As is fitting on Labour Day, I’d like to draw together some threads I’ve seen over the last week, all relating to work. They may not seem initially to be connected, but don’t worry – I’ll get there!!

The first came in the form of a post titled “Are Women Dissatisfied Enough?” on one of the Harvard Business Review blogs, written by Vineet Nayar. Mr. Nayar, a prominent global business leader, is concerned about the ongoing imbalance in the male/female ratio at the most senior levels in business. He wrote a post in which he essentially called for us “ladies” to step it up and get hungrier, indicating that our lack of dissatisfaction with the status quo is why it remains unchanged (and has, in fact, flatlined over the last few years).

The second was the continuing media interest in Social Media Group’s unlimited paid time off policy (a.k.a. “UPTO“). A few weeks ago, renewed curiosity landed us on the front page of the biggest paper in the country, followed by a feature on national television news. This after the initial flurry late last year when we first announced the program and saw coverage by Time Magazine Online, ABC News and a variety of other major media outlets across North America. Something about our policy (one shared by both Netflix and parts of IBM) obviously resonates with people, generating equal parts disbelief and resumes.

The third was a global study that came out last week that showed that 52% of North Americans had called in “sick” to work when they were not, at some point in the last year (an amazing 71% of Chinese workers had done so). In light of our approach to work at SMG, I was interviewed about the study (and our UPTO policy – again) on the national news.

And the fourth (yes, there is a fourth!) was this highly intelligent article by Mathew Ingram of GigaOm, asking whether structured work hours were, in fact, perhaps not something best done away with in a knowledge economy, and which also referenced SMG’s UPTO policy.

So – how people work and how happy they are about it seems to be a pretty hot topic, huh?

And here’s why I think the issue of under-representation of women at senior levels and our empowered approach to work come together. As I said in my comment on Vineet Nayar’s blog post (since voted up for by dozens of readers on the HBR blog, making it the most popular comment so far) I’m not so sure that the gender imbalance is actually the kind of problem we think it is. Men and women have equal intellectual potential and capacity to work hard. 51% of the population is female, and a corresponding number of women make up the average university/college population. So women have the capacity, skills and numbers to be wherever they want to be. And yet – they are not proportionally represented at the most senior levels.

You know what? I think the issue may, in fact, be that, individually, when push comes to shove, many women simply don’t want to be at senior levels, especially once they take a look at the sacrifices required, especially in environments where visible hours at work are somehow counted as indicators of skill, commitment and aptitude (as opposed to a lack of a balanced life, the inability to work efficiently and, frankly, sucking up).

In other words – most workplaces are doing it wrong. With an over-focus on process vs. results (“Did you stay later than anyone in your department last night?” vs. “That was one of the most creative solutions I have ever seen!”) they are alienating at least half of the population (if not more) – a population that is very economically mobile, has significant options when it comes to subsistence income and is one of the fastest-growing groups of entrepreneurs on earth.

So – is it you, or is it us? As 19th-century workforms meet 21st century reality, is the issue not perhaps a lack of opportunity, but rather changing expectations and expanding freedom to choose that account for inequality at the senior-most levels? Could it actually be that women are too smart to take those senior roles? Might it be that what corporate America is selling, women are not buying?

I would love to hear what you think!

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6 Comments

  1. Jaime Woo

    Interesting post, Maggie!

    Nayar is off in spades placing the blame on women for not moving ahead, especially since he neglects the existing bias towards men in the top rungs of the corporate ladder. Similarly, I think your post hints at that—essentially the old boys club mentality keeps the ratio tipped towards men than women.

    I’d certainly like to think that women are proactively choosing alternatives but lean towards the bleaker reality that many able women are being intimidated and subtly being told they don’t belong, hence staying away.

    I like the idea of dismantling the status quo because it allows fresh blood to enter—an exorcism of sorts—and hopes it brings along a fairer representation.

  2. Richard Warzecha

    Great viewpoint!

    I’m not sure I’ve properly digested everything you’re saying, but I’ll still try to put it another way.

    We shouldn’t be looking at strictly the percentages of each gender at senior levels. Rather, a more telling metric would be, for each gender, whether they feel they can achieve the level they WANT in their organization.

  3. Alexander Plump

    What most people tend to forget (or ignore) is the definitive different nature of men and women – God made and wants us to be different!

    However we should be equal, but we are definately not the same… ;)

  4. Maggie Fox Author

    First, I’d like to thank you for your comments, and second – I’d like to point out that so far, all of the comments are from men! How very interesting (and encouraging!)

    @Alexander – I want to make sure that we understand each other. I”m not saying that women are different, but rather that they are making different choices. Not sure what God has to do with that, but to each his own.

    Thanks again for your great comments!

  5. Great post. Setting aside the gender issue for a moment, you bring up a topic that I think needs greater discussion. Accomplishment and “climbing the corporate ladder” are often mutually exclusive. I have worked in companies, where focus was put on accomplishments and tangible success. In other companies I saw many people lose focus of that and instead become professional… well professionals, dedicated their efforts in to chasing a title, rather that accomplishing anything. A bit of a throwback to the beginnings of the white collar worker, and perhaps an ideal whose time has run out?

  6. themcinerney

    @Maggie Fox- I love this post. Insightful. Awesome. Thought provoking. Applied along side other theories on gender discrepancies in business, I think this fits quite perfectly into the equation. I especially like that you’re theorizing the difference at least partially, as female choice and not solely as discrimination. Nice to see that kind of power shift suggested. Maybe we can own that?

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