Gender balance is a relationship issue first
I have thought for the longest time that gender balance is a relationship issue - here's why.
I recently coached an ambitious woman in an international, Brussels based organisation. She is the main family revenue generator and is enjoying early career success. We talked about freeing up some time to network in the early evening. She told me with a smile, that "she was “lucky” because her partner “helped” her with their baby and household chores." I asked her to consider the question whether gender balance is also a relationship issue, which also affects gender balanced parenting. They split domestic tasks 60% (her) 40% (him.) I know he works from home for most of the day.
Gender balance is a relationship issue before a workplace one
It raised some interesting points. We very often think that women’s toughest negotiations are with their bosses. But I have wondered for the longest time if gender balance, is really relationship issue at the core. It is within relationships and families, that gender expectations can slide back into default setting.
Research from JUMP and Axiom consulting, which bears out my on anecdotal observations, that very often these traditional gender expectations return when men hit their early to mid 30s, when they become openly resistant to gender equality in the workplace. In Belgium women spend 10 hours a week longer than the men on unpaid work of household chores and childcare. That is a whopping 3 weeks a year! In many homes women assume 80% of household responsibilities.
Re-defining parenting expectations
I loathe the phrase "working" or "career mum" and will continue to do so until we hear the words “working or career dad.” Both men and women are penalized when they don’t stick to prescribed gender roles. A stay at home dad is likely to get as much flak as the C-suite Mum. I know some couples who don’t share the information that dad doesn’t work outside the home, because of the impact this would have on the husband’s male relationships. A small amount of non-disruptive child care is viewed indulgently by all within organisations (the daddy factor) but anything more is considered to be career suicide for men often times called the “mommy track”.
Lieghanne Levensaler, SVP Products in the Women in Tech panel at HRWorldTech said that women are now asking what Workday is like as an employer for mothers. It will be great when fathers ask the same question.
Naomi Bloom, tech sector veteran, in the same session, suggested that it really takes a village to support a working woman. Women who have achieved career success need enormous support that facilitates all the situations that come with a senior role. Late meetings and networking events, dinners, early morning starts and travel. Sheryl Sandberg said that "The most important career choice a woman can make is a choice of partner." In many ways she is right.
One other major factor is that women have to let go of their role of CDO (Chief Domestic Officer). Many don’t like to relinquish control to someone else - whether a partner, family member or external employee. When it comes to gender balance in relationships and in parenting women can be as responsible for adhering to gender expectations. The other issue is the guilt. This comes from within, but also imposed by other women. This is an experience that men do not go through. If a woman scoots into the school play by the skin of her teeth, she is judged. If the father does it - it’s cute because he made an effort. Until we tackle societies double standard expectations of each parents role, we will see even fewer gender balanced relationships.
So although it makes sense for businesses to promote women to senior levels and all the big data supports that is what should happen from a P & L perspective, it has still not happened. There are lots of reasons for that. One of them has to be our continued gender expectations about how both women and men behave not just inside the workplace, but also within their own relationships and homes. We are still not challenging, let alone changing, those expectations for both men and women alike. When they step outside traditional and stereotypical roles both genders experience blow back.
Stereotyping habits sets in early. We raise boys to be high energy and bold and girls to be gentle and collaborative. From the earliest age their self-images form differently as they are subliminally encouraged down different paths, culturally and academically. A woman’s career is chosen for her long before she dons her first power suit. This year, happily, super hero Halloween costumes outstripped princess costumes for girls. Maybe female roles in children’s cartoons will eventually have the same amount of speech as a male role. Hopefully our fairy princesses will have physics and chemistry degrees rather than magical powers and cinched waists.
What gender balance means
Gender balance in relationships isn’t just about equal split of household chores. Gender balanced parenting doesn't mean exactly 50/50 childcare duties. It is about redefining gender expectations and letting go the penalties we impose when men and women, boys and girls step out of their pre-defined boxes. Both men and women should be given the freedom to be carers and nurturers, or assertive revenue generators or a combination of both. Maybe at different times, or even at the same time. It shouldn’t matter.
Women’s issue are a misnomer
So-called women's issues affect all of us, men and women equally. Women’s issues are not about women. They are usually about families, as Hillary Clinton said. The ideal place to start would be would be to get out of the antiquated thinking where women are assigned child care and homemaking roles. This has to happen not just professionally but in the context of our individual relationships. We have to start looking at the possibility is that gender balance is a relationship issue before it becomes an organisational challenge.
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