Women and getting ahead in business

Just had an anonymous comment on an old post.

The commenter said:

“Honey, you must be very young. It’s not just about how hard you work. The ole’ boy’s network is alive and well – you just haven’t reached a high enough level in the corporate hierarchy to see it yet. “

The comment is welcome on several levels:

1) I love being told I’m young (more people should tell me that), which probably reveals that I’m older than the commenter thinks.

2) I have worked as a senior executive in large corporations for quite a few years.

3) Many of my female friends are senior executives, ‘C’ level executives or board directors. Many of the women I mentor are aspiring to those roles.

My personal history is instructive because it does not fit the ‘normal’ pattern of how you get ahead in the corporate world. I was born into a poor family and lived in a socio-economically deprived part of the city; I also have attention deficit disorder together with some learning difficulties. When I finally did get to university I dropped out in third year to assist my four younger siblings when my parents died. I had to go out and get a job. Without a completed degree the only option available was an entry level clerical job, and I watched other people with better educations and less personal responsibilities zoom past me. Over the years I worked hard and smart to get promoted and eventually I got to parity with those peers who had zoomed past me. Then I started to go past some of those peers, they had not been working as hard or remaining as focused (i.e. they went home while I stayed at the office). But the important thing is that I found something I had a passion for, and that makes it easy to stay focused. With a thirst for knowledge in my area I became the go-to person in that area. Eventually I went back to university and studied while I held down a C level job in a major corporation, finally obtaining a masters degree in business. Along the way I was also Chairman and President of a number of industry and professional associations.

Over the years in corporate life there are a few things I have learned:

  • There are only a few top jobs in each company, and those that get them are those who have no other life. You need to be dedicated, focused and committed. There are very few people in top jobs who have not put in 12 hour days for many years. Fair or not, work life balance does not get you to the top in business (not yet anyway).
  • Nobody is going to just offer you these top jobs; you have to go for them. You need to put up your hand for tough assignments and get noticed.
  • You need to work out what the networks are in the organization and link into them. In one company the power network was the smokers who used to go downstairs and stand outside for a smoke. I did not smoke so I used to grab a coffee and stand with them while I drank it (ensuring never to stand down wind of them).
  • You need to take risks and show the powers that be that you are the solution to some of their problems. I have always worked on the ‘no surprises’ principle for my boss and other stakeholders, and have always been the provider of solutions rather than just pointing out problems.
  • You will never get ahead if you leave it to chance. It is important to work out what you want to achieve and the steps necessary to achieve it. A plan is a good and useful thing.
  • You will meet people of ill will, it is important to get used to this and to develop your own strategies for dealing with them. Sometimes those people of ill will and your boss will be one and the same. The options are: stay and manage the person and situation, cry and be a victim, or vote with your feet.

On the whole, I am tired of the woman as victim theme. Women have choices, lots more than men in many cases. Many men also do not get ahead in business. The men that I know who got ahead have all worked longer and harder than their peers, have networked more ferociously, and have become well respected in their specialty area. The case is precisely the same for the women who have been successful. One thing I know for sure, none of these successful people sat around whingeing that nobody was giving them a chance. They set the agenda, took the risks and showed why they should be given more opportunities.

IWD: International Women’s Day & the IT industry

What a surprise- another year of women complaining that there are not enough women in the IT industry! We get the token female CEO or CIO to talk at our IWD lunches & we all shake our heads in horror that there are not more women in the industry.

Why aren’t there more women in the IT industry?

Perhaps because to get a start you have to do an IT or computer science degree with a bunch of pointy headed male nerds? (Now that I’ve spent a significant number of years at work with nerds I’m glad I spent my undergrad days with a bunch of male philosophers instead.)

Perhaps because most entry level IT jobs have terrible hours and a lot of weekend work? When was the last time we did a code drop or network upgrade during daylight hours on a weekday?

Perhaps because men still do not think women can do hands on techie stuff or use tools? And this in spite of many of having our own power tools these days (I’ve got a really good set of powered and non powered tools & my male partner is not allowed near them).

Perhaps because women still do not think that they are capable of doing technical things? Come on Moms, when did you last encourage your daughter to pull her computer apart?

Perhaps because in many ways it is a grungy job? How many girls want to crawl around and play with hardware when they could dress up nicely and wear high heels. Let’s face it, after 12+ years of school clothes most girls want a nice dress, some makeup & a nice pair of shoes to wear to work – not jeans and a screwdriver.

I don’t know why there are so few women in IT. But here are a few reasons I am still working in IT:

  1. I am not very sensitive, tend to ignore other people and just do what I want – so even when people tried to deflect me from working in IT I just ignored them.
  2. I know how men think and act because 4 out of 5 children in my family had penises (this helps if you have to work with men – which many of us do).
  3. I like playing with technology and am not afraid of either software or hardware. My personal observation in the workplace is that many men will give things a go while women hang back waiting for an invitation. Not many women were building web pages for the heck of it like the guys in the IT department when the web came in.
  4. I take a lot of initiative and make myself useful – it is harder for people to get rid of good performers of any gender.

Some researchers attribute the low rates of female participation in IT to women unfriendly workplaces. Face up to it, workplaces are not just women unfriendly they are PEOPLE unfriendly. If women do not want to participate in the work then they cannot change the workplaces from outside. More women have to want to work in IT, if women do not want to do this work then they will vote with their feet. Just like they are doing now. I’m just not sure how we can change this.

First education in Feminism

This is a story from my undergraduate days in one of Australia’s *sandstone universities.

In the philosophy department there had been a split between the ‘old fashioned’ philosophers (called “Trad & Mod Philosophy”, i.e. the logicians), and the ‘modern’ philosophers (called “General Philosophy”, i.e. the feminists, Marxists, etc.) I chose courses in the General Philosophy department, mainly because there were no exams in General Philsophy, all assessment was by way of essays.

One of my foundation moments in the department of General Philosophy was to enter the tutorial room for the first session in the course Feminisim 1A (for those with no previous studies in feminism).

To set the scene it is important to know that I was fresh out of 6 years in an all girls college, had long hair, and was wearing casual jeans and a little makeup. That is, I looked like a fairly normal female freshman student.

Entering the old sandstone part of the university, I climbed to a small oddly shaped room in the one of the corners of the quadrangle building. The room was all dark wood and, incongruously, beanbags. Already ensconced in the beanbags were some older female students, they all had very short hair and were wearing work overalls with singlets underneath. Each was engaged in rolling a cigarette with one hand. They looked at me and immediately became hostile, asking where I was from and what right did I have to be here studying feminism since I obviously shaved my legs and armpits and was wearing makeup. I replied something along the lines that external factors like that did not make you a feminist or not, and sat down in a beanbag to wait for the tutor to arrive. They became even more hostile and stood over me saying that people like me did not count and should not be allowed to take this class. Sadly enough, being much less assertive in those days, I decided that feminism was not the course for me.

Many years later a good friend, a stalwart of the 1960’s and 1970’s feminist movements, gave me the following advice: “Beware of the hoods in the sisterhood”

It is good advice, if only I had known it as an undergraduate. Now I would be glad to have someone bully me like those women in the feminism tutorial room – but bullies like that don’t attack people like me, they attack those unable to defend themselves.

This experience shows that we need to arm our young women against bullies wherever they find them, and also that we need to let them know about the ‘hoods in the sisterhood’.

*Sandstone universities: In Australia there is effectively a 2 tier university system, there are 8 older more established universities that have sandstone buildings and reputations for research (the eight are: The University of Adelaide, The Australian National University, The University of Melbourne, Monash University, The University of New South Wales, The University of Queensland, The University of Sydney, The University of Western Australia). This is in contrast to the newer universities with no sandstone buildings and lower reputations for research, often these newer universities were upgraded Colleges of Advanced Education in the 1980’s Dawkin’s “reforms”. It must be noted that several of the non-sandstone universities have reputations for excellence in certain areas, however this cannot be held true for all of them.

What is it with Baby Boomer Women?

More food for thought from Ally about women, men & feminism

As Ally notes, “What too many women do not understand is just how privileged we truly are – especially in today’s climate in the free world. We are not caged by our womb – we are given abilities and boundaries that are broader than men will ever have. We can choose to have children – or not to have them. A man has to nail down a willing female. We can choose to work, or stay at home with our children – not only is it socially abnormal for a man to stay home (that is, outside of the current norms), psychologically, it is hard for many men to accept that role due to their own instinctual male needs.”

I’ve just finished reading a book called When Work Doesn’t Work Anymore – Women, Work & Identity by Elizabeth Perle McKenna (ISBN: 0671856006). This book is a passionate diatribe outlining (as per the back cover blurb), “the unliveable bargain women have made in order to have meaningful work in a world whose rules are still designed for men”.

This book looks at what are termed ‘hidden trade-offs, submerged values and outdated premises that keep the workplace from working for women”.

Reading this book really annoyed me! And I was vociferous about my annoyance, which did disturb the televisual enjoyment of my partner.

The forces discussed in this book are actually the same for men & women if they want to make the same life choices, for example taking time out of the work force for child care. The book failed to distinguish between the results of lifestyle choices and the results of gender discrimination.

Gender discrimination does remain a fact in some places. But now inequity in the workplace tends to result from lifestyle choices. The fact remains that people who work longer hours tend to move up the food chain more readily than those who do not. And, people who run companies sacrifice very large parts of their personal lives to do so.

McKenna also talks about women being passed over for promotion, as if men are rarely passed over for promotion.

Her perspective is one that I am familiar with. It is the perspective of yet another whiney baby boomer who thought they could have it all, and who has just realised that they cannot have it all. In the end one must assign values to the alternatives that we each face in life, then make decisions based on what seems right to us at the time.

Women in the western world live a very privileged life. No one wants to kill us to preserve family honour if we go out with the wrong guy, nobody wants to perform female circumcision on us, we eat well, and we can do pretty much any work we care to. Yet there remains an ongoing stream of woman as victim stuff coming out. In the west women do not have to be victims for the most part unless they choose to do so.

Baby boomers seem to feel that they are entitled to things that are actually impossible to achieve. This has appears to have made some of them a bit grumpy in their middle age.

Strange thoughts on women & men …

According to Yvonne Roberts, society has not shaken off stereotypes of mothers, homemakers or tarts :

“It is striking how a number of recent events have revealed the enduring power of traditional stereotypes – not least the bad girl and the good mother, now defined by the Vatican as showing the traits of “listening, welcoming, humility, fruitfulness, praise and waiting”. The bad girl is, for instance, the underlying theme of the sagas around the sex lives of the famous, such as England football manager Sven-Goran Eriksson. The idea is that it’s natural for men to want to have their cake and eat it, while women are invariably cast as the tarts.”
Source: “Why a man can’t see the other woman“, Sydney Morning Herald, August 4, 2004

Hmmm, of course there are no negative stereotypes associated with men. That’s why they are so happy that they are killing themselves at a higher rate than women (suicide has been a commoner cause of male death than road crashes since about 1990, see here for report).

Then later Yvonne comments :

“Women, against the odds, are attempting to balance autonomy and dependence; self-fulfilment with a desire and obligation to care for others. In the present climate, as hurdle after hurdle remain in their way, they are encouraged to blame themselves – instead of examining how and why the hurdles were constructed in the first place.”

Funny way of thinking – is the assumption here that men do not do this too?

I am annoyed by this article – again portraying women as victims. In reality, all people have problems balancing autonomy and connectedness, self-centred desire and obligation to care for others. As Freud explained so well, we all face these dilemmas. They are part of the human condition.

Stereotypes too are part of the human condition. Jung wrote of the power of archetypes in human life. The power of archetypes can be a driving force for good or evil in a society. It all comes down to what individuals do.

Deeds, or what we actually do with our lives in spite of the human dilemmas and stereoptypes are important. As George Eliot (1819 – 1880) put it

“Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds.”

Women’s magazines

During my review of newstand women’s magazines it has become clear that there are only 3 things of interest to women:

1) looking sexy
2) food – both eating and cooking thereof
3) creating ‘lovely’ living spaces

This must mean that women who do not have an interest in any of these things must be unnatural.

Well where does this leave me? Perhaps that New Scientist magazine has to go?

More on Women, housework & the 21st century

My post the other day on this topic revealed my complete ignorance of house & home magazines (this deficiency in my reading was kindly pointed out in a recent comment). I have rushed to the store to get hold of a bunch of womens’ magazines and have been reading them with a critical eye for ‘housework mania‘ inducing words and imagery.

Well I must confess I had not realised how pervasive the imagery of good housekeeping was in these magazines. I usually read New Scientist, Time, Business Review Weekly etc. – they do not have many pictures of lovely sparkling clean houses with lots of well placed nick-nacks. But these other magazines certainly do! They have it in spades. In fact the spaces not already occupied by the other 2 key items (food-challenged models & very nice looking food) are occupied by little pictorial features on how to improve the home.

Then my searches took me to the internet, where I found the FLYladywhere visitors are greeted with:

‘Are YOU living in CHAOS (Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome) like Franny in the pink sweats? Do you feel overwhelmed, overextended, and overdrawn? Hopeless and you don’t know where to start? Don’t worry friend, we’ve been there, too. Step through the door and follow FlyLady as she weaves her way through housecleaning and organizing tips with homespun humor, daily musings about life and love, the Sidetracked Home Executives (SHE™) system, and anything else that is on her mind.

Now this site does not even seem to glimpse the oppression that covers this whole area of housework like a miasma (or a fog in a really bad 1950s horror movie).

More on the humorous side is the Bad Mothers Club – subtitled ‘In the aisle by the chill cabinets, no-one can hear you scream.’ This site at least recognises that some of this stuff is not important. There are also some good tips on time management (e.g. put the kids in their school clothes before bed as this saves a lot of time in the morning – I might even try this one for work?)

Women, housework & the 21st century

It is astonishing that many women in the west still seem to be obsessed with housework and cleaning in spite of the advances women have made in the past 100 years.

A recent series of visits to various online women’s groups (that are ostensibly about something else) showed a focus, in an almost unhealthy way, upon housework. Many of the women in these groups express sincere distress at not feeling able to cope with housework or to perform it to a level they see as ‘normal‘.

There is something wrong here. There are bigger things in the world than worrying if your lounge room or kitchen are clean.

What’s the real story?

Is this a form of internalized oppression?

The great maternity leave debate

I do not have children, nor do I plan to reproduce – so I suppose you could say I have no skin in this particular game. But I’ve been thinking about the debates around maternity leave and the low birthrate that have occurred recently in Australia.

The key problem does not actually seem to be paid maternity leave for a number of weeks after the birth, rather it seems to be the fact that one must support the child for at least 18 years after the birth. Nowadays there are few women who do not have to return to work to support their families. Given this situation it seems to me that the real problem is not maternity leave, instead it is the lack of cheap and available childcare.

The solution to this problem is obvious! The government should provide childcare on the same basis as it does school education. It should be a universal right in this country. Since many women (and men) would like to have children this would support a rise in the birth rate by removing a key impediment to child rearing. I must admit I would prefer my taxes go to universal childcare than to some other things.

Men, Women and Lifesteyle Choices

Women in the western world are actually very lucky in many ways. Now there are so many choices for women – education, full time career, part time work, family, no family, travel, etc.

But for men there does not seem to be so many choices. Many women of my acquaintance have decided to take career breaks, to leave work and raise a family, to work part time and pursue a hobby or education.

However, amongst the men of my acquaintance those who make similar ‘lifestyle’ choices are in the minority. Instead men seem to have a linear set of options: get an education, get a job, perhaps have a family, retire, die.

The multiplicity of ‘lifestyle’ options seems to be passing many of them by. I wonder why?