Sometimes I wonder if top female business executives would be better off keeping their mouths shut about the issue of women in the workplace and the challenges they face. Do they actually do more damage to the cause in trying to support it? Hell’s bells, I hate to use the word cause. It shouldn’t even be a cause. Whilst a topic remains a ‘cause’ it will never become normalised. Are high-flying business women really all that inspirational?
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, used the opportunity to talk about the gender stereotypes that are holding women back in the workplace. According to Sandberg, the more successful men get the more they are liked and the more successful women become the less they are liked. It seems that people don’t like to see women outside of their stereotypical role of wife/mother and assuming the supposedly masculine traits needed to succeed in the cut throat world of business. So unladylike!
I’m very much with Sandberg in grimacing at this unfortunate by-product of centuries of gender stereotyping. However, in the interest of openness at work (and perhaps with a misguided nod towards the ‘normalisation’ of working parents), she went on to suggest that employers should be allowed to ask their employees whether they want to have children. On this point I have to disagree with her. That’s right, one of the most personal questions you can ask someone and the answer could be scribbled down on your employment record. Perhaps the employer will also tell you openly how many doors will be shut in your face depending on the answer you give. I’m all for a climate of openness and flexibility in the working environment to help parents but I question whether Sandberg’s suggestion would genuinely benefit both parties.
Differences aside, Sandberg did use a prominent stage to champion equality for women in the workplace and for that I salute her. But here I put on my weary face. We’ve heard this a million times before from women – or, more specifically, mothers – in top jobs. These are women who have made it to the top with immense effort but – and here’s the rub – they are also women who are exceptional in some way. Exceptional can mean a whole range of things: they have voracious ambition (oops – I almost said like men), they have ninja business brains, they have made enormous sacrifices in their family life, they can afford dawn to dusk childcare, their partners have been the stay at home parent, etc, etc. The list could go on. What I am trying to say is that women who make it to the top of their career bring something extraordinary to the table that (dare I say) ‘ordinary’ women (like me) don’t or can’t. I would hazard a guess that whatever their unique quality is, it has the power to override any unfair treatment they might receive on their way up the ladder. (To be fair, the same applies to men. Not every man has, as this debate would sometimes lead us to believe, the innate ability to be a CEO just because they have different genitalia.)
Top business jobs do require an exceptionally talented candidate and when you get to such a narrow stratum of the business population is it really such a surprise that you don’t find representatives from every walk of life? Is there debate around discrimination against the unexceptional people in society? Those who are great assets to a business but cannot work until 2am in the morning? The people who say “I want to have a brilliant career and a brilliant family life in equal measure”? Perhaps we should be focussing on letting women get on with their careers and creating their own definition of success so that a woman running a multi-million pound company isn’t constantly marked out as the sole example of success in a man’s world. The women I would love to hear from are the ones who are happy, content and successful in their jobs and who have achieved a work-life balance. There are plenty of stories of women flying high because they’ve sacrificed something from their personal life or are so hard-wired to business that they started turning a profit selling tampons in the school toilets aged 11. I want to hear more from women who have achieved the Holy Grail of a perfect work-life balance – if such a thing indeed exists. That I would find inspirational.