May 1, 2017

What really needs to change (to achieve parity)

A couple of years ago I was invited to speak by one of the Fortune 500 companies at its headquarter in Jakarta on International Women’s Day. I was invited to share about my work in Wangsa Jelita on women empowerment, why I think it matters, and how the core idea can be implemented, especially by big corporations.

I still remember that I really had a great time as the discussion was really engaging, the questions were excellent, and I even ended up making friends with some people whom I just met on the day.

And I remember what also interesting at the time was when they played a video of employees congratulating their female colleagues on this International Women’s Day. Some gave very sweet remarks, some others made some internal jokes. I personally thought that the idea of the video was very thoughtful. I could see clearly everyone who watched it enjoyed it. However, there was one thing that left me feeling a little uncomfortable. There was a comment made by one of the managers. I cannot recall the exact words but basically it was an encouragement for the single women in the company to delay their marriages, because once they are married their careers would most likely reach a plateau. It was told in a joking manner and yet as explicit as that.

I remember I turned to one female employee sitting next to me and asked what she thought of it. And she said that, I quote, there’s “some truths” in the statement. Some questions immediately popped in my head; is there ever any similar comment directed to the male colleagues—that they should delay their marriages if they do not want their careers to stuck? By extension, does this make men more favorable than women? I did not ask the fellow female colleague further questions on that day, but I did ask some HR friends after that. And my takeaway from some discussions with all of them was that once women get married, they are more likely to be expected to be homemakers rather than to be career women. And when they are faced with a decision that makes them have to choose one, the expectations of them choosing the former is way too heavier. (Only then I finally got what the female employee said that there are “some truths” in the statement.)

A bit of tangent (but not really), just recently, I read an interesting book by Brené Brown in which she mentions about the difference between culture and strategy. She describes strategy as “the game plan” or the detailed answer to the question: “what do we want to achieve and how are we going to get there?” Meanwhile, she explains that culture is less about what we want to achieve but more about who we are. She also quotes two organizational development pioneers, Terrence Deal and Allan Kennedy that “culture is the way we do things around here.”

I like how culture and strategy are described there, and I also think that the description is helpful to better understand the question: what needs to change if we really want to achieve parity? For me, it helps highlighting where to start: Culture. Because I think it only makes sense to speak about changes once we have understood the initial condition (before changes are made), which is pretty much about who we are right now.

My favorite saying on this culture/strategy topic is of Patrick Whitesell.

In the same book, Brené Brown lists 10 questions that can help identifying what the culture of an organization is. Among those questions, I picked five which, I think, are relevant to this discussion:
  1. What behaviors are rewarded? Punished? 
  2. Where and how are people actually spending their resources (time, money, attention)? 
  3. What rules and expectations are followed, enforced, and ignored? 
  4. Do people feel safe and supported talking about how they feel and asking for what they need? 
  5. What are the sacred cows? Who is most likely to tip them? Who stands the cows back up? 
We can surely ask further and tweak the questions above to see if the culture in our organization actually aims for parity. They can be as explicit as: Do we expect less of a certain gender, especially once we know about their personal decision? Have we actually spent our resources to help both men and women to juggle their roles at work and at home? Do our employees feel comfortable in asking for help for that matter? Even better, have we reached out to them and asked how we can be of support?

I think if we are really honest in answering these questions, the answers that we get—using Brené’s word—will shed light on the darkest area, which we need to improve.

Now, I am neither married nor working in Fortune 500 companies. I may not know exactly how marriages actually affect women’s careers in the company I spoke at. But what I passionately believe is that when organizations really want to achieve parity, close the gender gap, and level their playing field, they must create the culture that does not “punish” women (and men actually) for taking commitments both inside and outside of their homes, but instead enables them to thrive and shine. Regardless.