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Laura Liswood Headshot

Have It All

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Much has been written and discussed about women's ability to have it all -- career, family, household responsibilities. Anne Marie Slaughter's July/August 2012 Atlantic article raised the auditory level even louder.

I recently attended a session where this issue was the main topic. At least a dozen successful women described their own life circumstances and the choices they made. It was highly personal and as my English teacher would say 'ad hominem,' or more accurately 'ad feminem.' That is, the arguments on this sensitive issue were framed by an individual's experiences which the individual believes are the determining factor.

Frequently, it is clear from the start how the discussion will go when a woman starts describing her situation and what she did after having her first or second child with reference to her career. Similarly, a man may begin the dialogue with "I have three daughters" or "My wife decided to stay home after our second child was born."

These experiences are often poignant, relevant and informative -- to a degree. Particularly with reference to the "Have It All" debate, or "Why Women Don't Make it to the Top" conversation, a person relates their own experiences, believing that is dispositive. But that is only one leg of a three-legged stool, and I wish more discussions on the topic were better informed by the research, the best practices and the clear articulation of the 'hidden hand,' the Deux Ex Machina of other forces which are at work when women and men make what appears to be their personal decisions.

Having it all isn't just determined by a person's or family's choices. Those choices are informed and even forced by policy, customs, structures that are way beyond the control of the individual. The outside forces shape a woman's choices (and more and more men's choices) whether she realizes it or not.

What are the other two legs of the stool that go beyond an individual's control?

Institutional policy, programs and culture. These include the references to family friendly organizations, the ability to work part-time, reward and compensation and promotion systems that are inclusive or exclusive of non-linear careers. They are shaped by the cultural encouragement or punishment around 'face time' and being present. Do organizations really believe the part-time worker is equally committed to the organization, or is there a subtle but punitive evaluation if the employee works less than the dominant group does? Much of this will be unconscious, but it is as forceful in how it directs what looks like voluntary and conscious choices as much as any written policy.

I often feel like challenging individuals who immediately default to the excuse that women aren't making it to the top because of work life choices. It is such an easy excuse and makes it seem like the individual has made a totally independent decision about her career and her desires. From the beginning of a career, women start with lower salaries and even those who are not married and have no children throughout their career still do not get as far as similarly situated men. And it must be noted that African American, Hispanic or Asian men in corporations who presumably fit more of the dominant group's roles and distribution of labor at home, are not making it to the top in their proportionate numbers. Something else beyond individual choices is going on that organizations find hard to face. For most modern companies globally, it is not an intake problem; it is an upgrade problem for women and other non-dominant groups. Much of it is related more to embedded policies, unconscious arch types and confirmation bias, habits, beliefs, roles and preferences of affiliation.

Government policy. Government policies vary widely and wildly amongst countries, but each policy creates its own magnetic force for choices people make. Visa policies may determine how many day care workers are available (vs. entertainment workers for example). Legally mandated paid maternity and paternity leave shapes how companies think about the cost/value relationship of men and women. If paternity leave isn't mandatory as a government dictate, then women will be unduly seen as being more expensive than men to hire and retain. Governments either support crèches or they don't. France has a superb crèche system; for the U.S. it isn't even on the radar. Family Leave Acts are generous, meager or absent depending upon the country. The minimum wage shapes economic decision-making for many who struggle to work and take care of children. Taxation policies, tax credits and deductions will harness the individual's decision to a certain path, knowingly or not. Quotas that are government mandated have an impact on parliamentary/congressional representation and private sector board membership.

Since no country has fully closed the gender gaps in economics and politics, based on the 2012 World Economic Forum Gender Gap report, there is no way to know what decisions individuals would make in a nirvana-like controlled experiment. Women might not decide to leave their careers or not seek the top positions if life and support around them from the private sector and public sector were radically different.

The World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Women's Empowerment is looking at these issues to better understand the levers of the economic gender gap. With the Forum's guidance, three countries, Mexico, Japan and Turkey have engaged their private and public sector in task forces to investigate the intersections of the individual, the organization and the government. The goal is to find the best practices of each country and create a template for other countries to follow. With these efforts, maybe we will be able to stop putting the onus solely on the individual for forces beyond her control and spread them where they equally belong.

Laura Liswood
Secretary General, Council of Women World Leaders
Vice Chair, World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Women's Empowerment