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October National Work and Family Month -- It's Always About the Culture

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Do you want to have equality in your parenting and household management? No prizes for guessing, but its grounded in the family cultures you came from and the one you're creating now. What about company work flexibility practices that are stated as policy on the outside but rarely happen on the inside, or least not consistently? Culture again. What about having a country that can wrap its collective head around non-linear, non-hierarchical, post-industrial age work practices, acknowledging human capital as human beings? It's always about the culture.

I spent a day this week with Working Mother Media, at the Working Mother Best 100 Companies Work Life Congress in New York. Attendees were predominantly from the HR and Diversity departments of the Top 100 themselves, as well as many other interested organizations. We encouragingly traded ideas and inspiration on how to bring more women forward into senior management. And of course, how to "do it all".

Working Mothers Have Led the Way

Whilst I have always struggled with the term "working mother" (relegating as it unintentionally does, all those mothers not in paid work to the non-working category), I am deeply appreciative of what Carol Evans and her team have done over the past 25 years to advance the issues of mothers in the US workforce. Mothers in the paid workforce have led the charge for flexible work place initiatives that has produced enormous benefit to mothers in more traditional households also, as fathers take the opportunity to be more engaged in the lives of children and community. Those without children have been able to leverage workplace flexibility for further study, elder care (the burning hot issue) or simply time off the treadmill.

However, flexible work practices are still perceived as very much a women's issue. According to the recent "What Working Mothers Think" study conducted by Working Mother Media , more men actually access flexible practices. They simply don't talk about it, nor do they ask permission. They just go and do whatever it is they need to go and do. Women frame it, share it and make sure everyone is clear on exactly what time they are leaving and will be back hard at work. Again, the culture runs deep. Perhaps when women feel more able to "just go and do" flexibility will become more inculcated in organizations and less about mothers.

What About the Home Front?

There was an interesting side bar conversation that I queried in the tweet stream (#WMWorkLife) as a modicum of maternal gate-keeping. The working mother community laughed at the idea of truly shared co-parenting and co-household management. I wonder if is this sheer disbelief that partners will not take the initiative because of cultural history, or because the women around them 'write them off' as incapable. Supposition on my part, but I suggest it is a healthy mix of the two.

Organizational Culture, Or "The Way We Do Things Around Here"

When a company is chosen to be a Best 100 company for working mothers, there is always a spot of controversy and media coverage of ex-employees taking exception to a particular organization's inclusion. It usually boils down to the disconnect between stated policies and programs and the realities of implementation department by department, manager by manager. In other words, say it with me now, it's the culture. As Peter Drucker reportedly said many years ago, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast."

What to do to close the gap? I asked the panel of a discussion on the next generation of work practices, Karol Rose from FlexPaths, Barbara Adachi from Deloitte and Karen Matthews from Wellstar this exact question. The answer? Communicate, communicate, communicate. Share stories, feature employees who are making flex policies work. And train, train, train. I would add, coach, coach, coach -- training without follow up coaching has little efficacy and no measureable lasting affect. Do your home-work, ask your people what they need, not the other way around. Do you really understand what the culture is that you're trying to navigate, when you create and implement these initiatives?

There are more than enough work life policies and programs out there to make any CEO or manager's eyes glaze over in a bored fog. My challenge to the organizations trying to do something in this arena; resist the temptation to add yet another flexible policy that you know full well will not be genuinely offered all the way along the line. Do the hard strategic and cultural examination first, so that the policies and programs actually have a chance to succeed and benefit ALL of your employees, not just those with a supportive manager or who are bold enough to fight the necessary battles. Workplace flexibility has always been about efficiency, productivity and creating a nimble, crisis ready work force. It's about time we started practicing it that way. Enough with the "mommy issue".

Chrysula Winegar is a blogger, business coach and the mother of four small children who blogs at WORK. LIFE. BALANCE. on where motherhood, culture and work intersect. She is obsessed with the relationship between work and families.