As Anne-Marie learned, the majority of women at the top of their fields who have children also have husbands who have put their own careers on the back burner and taken on the role of “lead” parent. In other words, today’s female leaders didn’t get to where they are with a partner whose job was equally demanding; they got where they are because they, like generations of male leaders before them, have someone at home caring for the needs of the family.
So, when it comes to rising to a leadership position, we’ve got the same dynamic, just opposite genders in the roles of primary breadwinner and primary parent. I passionately want to have more gender equality at the top, but is a gender role reversal of the same broken system really the goal?
And there’s another issue: If the women who are currently in leadership positions followed the same paths that men have followed for years, how can they fully understand the demands on those mothers in the middle who might want to get to the top but don’t have husbands who are willing or able to step back? The current batch of women in leadership succeeded despite the challenges that women face in the workplace, which means they figured out how to play it like a man. Given that the system worked for them, are they truly motivated to change it? Or, do they suffer a hidden “bootstrap” mentality that has them secretly harboring a resistance to changing the status quo? Do they think, “I figured it out. Why can’t you?”
Even if these leaders want to make change, they are often the only women at their level. It is likely they truly are committed to changing the workplace to make it more family- and female-friendly, but because they are the lone voice in the room, their ideas and concerns aren’t given full due.
We are finally beginning to see research that reveals that having women at the top does make the workplace more hospitable for the women below them For example, a 2015 industry-wide study conducted by The 3% Movement,82 a company dedicated to increasing the number of women in advertising, revealed that in agencies with more than 25 percent women in creative leadership, the mid-level and junior-level female creative talent had greater job satisfaction, higher pay, and less hostile working environments, and were assigned more exciting and rewarding creative work.
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That’s great news for women in general, but what about mothers in particular? Looking more closely at the data from The 3% Movement, it turns out only 38 percent of women who responded had children. That’s a whopping 42 percent lower than the national average of American women who are mothers and 10 percent lower than the number of American mothers who work full-time. We don’t know if having women in leadership actually helps mothers in the advertising industry, but we do know that the majority of women leave the agency world during those intense child-rearing and childbearing years. Do they leave because the environment is hostile to mothers? Did the lack of female leaders who were also mothers convince women below them that it couldn’t be done? It was true for me all those years ago, and my guess is that it is true for many women in the industry today.
We see the same issues in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) careers where over 60 percent of women leave the field during their thirties and early forties. We like to blame pay inequity, hostile work environments, conscious and unconscious bias, but it doesn’t take much to put two and two together. Women in STEM (like women in many other male-dominated professions) are leaving right during those intense children-bearing and child-rearing years. Do they all really lack ambition?
Which brings us back to the original point. The leaky pipeline is a significant problem. When highly qualified women leave the workforce, we lose the very women who are motivated to make change for others because they understand how challenging it is to integrate work and family obligations.
So, let me be clear: Of course we want more women in leadership. But if it means the women who get there don’t have the personal motivation or the institutional support to create inclusive cultures, then nothing will really change for working families. As Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote in her book,83 “It’s easier for employers to marginalize an issue if they label it a ‘women’s problem’ A women’s problem is an individual issue, not a company-wide problem”
What we really need is the right people at the top. We need leaders who are committed to making the workplace work for families so that men who want to care for their children or women who want to care for their parents or mothers who want to (or have to) care for both have the flexibility to do so without risking their careers and their financial well-being.
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