I have a confession – I used to work in large corporates as a management consultant. When new mums came back to work and ask for part-time hours (3-4 days a week), my response was often lukewarm. I knew the demands from our clients and I knew the very competitive performance management regime and I thought they might find it hard. I have another confession – I have recently become a mum myself, and I want to go back to work 3 days a week and I’m faced with some interesting conversations of my own and I’m up against some challenging assumptions around what value can I add to a business in 3 days.
According to the BBC in a report from May 2012, women occupy on average 30.9% of the most senior positions across 11 key sectors, including business, politics and policing. Even more worryingly, according to the ‘Women on Boards’ report in 2010, women made up only 12.5% of the members of the corporate boards of FTSE 100 companies.
But there is more to this debate than part time vs full-time hours or the number of women in high profile jobs. I think we are missing some very important balancing components by talking about ‘diversity’ in traditional ways. It is something that goes to the heart of identity and societal value.
Writing back in 1984, Judi Marshall mulled on her own issues relating to women in the workplace and specifically female identity in the workplace. Most interestingly for me were her descriptions of reformist feminist thought and ‘radicalist’ feminist thought. Reformists suggest the male world of activities and characteristics are tacitly used as a positive model to which women should aspire, i.e. women end up adopting tradition male ‘rationalist’ traits. Whereas, ‘radical’ feminists, would reject using men as a model for women, and to reaffirm women’s own sense of being.
Some work I have found equally illuminating is Bakan’s work on ‘agency’ and ‘communion’ (Bakan, 1966, cited in Marshall, 1984). The ‘Agency’ side of the spectrum is an expression of independence, control and self; whilst ‘Communion’ on the other hand, is a sense of being ‘at one’, in union and cooperation. The pervasive strategy we typically see in the workplace is the agentic strategy. However, the ideal position for both work and society in general is one of balanced and complimentary use of agentic and communal strategies.
Fletcher (2001) also suggests women have a different set of skills they draw on at work such as collaboration and supportive teamwork, but these get ‘disappeared’ as they become associated with the feminine. Along similar lines as Bakan’s ‘communion’, she argues that four types of relational practice get ‘disappeared’. Attributes such as – preserving, mutual empowerment, self-achieving and creating teams – are not held in the same esteem or regard as traditional ‘male’ attributes and attributes of the traditional workplace, such as competition and control.
These writers (and others) would suggest there is something ‘feminine’ missing in the modern work paradigm which leads to an unbalanced and unhealthy work environment and distorts the way we conceptualise work and the workplace.
I see this in my own experiences of fragmented attitudes to work. You hear talk of ‘leaving part of yourself outside of work’, a lack of ‘wholeness’.
And I don’t exclude men from this equation. I think there are probably many men who feel they would like to express some of these more ‘communal’, cooperating and nurturing attributes at work. I would propose many man are equally fragmented and frustrated with the current state of affairs.
So I look back at my former self, discussing part time returns to work and wonder was I right or wrong? Part of me thinks I was right – we live in a competitive, aggressive, money making world and you won’t achieve your full potential by returning part time.
But then another part of me thinks I have missed the point. By excluding alternative work practices and alternative life experiences of collaboration, tolerance, nurture and trust (typical communal characteristics) we are fragmented. Not only do we miss the opportunity to be ourselves, be truly authentic and realise our true potential; but we also miss the chance to change the paradigm and create a new frame within which we can all work to add greater societal value in a less fragmented, more balanced and more holistic way.