I had the great fortune of growing up in a very forward-thinking, female-oriented family – with a strong-minded mother, three equally strong-minded sisters and a father who has the very greatest respect for women and what they have to offer (but then he probably had to!). It never entered my head for a second that girls were in any way ‘less’ than men or that I would ever have to fight to be ‘equal’ among them.
Gender ‘parity’ is described on the International Women’s day website as: helping women and girls achieve their ambitions, establishing gender balanced leadership, creating cultures that respect the difference between men and women and creating flexible working cultures that root out workplace gender bias.
It sounds simple on the face of it, but to achieve genuine gender parity would require a fundamental cultural shift across societies.
We would need to instill in all our children the belief that there is no difference in capability. Progress is being made in small pockets, for example where boys and girls play football in the same team at primary school and where girls are valued on merit.
As a grown-up, and a managing director of a global design consultancy, my view on women’s capabilities has not changed in the slightest.
Working in a forward-thinking marketing environment, I see the great talents and skills that women bring to the workplace every day, both in our own organisation and with the client organisations and partner organisations we work with.
As a leader at Elmwood, and a mother to two young people, I now also have an in-depth appreciation of the pressures that women face in balancing both family and work life. Particularly in an industry where the hours are often long and unsociable and where there is always a project deadline to meet.
These pressures are not to be underestimated and are one of the fundamental reasons why women haven’t achieved ‘parity’. And if we are honest with ourselves we are nowhere near achieving that goal.
While women are having children – which is to say forever – this will continue to be a huge challenge. Dads, in some areas of the world, are taking a bigger role than ever before in childcare, which is of course fantastic, but mums around the world still tend to bear the lion’s share of bringing up the children. And even when the functional tasks are more equally shared, the emotional dimensions of bringing up children largely rests with the mum – simply because that’s how it works. We have to recognise that nature’s hard wiring means that the playing field may not ever necessarily be totally level.
The solution though isn’t just about dads taking on more of the childcare because then the challenges would just rest on different shoulders. How men and women can work better together in the workplace is one challenge that needs solving – we need more female role models and we need to find ways to help park the male ego (understanding again that we are fighting against nature). But, an even bigger challenge is how family and working life can work better together so things improve for both genders of parents and of course for the children too.
And this isn’t just about women and it’s not just about parents, the same applies to any working person that has family commitments whether that’s children or ill, disabled or elderly relatives.
What we need is a fundamental overhaul of everything, starting with attitudes. We need to rethink how work and life can fit together in a way that is much more constructive for everybody.
Technology means that many of us are now able to work anywhere and for longer and longer hours (24/7 in the case of a global brand design business). Our work invades our home lives in a way that it has never been able to before. The world is always ‘On’. The way we live has changed beyond all recognition but we are still living within the confines of the old systems and to the old processes.
When you think about it most things are still exactly the same as they were thirty years ago and when there was usually a person at home to care for the family – whether that’s the hours we work, where we work, the ways of doing things, the holidays.
And, getting back to the challenges for women and parents, the education system has barely changed either – the odd addition of an after school club being the exception. I think I’m right in saying that the idea of the six-week-long school summer holiday was originally conceived so that farmers’ kids could help bring in the harvest? I’m pretty sure that when combine harvesters became common place it might have been time for a rethink of that one!
We need to re-evaluate where, when and how we work. We need to re-scope the education and care systems not just to be better for carers but for the people who experience them everyday. We need to agree what the future boundaries are between work and home life. And we definitely need more personalised work solutions. The days of ‘one-size-fits-all’ are disappearing in most other arenas, but when it comes to work it seems we all still need to fit into the one way of doing things.
So while gender parity is definitely a worthy ambition, achieving parity between life and work for me seems an equally venerable cause to fight for and one that will hopefully help kill two birds with one stone. That way everyone will be able to realise their potential. If we go some way towards this balance, then it will definitely be a case of ‘here come the girls’.
Sarah Dear is managing director of Elmwood Leeds