or is it about recognising and valuing women’s contribution in a way that works for them? How is that really demonstrated or even applauded as an inspiring model? How are women motivated to get to the top of the business ladder enabled and supported to do that guilt free? When women choose to prioritise family, how are they penalised, whether in real terms or judgements? I’ve heard too many comments about stay-at-home mums lacking drive, as if bringing up the future generation is not enough.
A Different Approach
The push for gender equality in the workplace has increased the burden on women to a level that is potentially burnout territory. Excelling at one thing equates to a give in others. We know that being top of your game requires 100% commitment. World class sports people don’t gain their achievements by sharing childcare and household duties!
Gender equality is so much more than tangible aspects such as policies and company statements. We have to address the invisible power of norms that drive or block social change if we are to successfully tackle gender stereotypes, prejudices and practices that form one of the most prevalent bases of discrimination.
Here is how…
(1) The first step is to admit you’re biased. Even if you’re a woman. What views/ beliefs/ expectations do you hold onto? Are you comfortable with all these? If you’re ok with where you’re at, then great! Just keep monitoring. If there’s anything you realise doesn’t feel right for you, identify the first action you’ll take to change it. The same rule applies if you’re in a role supporting women. Admit your unconscious bias and start a conversation to take a different route.
(2) Consciously ask what the barriers are for those around you, checking out expectations as much as practicalities. We are so heavily influenced by assumptions that we need to make ourselves stop to question them. What is making up the mental load that your colleagues are carrying around? Once you’ve got a good picture, explore the list with people who influence the context try different options.
(3) Identify specific ways to challenge and actively overcome barriers. Solutions are likely to require experimentation and tweaking based on regular feedback and review. That ongoing conversation should be centred around how people feel, not just practicalities. What difference are new insights, different mindsets, alternative arrangements having?
Social norms can prevail when individuals lack the information or knowledge to act or think differently and so opportunities such as mentoring and appropriate training to acquire knowledge and skills, and provide alternative perspectives, have a great role to play. But they need to be accompanied by the right emotional support to make a real difference. Assimilating different ways of thinking about and doing things takes practice along with conscious reflection and adjustments. Effective change takes time to work it into reality and create a new norm.
(4) And remember to expect lapses. When we have been working off one set of norms for a long time, it takes time to adjust. As long as everyone is open and transparent, non-judgemental and sensitive in their communication, the process can feel a very positive one.
We also need to take responsibility to push back ourselves, for example by putting boundaries around our roles. That will be increasingly important as we continue to work from home, surrounded by tasks around the house.
Regardless of how helpful and practical your partner is, they aren’t mind readers and are unlikely to have an accurate concept of how much you hold in mind. Make a list of everything and share it. If the ‘small’ things are belittled, hand the list over and let him take control for a few days. Then review!
And don’t forget to build self-care into your day. That is about mental and physical wellbeing and far from indulgent, it is a basic necessity if you are going to equip yourself to deal with the challenges that come with different roles. The neuroscience behind organising your day to increase mental capacity and boost performance is clear. It’s a win-win.
A Hybrid Model
True gender diversity and inclusion can only be achieved when the emotional load and demands outside of work are also equal. We need to break down the barriers to engaging so that we can benefit from all that women provide in the workplace. When we get people right, we get business right.
Re-aligning roles and the structure of our day has to become the new norm but that requires a complete shift in mindset. We have to provide the necessary opportunities for quality connection, collaboration and flexibility that enable ALL employees to achieve what they want. That is a leadership responsibility.
We need to dig deeper into what women really want, what they believe is achievable and at what cost or benefit to themselves. Do we really want it all or do we want acceptance that being less than ‘perfect’ in each of our roles is good enough if the balance feels right for us? I’ve had to adjust, running my company whilst finishing some days at 3pm to be a mum. It’s a compromise, but for me, that works.
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If you’d like to continue this conversation please get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.