The rise of the Supermums

As we have successfully completed our Written Declaration campaign (yesss!) and are eagerly anticipating a decision about the 2014 European year, we have more time to read. These past weeks there was quite a lot of buzz about some working-mums, and it only feels natural to have a say about it too.

Yes, many discussions were triggered by two pieces of news. One was about Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, who in February took a decision, and banned telecommuting (this is working from home, for us non-techy people) at Yahoo, reasoning, that Yahoo as a company, and the employees as a team will be more productive, when working together at the office – all the time. Now, this decision may be debated by business experts, whether it really will, or won’t improve efficiency, but the news were not so much focused on this (unpopular) decision, but about Mayer’s profile. Moving on from Google, she took on the job at the helm of Yahoo when she was 5 months pregnant, and returned to work after 2 weeks maternity leave. In addition, she converted the next-door office into a nursery for her baby – a privilege not available to other Yahoo employees.

Sheryl Sandberg is the COO at Facebook, and also the first and only woman to sit on its board. (Curiously, Sandberg also started her career at Google). She caused quite some media attention last week when her book: Lean In – Women, Work and the Will to Lead came out.

“[Women] are pulling back when they ought to be leaning in.” Sandberg doesn’t want women to lean back, but to lean in, go after their ambitions, and grab the opportunities. She sais in her interview on Good Morning America, that if men succeed they know it was them, but if women achieve something, they believe it’s help from others. Really?

In all fairness Sandberg, mum of two kids also sais, that in order for more women to sit at the Board room tables, more men need to be sitting at the kitchen table. Fair enough, we are also saying, that gender equality is just as much a men’s issue. Sure, if there are 10 seats on a company Board, for 4 women to be sitting at the table (40%), 4 men need to give up this privilege. Are they willing to?

What would make a real difference is when “women’s issues” are recognised as issues that concern both men and women, and they are also rooted in the needs of children

One thing I noticed was the fervent comments below these and other articles from women and men. The opinions are split, some women hail these top corporate American leaders as the new feminists, who will lead other women to the top, others feel very negatively, that they cannot speak on behalf of women, as they had such a privileged education and lucky career breaks, not even mentioning the millions of dollars they earn, that this makes them not legitimate representatives of all women. It must be said, both of these women worked extremely hard to get where they are, but interestingly both are working in high-tech companies, a sector that is also known for embracing an innovative working and organisational culture.

So, what do we think about all this? Firstly, I have to say, it seems our 2014 campaign is bang in the middle of a wave of public talk about work-life balance, both from companies, as well as from policy makers. So this is good.

However truth is, that the overwhelming majority of women simply couldn’t apply their success formula to their lives. A waitress, a nurse, a teacher could not work from home, doesn’t have their money to afford help for childcare and household, and does not have the same career path as an opportunity. Having a degree from Harvard comes as a package with self-confidence and is pre-packaged with a voice to speak up. A teacher could become a head-teacher, the director of a school, then perhaps obtain a position in the local council as education secretary, or go on to become minister for education. And my guess is, even the minister for education in any country would not have the salary, or privileges these two women have. But simply, most of the jobs are not geared towards great leaps and bounds, but simply, getting the work done.

In her 2010 TED talk Sandberg mentions an interesting data: the correlation between success and likeability. Success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. And likeability is correlated to trustworthiness, to respect and credibility. This is something for all of us to think about.

In any case, I am very grateful for these public discussions, because they make us very aware, that whatever we do, we cannot start preaching to women about how they should organise their lives, and get to the top. What we need is the involvement of everyone, policy and employers, employees and carers, to design the way we want to work in the future.

What we know for certain, is that by creating more diversity in the decision making, bringing in more female values and approaches, the entire society can benefit, and more female involvement has been proven to be beneficial also to the bottom lines.

We know from Future Work by Alison Maitland and Peter Thomson, for instance, the numerous examples of how productivity goes up once technology and flexibility and trust in employees are successfully combined so that people can work from home in hours that suit them – even part-time! – and still climb the ladder.

We know that without affordable, available, high-quality childcare and care options for other dependants, this process is not going to get off the ground.

So let’s sit together and discuss: what would work for women and men, to have a successful and fulfilling work-life, a rewarding and fulfilling family life, and even have time for fun, sports, leisure and the much needed private life.

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