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Until men are talking about having it all, women never will

Can women really can have “it” all? No, I say, until men want it too.  Media has been awash this week on this issue: former Whitehouse staffer Anne-Marie Slaughter put forward her view on why women still can’t have “it” all and had a reported one million women across the globe debating her position, why it’s irrelevant women who need “it” the most, and why stay at home parents have made the “right” choice, or why working mums have made a better one.  Women against women.  Then yesterday the NSW Minister for Woman, Pru Goward, released a report showing women in NSW don’t yet, but possibly could have it all, with better career choices.  But let’s be honest: it’s all talk, no change until the most important people in this debate get on board: our men.

For the women – in the workforce or not – and with children or not – drawn in by Slaughter’s provocative piece on why women can’t have it all, you miss the point: this article is not intended for you. You’ll make your own choices anyway.  You’ll argue your circumstances are different.  You’d do what’s right for you, as you should.

So maybe it’s not for you, but you will benefit if the leaders of our companies, governments and firms read it. And that is to say, this is a must read for the men who hold about 9 out of 10 of these positions, around the world.  So please forward this on to the men in your workplace.

These men would benefit, I say, from hearing about the challenges women face when they combine kids with their careers, the bias they come up against, the toll it has on workers both male and female when we make unrealistic demands on their time and lives, and what effect that has on their engagement at work.

With men still dominating leadership positions in business throughout the world, they have to be the starting point for setting – and changing – the worplace culture that so many women simply give up on.

The good news is I see that men are becoming more involved in the discussion – as I’ve commented today for Women in Focus.  I’m asked regularly by men “what can I do in my business to find and keep the best women”, or “I really get this, but how do I shift the needle on the advancement of women in my team?”  Some of them have daughters entering the workforce and have a vested interest in that regard; while others just see the huge costs when women walk out the door and want to address that.  In the public domain, the Male Champions program instigated by Elizabeth Broderick has been a commitment by a cohort of CEOs to focus on gender balance in their business.  All of these are encouraging signs.

Men are telling me that they value the women on their teams, and in their workplaces.  They like the skills women bring – they are educated, empathetic and have a wealth of experiences and insights that may be different or at least bring some fresh perspectives – and they frequently have a reputation for calling a spade a spade and getting in and getting the job done with less emphasis on politics and pointscoring.  It’s not to say leaders value women more than the men on their teams; but there’s certainly an increasing awareness of the difference that difference can make.

And – importantly – they are looking at gender balance through a different lens, coming at it relatively more recently than many of the female pioneers in business, so their fresh eyes and enthusiasm is quite solution oriented and certainly brings a new energy to our drive for true gender equality.  The change in corporate governance guidelines implemented by the Australian Stock Exchange – led by a male Chairman and male CEO – is an example of an initiative that is delivering real result across a broad base of companies, industries and sectors.  That can only be a good thing.

But most male leaders have a different career experience to that of women, even those women that make it to the top. Dr Terence Fitzimmons of The University of Queensland analysed men and women CEOs at the helm of listed Australian companies.  He found that the home life experience was very different: all the men had stay at home wives; while most of the women were also married – like Slaughter – to supportive partners who were actively involved at home, but who also worked full time in paid employment.  Is it any wonder that most male leaders don’t understand how critical flexible work arrangements are in a household where both parents work?  And so this knowledge gap needs to change.

Change the conversations that we’re having with men, and about women, and we just might change our workplaces for the better.

As to Slaughter’s article, who in their right mind would want it all, when it involves giving up so much.  The hours she worked in the Whitehouse are ludicrous and would exhaust anyone – a regular double shift of up to 20 hours a day, presenting in the day and reworking into the night, every night, week on week, month on month, year on year.  Notwithstanding the “family friendly” changes that Hillary Clinton brought into the State Office, reducing face time to “only” 8am-7pm in the office (but doing more at home, before and after).  Is this enough? Is this a gender balanced workplace culture? Not at all, and I’m unconvinced that many Gen X or Gen Y workers – men or women – would sign up for that.

Your thoughts?


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