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Self fulfilment or socialisation?

Women’s role in the workplace seems to be constantly in the news in one guise or another – whether it’s glass ceilings, equal pay, lack of representation at board level or last week, the debate about women Bishops.  I believe we all have a role in asking ourselves what’s going on and what else can be done... here are some of my reflections and some challenging questions I’m asking myself...Things have undoubtedly improved – pay differentials are lower and there are more women in top positions.  Furthermore, research tells us that women have many strengths that are well suited to the modern workplace – collaboration, flexibility, willingness to learn.  However, data also shows that on average, women are less confident and have lower career ambitions.  This lower confidence and ambition can be self fulfilling – making women less likely to apply for promotions and thereby avoiding challenges which could build confidence. But there is a real danger in talking in terms of norms and statistics – everyone has a different story. 

Some stories do illustrate discrimination and lost opportunity for both the employer and the employee.  Other narratives show women’s success, overcoming the potential challenges and working as senior members of organisational teams.  I think there is also a third story – it’s a story I share with lots of other people – a conscious choice for what will give the greatest fulfilment.   

I left corporate life when I was 31.  I had enjoyed challenging and exciting roles and was heading a functional team, I felt I had plenty of opportunities to continue my career progression if that was what I wanted.  However, I wanted more - more variety, flexibility, opportunity to work on things I found really interesting.  I also wanted less of pointless meetings, petty politics and a sense that we weren’t moving as fast as we could.  The easiest route to get what I wanted was to start working for myself – I was making a conscious choice to increase my fulfilment.  I made the right choice for me.  Others exercise this choice by limiting their career progression (not wanting to play ‘the game’), and seeking their fulfilment outside work. But in reflecting on the choice, I can see it raises some interesting questions – questions that are important for our understanding of the debate on women and work:

Was my choice a real expression of freedom, or was I socialised to be uninterested in a traditional career?
Would a man have felt he had the same freedom to choose, to effectively opt out of corporate life?
Could an organisation have found a way to satisfy what I wanted and retain me as an employee?
Could role models or training have helped me to see a different future for myself?
How can we learn from the stories of real women – adding depth to what the statistics tell us?

Written by Maggi Evans

Comments on this Post

Philip Lindsay on 29th January 2013

'Opt out' - isn't that an interesting expression? Doesn't it trigger negative connotations (which, I guess, could also be a function of how we are socialised to 'fit in' or...not!). A review of my own career shows that, after 14 years in corporates, I decided to go 'independent' (1989) and for a number of reasons - those being (and not necessarily in order of importance): - I could not endure standing up during another train journey into London - I was uninterested in the job content of the next level up (albeit that the rewards were highly attractive) - I had been told several times during my career that I couldn't be (or present myself as being) 'who I am' and still get promoted - but I'd stay employed - basically I liked 'me' and had a degree or arrogance about being independent. Therefore, the decision to stay within a corporate structure or 'opt out' into independence was driven by largely whimsical (i.e. non-commercial) and somewhat arrogant notions - given that 'capability' was accepted internally and not a job threat. While there may be a need to change the expression of reasons and conditions quoted above to meet your circumstances, I really wonder whether there are will be any substantive differences between professional women and men in terms of what drives their career choices )e.g. to stay within corporates or go independent). But what about the differences between men and women seeking success in corporate life? While some glass ceilings for women may still be there, there are cracks - and there are more conscious considerations of women's contributions and needs. But is there concerted action to look towards mens' needs now (e.g. paternity leave)? I'm less sure about this - what surveys on working conditions do you see asking for 'men only' suggestions? Precious few, I suggest. I believe that 'men' are not currently on the political agenda - and, in correcting itself, maybe the pendulum has swung too far.

Trisha Cochrane on 21st January 2013

Some good questions Maggi. It seems to me that most men don't have a choice: socialised themselves into being the 'bread-winner' and therefore (for most?) not able to opt out of corporate life. I've felt extremely lucky that I too was able to opt for a flexible career. However, I don't feel I made very informed choices, so I would very much have liked some role models and coaching/training to help me think about the reality of the 'choices' I was making. For my female friends still working in corporate life, more flexibility from their employers has indeed helped them both to survive and thrive. But it seems not enough employers do offer these opportunities. On the one hand they are undertaking all sorts of initiatives to encourage women up the corporate ladder, but not making their working conditions flexible enough for those who are parents or for those who simply want to have more of a balance. I would love to hear from the men who have made similar choices to opt out of corporate life - what was your experience?

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