Is Anatomy Destiny at Work?

This past Tuesday was Equal Pay Day, Rosie the Rivetera day commemorating the point at which the average working woman matches the average working man’s salary for the prior year. Yes, it takes one year, three months and a few days for the average US woman to make what the average US man makes annually.

Equal Pay Day is meant to stress a point: in aggregate, women do not receive the same compensation as men. This is due to a host of factors ranging from number of hours worked to job type to the impact of career breaks, or slow-downs, on overall compensation growth. Even in a renowned family-friendly country like Sweden, taking slightly over one year off for family leave dramatically curtails future career progression. It’s ironic to learn such limitations exist in a country frequently cited as a paradise for working women.

Regardless, the reality of modern working life is this: for all the advances made by women in education, employee development, promotion and workplace diversity, the traditional work world is based on a male model of success. It’s a model analogous to the Catholic Church’s edict that those wanting a religious life (read “high powered career”) cannot be equally devoted to family. In the Church’s case, the religious life cannot include a family life at all. In many ways, the old-school male model of corporate/professional success is a variation on this theme: work above all, man-sized.

Such a model colors every aspect of work life. Take the way in which professionals display their bona fides. A professional has career cred if he or she is described as tough, driven, single-minded. A “serious” professional woman shows her cred in ways that are beyond question. A “serious” professional man shows these qualities as well but the difference between them is the cultural assumption that she doesn’t possess them naturally. They must be learned and displayed clearly. Even the language we use in business betrays an imbalance of masculine-feminine energy, as I noted in a prior blog.

So in this work world model, what happens to the woman who wants a senior role but doesn’t embody a tough, driven and single-minded persona? What if her natural style is comforting, methodical and multi-faceted, or worse yet, nurturing, service-oriented and primarily focused on people? Would she be steered toward pink collar jobs because it’s assumed she can’t compete elsewhere?

In all honesty, given our current model, she doesn’t have a lot of choices. The prevailing business model was originally constructed to support a gender-based division of labor, and even though today both genders find themselves either wanting to work or having to work for economic reasons the model remains essentially the same. It hasn’t adjusted over time, which means that both women and men feel the pinch of squeezing into constrictive types. In the long run, businesses will feel the pinch, too. Models become stale over time and eventually outlive their usefulness. More importantly, they fail to see the rust forming on them. Right now, we’ve got a very rusty model.

Frank Bruni of the New York Times recently praised the professional and personal stamina of his sister while recognizing the expectations surrounding her are unique and have likely contributed to the length of her professional runway. In other words, the “condition” of being a woman carries with it a set of circumstances and subtle choices that even the woman herself can’t entirely see. Try displaying too many decidedly female attributes and you may pay a price you never realized was due. Try saying no to the Work Above All commandment for even a short period and you will be limited in the long run.

Everyday that a working woman leaves a little bit of herself at the door is a day in which her employer misses out… misses out on the fullness of her intelligence, creativity, contribution and collaboration. And when her employer misses out, we all lose something in the end.

This post was originally published in the Huffington Post on April 16, 2014. 

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