The New World of Work – Utopia for Women?

Our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers fought hard for us. The equalities gained by the feminist movement have resulted in a steady rise in the proportion of women working in the UK; 70% at the last count.

However, all is not rosy in the world of work for women. There are pay iniquities that can’t be explained by lifestyle or career choice and it is still relatively easy to argue the existence of a ‘glass ceiling’ in many industries. Even more concerning, since 2007, there has been a decline in women holding top directorial positions and there are fewer female MPs, cabinet members, health service and local authority chief executives, senior police officers and judges and heads of professional bodies.

One of the unforeseen consequences of the changes that have taken place over the last century is that the macro and micro economies, right down to each family, now rely on women working. And although we have won the fight and the right to our careers, we haven’t overcome our biology. Those of us who have kids mostly find ourselves running the house and family whether we have paid jobs or not. Women who don’t have kids either don’t know what’s going to hit them or may have made a positive choice to focus on their career only.

I don’t think many of us would really want to go back to how things were. But how do we go about making things better? And what does ‘better’ look like anyway?

The New World of Work potentially offers great opportunities for the working woman. Here are some great reasons why we should be optimistic:

Because new technology makes it easier for women to work

I know a lot of women. Most of us are aged between 35-45 and are therefore early-mid Gen X. Virtually all of us have young families. Some of us ‘work’, some of us don’t. (And by the way, when I use the term ‘work’, I do so for simplicity’s sake).

My experience is that the mothers that do work generally wish they could work less but don’t want to give up altogether. The ones that don’t work are generally looking for a way to get back into the workplace but struggle to find something that fits around the family. And we are lucky enough to live in an area where mostly there is no financial necessity for both partners to work – at least not one in the sense that both parents really have to work to cover the basics of housing costs, food and clothing. Where there is a real necessity and pressure to work, the luxury of choice about the kind of work is reduced further, and I’m guessing that resentment and stress levels build.

A few of us have found a way of working that is flexible and fun. Mostly it is technology that allows us to do this – our iPhones and Blackberrys mean we can keep in touch even if we are on the touchline or hanging around at pick-up time. Unbelievably effective and affordable personal hardware, fast broadband and sharing solutions like Dropbox mean we can be just as efficient (often more) out of the office as in. It would have been difficult to achieve this even 5 years ago. And maybe some of it is that we have reached a point in our lives where sufficiently fed up with the alternative and financially able to take the risk and the leap.

Technology is a tool that allows us to be flexible. This means it’s especially great for women. But we have to work to understand it and right now, we have to be prepared either to strike out on our own or push our employers for it. The latter is harder. We may have to wait a bit for our employers’ cultures to catch up with our needs, but technology will open up the doors for more of us to work in a way we want, not just the lucky few.

Because Gen X and Gen Y value work-life balance

‘Work-life balance’ was first coined as a term in the late 1970s by The Working Mother’s Association in the UK. We are over 40 years on now, and whilst there have been many ‘nods’ in the right direction, there are few companies that have truly committed to delivering this balance. It is simply not an operating value of the Silent and Boomer generations, and in fact the ambition and consumerism of the Boomers, along with the rise of feminism and rejection of ‘traditional’ female roles produced an unprecedented ethic of long working hours. Generation X has reacted against this culture and demands more flexibility in the workplace and a ‘right’ to a life outside. As this generation has risen up the corporate ladder, it has begun to implement life-friendly policies. The upcoming Gen Y’s will EXPECT it. In order to prosper, companies will need to recognize this and engage with the expectations of their employees; which will make it easier for women, as we won’t be asking for ‘special treatment’ any more….

Because the economy needs women to work

Research by Gosta Esping-Andersen, a Danish academic, calculates that 15 new jobs are created for every 100 women that works. These tend to be in childcare, cleaning and other support services, so, jobs for other women. If this is correct, then the ability for an economy to grow with fewer women in the workforce is going to be hampered. And in the next few years, we really need our economies to grow!

Arguably, the more flexibility in hours, the less ‘support services’ will be needed by the working woman – but what is true is that the more people are earning, the more wealth and jobs are generated. And the facts are that businesses profit from women McKinsey’s 2010 report “Women Matter” found that companies with a higher proportion of women executives and increased gender diversity have better financial performance. Advances in technology and the change in generational values will create the conditions to make it easier for women to work; Governments and businesses will add their support through economic necessity.

But…

There are other issues that are more intractable. Actually, it’s one issue that won’t ever go away – what does a women choose when she starts a family? Younger Gen X’s are reaching this milestone now. Generation Y are independent, well-educated and confident, but already feeling the pressure of constant achievement. Here are my thoughts on why maybe the New World of Work won’t necessarily mean Utopia for women!

Hazy barriers between work and home life can be stressful
And here’s the rub….

If we are all working flexibly, when are we not actually at work? There is always something more to do, so instead of leaving it behind in the office at 5.30, how do we justify not fitting it in this evening? Or Saturday morning? Have we just swapped our old guilt for a new one – now it’s when we’re not sitting at our laptop rather than when we are?

Getting to grips with this takes quite a bit of adjusting to for my generation. It may well come naturally to Generation Y and Z. I hope it does, as there is a massive opportunity for them to make the new world of work succeed for them and their families.

The next few years may be the ones when we find out if ‘having it all’ really is possible for the majority of women or whether it’s just actually, in the end, easier to make a choice.

I don’t think it’s going to make any difference to our place in the Boardroom

My generation’s right to have a career was hard-won, and on the whole, we didn’t feel we had (or needed) an option – of course we would have a career! Firstly, we wanted to continue to have fun and who else was going to pay for this? We weren’t about to get married in our teens and our parents strong work ethic meant they had no patience for us loitering around. Secondly, I’m not sure we thought much about it anyway – it was just what we did, the culture of the times.

Things changed when we did finally marry and have kids and it got just too hard to juggle, let alone work the punishing hours required to make it to a seat on the Board. Lord Davies recently reported that in 2010 women made up only 12.5% of the members of the corporate boards of FTSE 100 companies. Meanwhile, You Gov research contained within Cristina Odone’s paper “What Women Want” reported that a whopping 31% of mothers would rather not work at all. What hope for improvement?

Our Gen Y and Gen Z kids have seen us struggle with balancing work and parenting. They have a choice that we didn’t really have – not to build a corporate career directed at achieving a high-flying role (or perhaps even work – the worrying impression from the media is that marrying a rich husband has once again become a career option…). Technological advances make starting up an entrepreneurial business a real and relatively inexpensive option now – many young women will prefer this route. And all the cultural changes within organizations in the world will not take away the ambition of those who are prepared and able to put in the hours to achieve their goal. They will mostly be men, because that is the way of the world.

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