Friday, January 13, 2012

Men and Women and Where We Are Now

FYI, this is not a male-bashing post...

I know to many young women that the word "Feminism" is a four-letter word. They deny that they are feminists even though they've reaped the benefits from earlier feminists in terms of choice. I am a feminist but I am not a radical feminist. I believe that men are an indispensable part of feminism and that changes taking place now will extend an olive branch to men. Here is the background on the different waves of feminism starting in the 20th century:
  • The first wave fought for and gained the right for women to vote in the early 20th century. These rights were mostly aimed at white upper class women. 
  • The second wave struggled to obtain the right for women to have access and equal opportunity to the workforce, as well as ending of legal sex discrimination. The time frame for this was the 1960s through to the 1980s and was primarily aimed at white women. 
  • The third wave of feminism (1990s and on) lacked a cohesive goal, and it is often seen as an extension of the second wave. Third-wave feminism does not have a set definition that can distinguish itself from second-wave feminism. The only differentiating factor is that the third wave of feminism included women of all racial backgrounds. 
I believe we are starting to experience the fourth wave of feminism in the 21st century. I believe women’s issues in re-entering the workforce after a career break (for maternity, elder care, disability etc), are the fourth wave of feminism. The difference between this wave and prior waves is that this wave will hold out an olive branch to men, a radical departure from the earlier days of feminism. This wave will improve working conditions not only for women but for men as well.

The kinds of programs promoting women’s interests in the workplace will eventually need to be inclusive of all facets of social and cultural equality for both men and women. The provisions that reduce barriers to workplace re-entry for women will improve the work and professional lives for both genders. The issue is that women are unlikely to make significant inroads in this area without buy-in from the most senior levels of management and the C-suite (CEO, CFO, CIO, COO etc), who are mostly male. Book after book after paper emphasize the fact that if the CEO is not actively, audibly and visibly engaged, committed and devoted to women’s issues for re-entry and retainment, any initiatives to get women to re-enter the workplace will most likely not succeed. 

A company can write all the forward-thinking Human Resources (HR) policies they like but if the corporate culture either overtly or covertly discourages these practices, then HR will have wasted a lot of time and effort on something that won’t happen. In order for this to work, men must be included, be onboard and recognize that what’s good for women, is good for men and therefore is good for the corporate culture, profitability and sustainability in terms of an educated workforce (vis-à-vis demographic shifts, both in age, immigrant availability and the underutilization of women in the workforce) going into the future. If men take advantage of the policy changes meant originally for women, the culture of the organization will change to be more accepting of women re-entering the corporate culture because it won’t be seen as special treatment for women or unfair treatment of men. 

In one information technology firm in Britain, where 80% of employees are male, the company was looking for ways to engage in retainment/re-engagement practices and to help women re-enter employment with the company. The company decided to offer flextime, parental leaves and company daycare for all employees. As a result of being able to choose the full-time hours they work, sick days fell from an average of 11 days per year per employee to an average of 3 days per year per employee. The fact that a high percentage of men were taking advantage of the flexibility, as well as the women, made it easy for the corporate culture to change (less stigma attached to flexible work arrangements and support systems) so that both men and women viewed re-entry policies favorably.

The main factors driving this fourth wave are twofold:

1. profits - studies show that having women in upper management and C-suite positions have a direct positive impact on profits, increasing by as much as 35% as compared to traditionally male upper management models

2. demographics - within this area there are two main issues that will occur in the next 5-10 years as baby boomers start to retire. This will leave large skill gaps that will be difficult to fill with fewer people in Gen X and Gen Y.
  • the cohorts following the baby boomers (Gen X & Y or the Millenials) have a different set of values than the previous generations. They are more interested in a work-life balance than their predecessors and will not be willing to give up their lives to work. They know how to set boundaries around what they want and will fight for them.
  • immigration will no longer be a reliable source of talent. The reasoning behind this are the emerging economic giants of China and India. As the middle class grows in Asia, fewer people will feel the need to immigrate to find economic success. Why leave your country, your family and your traditions if you can have a satisfying life where you are? This is more of an issue in America because immigration quotas after 9/11 were slashed but Canada and other traditional destinations for immigrants will be affected. 
So despite the economic climate now, especially in the Eurozone and America (and to a much lesser extent Canada, where good governance and strict banking regulations have produced one of the most economically stable countries in the world and the most stable banking system in the world), there will be a skills shortage in 5-10 years. How are we going to bridge this skills gap?

The answer is women. Women who have for any number of reason who have taken a career break (off-ramped) and want to return to the workforce (on-ramp). Out of the women who off-ramp, 93% want to return to work. Of those 93% only 30% actually find employment in line with their previous positions. Of those 93%, 95% would not seek re-employment with their former employer, implying a lack of support for women within that culture. Women with MBAs and degrees work part time in Walmart because much of the business world somehow thinks that taking a break means losing your mind. And if women do manage to re-enter their previous field, their earnings drop by 30% or more. This is a collosal waste of talent. Progressive companies like Deloitte, KPMG, TD Bank Group, Telus, Verizon etc have made re-engaging (and retaining) women after a break a priority. They have offered flexible solutions so that women can return to paid work. These flexible options are shared by everyone, including men, in the company.

Men and women both will benefit from initiatives to re-engage and retain women in the workplace. Men who are encouraged to take part in all the programs available to women become the biggest proponents of the initiatives.

I believe this is the fourth wave of feminism. The wave where we finally, FINALLY, acknowledge that men are a vital part of better work environments, a better world, for everyone. This is the wave where we can bring it all together. Feminism until this point has done somewhat of a disservice to women: they said that women could have it all and the "superwoman" myth came into being. Women are burnt out trying to be all things to all people. We need men to participate and benefit from all initiatives. The result will be a better, more egalitarian, world.

Women make up 51% of the population but we are nowhere near these numbers in various industries such as publishing and media, which play a large and growing part in how women are perceived and how they feel about themselves, nor are we represented in elected government positions in the numbers that would approach demographic realities. Men make up the agenda with little, if any, input from women. Our voices and our interests must be heard and heeded - it will make for a better world for everyone.

Just my two cents after doing a project for seven weeks on this subject matter.

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