A balancing act

The media, government and large organisations talk a lot about gender equality at senior and executive levels. The media can’t get enough of the ‘glass ceiling’ and organisations seem to continually be introducing new initiatives to encourage and support women to take on leadership positions.

One of the initiatives that is particularly targeted towards this is the introduction of flexible working, which allows employees to work when they want and where they want. Although flexible working is wonderful and has many benefits for employee well-being, productivity and engagement, in order to truly achieve gender equality we need to start looking beyond flexible working options and examine our performance expectations and the ubiquitous culture of ‘face time’.

Sheryl Sandberg argued in Lean In that women need to back themselves, stay focused and committed, and find a partner who will support their career. Sandberg offers some great advice, but in doing so she also demonstrates how much time and dedication it takes to get to an executive level of a large organisation. Although Sandberg doesn’t argue that all women should ‘lean in’, she also doesn’t challenge the demanding work culture of these big organisations. Most women who ‘lean out’ make a rational decision because they are not willing to sacrifice a fulfilling personal life to meet the demands of their work. The fact that a decision needs to be made whether to lean in or lean out demonstrates how the burden for achieving gender equality is being placed on individual women, not on our organisations.

At senior levels in public and private companies, leaders and executives are required to work long days and ‘balance’ their work and personal lives by logging on to email late at night or on Sunday mornings. Although these flexible options may enable a parent to put their child to bed at night, it also leads to a blurring of the boundary between work and personal life and provides less chance to recover and disconnect from work.

Even with the flexible and supportive policies, workers with fewer commitments outside work are more easily able to put in a few extra hours and many workplaces still have unwritten expectations that employees are constantly available and must be willing to work overtime when required. Senior and executive leaders, and those aspiring towards these positions, sacrifice personal and family time for work every day. However, many Australians — both male and female — are not prepared to make these sacrifices. And rightly so. Workers should not have to make a decision between a fulfilling personal life and a fulfilling work-life.

We need to start breaking down the bias towards employees who prioritise work over a fulfilling personal life. Constant connection to emails may still be a temptation for ambitious and energetic employees, but responding to emails at all hours or always doing overtime does not make an employee productive, innovative or hard-working, and it definitely doesn’t make someone more deserving of being an executive leader.

So why do we continue to reward it?

If we fix the characteristics of workplaces that force women and men to make a choice between a fulfilling career and a fulfilling personal life then we will be well on the way to an equal representation of both genders at senior and executive levels.