What women (and men) want

Written by
Christine Armstrong, Author

02 Mar 2020

02 Mar 2020 • by Christine Armstrong, Author

Perhaps your ‘women problem’ isn’t about women and isn’t the real problem, suggests Christine Armstrong, author of The Mother of All Jobs: how to have children and a career and stay sane(ish)

We’ve tried everything to improve our gender representation and pay gap, and nothing has worked,” says the stressed asset manager on the phone. “We don’t know what to do.” She talks through the ‘everything’ (although you may be able to guess).

Her company set a 2020 target for senior women and missed it, appointed a diversity and inclusion manager and announced it in the annual report, created a ‘women’s group’, extended parental leave and brought in external support for the transition to parenting (“but only the women take it up”). 

They also provided coaching and mentoring for some women, introduced a flex policy that a few junior women are using, and invited some inspiring speakers into the office. Their numbers did not move. This has now become an urgent issue as they’ve committed to investing in companies that have positive senior gender balance. 

None of this is unusual. Two other businesses recently confided that they had to scrub their 2020 targets off their websites and hope they’d gone unnoticed. A team leader noted that if they’d only looked at their pipeline they would have known the targets were impossible to achieve. 

People want to do a good job and then stop

I question the asset manager about her company’s working practices and she describes a high-pressure, long-hours, always-on culture, where work and home lives intrude on each other constantly. Little has been done to understand how people want to work. 

This is short-sighted because, when you dig into what both men and women really think, you’ll find the difference between how they want to work is minimal. Many male employees are desperate to work more efficiently but fear saying so will damage their prospects. People who value their relationships, hobbies, caring roles, mental wellbeing or free time want to do a good job and then stop.

YouGov data reveals that 51% of workers in the UK report feeling exhaustion or burnout in their current jobs. Yet The Economistreports that the average British worker is productive for just 2.5 hours a day. These numbers represent hundreds of thousands of tired and frustrated people who feel they cannot be honest about their desire to work differently. 

Instead, the issue shows up in the women who leave their jobs, especially after having children. Most simply accept that working culture is the way it is. They (rather than the men) tend to leave because it is more socially acceptable for women to step back from their professional job. 

Many men are not happy with the status quo

Framing this as ‘a women’s issue’ assumes men are happy with the status quo. But many feel that their household depends on them working this way and that there is no alternative. They admit to resenting colleagues, for example from dual-income households, who have a better work-life balance. 

A new dad in a large consultancy sums up the issue perfectly: “My wife works at a bank. My long days make it more unlikely that she will stay in her role. For women to do better and be more senior, men have to work differently too.” 

This isn’t a women’s problem, it’s an hours problem. It impacts men, women, productivity, retention and the ability of businesses to thrive. If you don’t believe me, start asking your team when no one else is listening. 

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