What is gender burnout?
In the last five decades women have become increasingly independent as larger numbers of talented women seek corporate careers. But a growing percentage of these women are finding the challenges, both professional and social, overwhelming. Starting with the niggle of gender fatigue, it is now morphing into full-on gender burnout.
Impact of COVID19
In times of crisis, women and girls face higher levels of impact with far reaching consequences on hard fought gains for women’s rights. Responding to the pandemic is not just about rectifying long-standing inequalities, but also about building a resilient world in the interest of everyone with women at the centre of recovery. The risk for gender burnout today is even greater in our post pandemic world.
There are a number of reasons for this gender burnout.
Women are still under represented in senior roles in all spheres of life: economic and political. Our salaries are +/-80% of our male counterparts. We still take on more than our fair share of domestic responsibilities. When women receive lower salaries, have fewer opportunities and are shown less respect for their contribution, not unsurprisingly they get fed-up. Gender burnout kicks in and they leave. It’s that simple. During confinement, women assumed an even greater proportion of household chores and child care. This suggests that they also need to negotiate gender balance within their own relationships which can be frequently harder than the workplace.
The every day challenges of dealing with male coded corporate culture takes its toll. Elisabeth Kelan, Professor of Leadership at Cranfield School of Management identified this possibility as far back as 2009 in her book Performing Gender At Work. She says:
In fact, gender discrimination still happens, but it happens underneath the surface – it’s much more subtle.
#Second generation discrimination
Professional women are in a double bind when they are compared to a masculine ideal. Rooted deep in our histories, around physical strength, the reasons that this leadership ideal came into being has long been out dated by technology and automation. What we should be seeing is the gradual development of new norms in our corporate cultures for measuring success and the ideal worker. But we are not.
New benchmarks favour those who are willing to work long hours and be constantly available. 24/7 availability is the latest alpha badge of honour. The presence culture has become the new major discriminator against women and even some men. Because most women still assume primary responsibility for child and home care, it hits them harder.
Kerstin, Finance Manager in a leading pharmaceutical company says “I work in a company that has an official commitment to gender balance and diversity. I am luckier than most. But every day I have to make conscious decisions and take specific actions to position myself, self-advocate and handle benevolent sexism, that it’s just tiring. I have thought about leaving but I have only just finished paying off my student debts and would like to buy an apartment. I fantasize about being able to go to work and just… be!”
Strong demands are being made for organisations to change their corporate culture from the top down, to achieve true gender balance and gender bilingualism. But this can take years. Indira Nooyi, CEO or Pepsi, estimated one to two decades to achieve this. Other executives have come out with figures of 4-10 years. The World Economic Forum suggests 117 years for parity to be reached organically. This means that women who seek a corporate career, need far more grit and resilience than their male counterparts.
Despite the fact that projections for a working life are now extended to 67 or 70, critical career decisions are still being made when an employee is in his/her 30s. This can be a difficult time for women.
But sometimes the pressures are not just professional. While talented women join the workforce very often the pressures and challenges can personal and social.
Portia, works for an Investment Bank as a Fund Manager. “I’m 34, in a relationship, though single and very aware that my biological clock is ticking. I feel huge pressure to stay fit, look good, dress well and keep my figure. I’m not sure that my current boyfriend is someone who I want to have children with. So do I drift along or get back on the dating scene? I know it sounds neurotic, but most of my single women friends feel the same.”
In a time of declining populations when by 2030 it is estimated that there will only be 1 worker to support every senior, economies need women to have children for the very sustainability of our populations. In Japan the number of people 20-29, has dropped by 30% according to the World Bank since 2000. Yet governments are slow to tackle this issue world-wide.
Against the odds an increased numbers of women are now promoted into upper level management and executive positions. But only in relatively small percentages in comparison to the total number of women in the workforce. With more role models gender-biased perceptions and stereotypes as well as workplace practices should, in theory begin to slowly disappear. Women are not the only agents of future change as they seek to involve men. Professor Kathleen Gerson, author of The Unfinished Revolution, comments on what should be a now outdated struggle. She finds that while an overwhelming majority of young men and women see an egalitarian balance within committed relationships as the ideal:
Today’s social and economic realities remain based on conventional–and now obsolete–distinctions between bread-winning and care taking
She hoped in that a new generation which she calls “children of the gender revolution,” will be unrestricted by rigid gender roles, and they want a workplace that can provide that. But in 5 years it doesn’t look as if much is changing. Research from JUMP and Axion Consulting ” Do men want equality at work?” highlights that there seems to be a sticking point with corporate men either via passive resistance or apathy.
Pace of change too slow
It was always hoped that the experiences of this generation will shape the workplace into a place where the unique qualities of women will no longer be devalued and discriminated, but instead will be respected and embraced. Sadly there are signs that this isn’t happening. Even in organisations with advanced policies and training programmes the needle isn’t moving. Maybe even for them gender burnout is already kicking in. One way to deal with this is institutionally by relating gender balance to KPIs, with bonuses set to reflect and reward efforts for diversity. We have seen this recently with Microsoft and other organisations as their initiatives are changing the gender balance equation at a slower rate than was hoped for.
And so women tired of, or overwhelmed by workplace sexism and domestic responsibility overload, leave the workforce with gender burnout. Organisations are still characterised what is being called the “Missing Middle”.
And it’s not just women who are tiring of the expectations and stereotyping that are out of touch. Men too are experiencing gender burnout. As Sheryl Sandburg said: “I look forward to the day when half our homes are run by men and half our companies and institutions are run by women. When that happens, it won’t just mean happier women and families; it will mean more successful businesses and better lives for us all.”
The question is what should be done to change that?
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