Globe & Mail, January 14, 2005
Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.
I frequently receive e-mails from women asking about whether it is possible to work for an organization and still feel good about themselves.
Twenty years ago, when I first conducted research, this was a significant problem for women, who felt like they had to become somebody else in order to be successful.
So what, if anything, has changed in the intervening two decades?
To try to take a measure, I recently sent out an e-mail survey to about 800 women. I received more than 250 responses from women ranging in age from 24 to 67 and representing a wide range of occupational positions -- from seasoned executives to early-career professionals to small business owners to independents.
Judging from their responses, not much has changed in those two decades. Many women still feel the pangs of trying to fit in.
This was not a scientific survey. Nevertheless, the answers to the questions -- which covered the range from whether women feel they can be both authentic and successful in corporations to what challenges they face and whether things have improved -- are consistent with the research literature, my personal observations and other data I have collected over many years.
If I had to summarize the key theme that emerged, it would be this: Most organizations are built by men for men.
This is not male-bashing but rather a recognition that the dominant cultural values of organizations are still largely male, and that the rhythms of organizational life still run largely counter to women's needs and interpersonal styles.
A tough, live-and-die-by-the-numbers culture.
Women are essentially relational beings. They seek to connect with others on an emotional level and develop caring relationships. As one survey respondent commented: "I want to relate to my colleagues as people. I am as interested in what happens to an individual as I am to the company's welfare."
But because of intense productivity pressures and "a no time to waste" mentality, according to another respondent's description, women say that there is also no time to get to know or value colleagues on a personal level. "We work in teams, but it's in name only," complained a marketing specialist. "You come together, do your thing, then move on to the next project."
Many respondents said they want to have a relationship beyond the strictly task-focused. They said they care about getting results -- but they care just as much about how the work gets done as what gets done.
Others said values -- lean and mean -- were out of whack. "The atmosphere is Darwinian in most organizations, and go counter to female personalities with their intense competitiveness," said one e-mail reply.
What these women want are kinder, more caring work environments. They don't want to be seen as units of productivity, rather than human beings.
Always feeling torn.
Many of the women expressed frustration at always being torn between doing work at a desired level of quality and having the time to meet life's other commitments.
As one management trainer said: "I have this constant shouting match in my head . . . work . . . family . . . work . . . family."
Yes, men also complain about a lack of work-life balance and care about spending quality time with their families. But I have never had a man ask me -- as women frequently do -- how I managed to have both a career and a family.
The obvious reason is that women are still the primary caregivers. The less obvious reason is that women think and care about a host of more subtle things related to the welfare of others and, when there is a problem in one area of life, it spills into other areas.
It would be much rarer, for example, to hear a man say "Sorry, my mind just drifted off. I'm a bit depressed today because my daughter is having trouble with her teacher" than it would be a woman.
Nor do many men deal in the same way with the gut-wrenching career-family choice. Sure, they feel the conflict but you won't find many having never-ending interior dialogues about guilt and choices.
Needing to modify their personalities to fit in.
To be successful, women believe they have to do more role-playing than men. They still struggle with being seen as feminine but not soft, decisive but not aggressive or bitchy. Desired behaviours, as women experience them, are male.
In that, apparently not much has changed since the work I did in the early eighties. Women still have to constantly engage in what social psychologists call impression management. A vice-president of human resources put it this way: "I want to exercise leadership and do it in a nurturing, caring way. And then I know someone is going to call me on being too touchy-feely."
Okay, guys. I know you will say that you want to be authentic and that organizations also pose demands on you in how you express yourself.
But think of it this way: Have you ever attended a workshop that teaches you how to use your voice, how to dress or how to use your hands -- with the female style being the gold standard? Have you been told to have emotion in your voice, show your curves, use your hands to emphasize a point?
Have you ever read a book with a title something like Why Boring Men Don't Get the Corner Office: 50 Ways You Can Shine Like a Woman in the Boardroom and Still Win Like a Man at Home.
Welcome to the world of women.
Lack of will to actually practise espoused beliefs and policy.
One woman wrote that her boss spends his day trumpeting work-life balance but hired a woman who had e-mailed him throughout her labour. "Well, she sure is a hard worker," he chirped.
I think I have written something like the following sentence a thousand times over the past 10 years: Although managers may talk about respecting and promoting work-life balance, they do not walk the talk.
Women still say they need to work harder, take more risks and be more exceptional if they want to have a big career.
"It's not one big thing where you have to prove yourself. It's in everything you do from the big to the small," one public relations specialist said.
"If you are working in a mostly male environment, you have to be always out there, always out performing everyone else."
Female-friendly organizations exist but they are few and far between.
It's very difficult to find female-friendly organizations; in fact, about 60 per cent of the respondents called it impossible.
Their advice to other women: Know what is really important to you. Be very selective. Ask demanding questions of potential bosses and employers. When you do find a great employer and/or boss, value them.
Over all, women are most happily employed in environments where there are females in senior positions. The presence of women not only provides role models but an overall feminizing influence also can change the tenor of organizations.
"When I worked in a predominantly female environment and my boss and boss's boss were women, as well as the hard work, there was laughter," wrote back one leadership specialist. "We were supported for contributing to the community; the bonds between staffers were strong."
But when the women were replaced by men after a restructuring, "the visceral feel of the culture totally changed. What had been a joyous nurturing environment was no longer. . . Maybe my perceptions come from what I had lost," she said.
If you want to be happy, seek self-employment.
About 80 per cent of respondents said this is the best work option for women.
In fact, I was actually surprised by the large number of women in senior organizational roles who said something like: "If I could pursue this option, I would be out of here in a moment."
Although many cited flexibility as one big benefit of working for themselves, several also commented that it was only in self-employment that they felt they could express their authentic selves and create a work environment in tune with personal values.
"In organizations, we work in teams, so it is the collective that is valued. But it mutes your voice as a human being, and I think women have a stronger need for self-expression," wrote one younger woman.
Women aren't sitting still.
I also asked the question "Are you in transition?" Most women answered "yes" or "always."
Most of them were employed in organizations, many at senior levels. Some said they are actively looking for a new job. Many said they are looking into self-employment options. The reasons: all the ones already discussed. As well, some simply said it was time to move on and test themselves in new arenas.
Although it's true that this wasn't a scientific survey, it did reveal that women haven't come as far as they might have hoped. The glass ceiling has been cracked and it's easier to have a career and aspire to the big job -- sort of -- than it was before.
But who wants it? Work environments now are less congenial and civil than they were. The contemporary pace of business and the lean-mean culture make many women today feel that what they value is not valued. And work demands make it more difficult to manage the boundaries between career and personal lives. So women are still forced to choose.
All this provides an important lesson for companies. Organizations without the feminizing influence of senior women will become even less hospitable to other women. Unless companies change workload expectations, the tenor and rhythms of their cultures and practice what they preach, they may suffer the exodus of abundantly talented, mid-career women. Given the coming skills shortage, that would be tragic.