THE BLOG
10/21/2013 11:49 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Finding and Fixing the Feminine Dilemma

Frustrated by the work, life, family debate echoing the same old constraints, blaming the system and barking at corporations, two colleagues and I decided to ask 118 women about their career and life. These women were not rock stars per se but mainstream, college graduates, located in over 23 states of North America. The findings were illuminating.

Surprisingly, most of the women accessed flexible work arrangements in some capacity. Thankfully, this constraint had tapered. However, there was another constraint, unacknowledged and influencing a woman's behavior. A self-limiting belief held as truth and based on rules relating to the 'ideal woman'; do it all, look good and be nice. It affected a woman's career choice, ambition, finances, health and led to either / or career and life decisions. Reinforced by family, peers and cultural norms, a constraint naively overlooked by organizations. We named it the Feminine Filter.

Decoding the Feminine Filter, we discovered the 'be nice' rule meant women perceived negotiations as negative or greedy, rather than a necessary part of workplace participation. The 'look good' rule resulted in reticence to access the full range of corporate provisions or assert a right to entitlements in workplace discussions. Similarly, the 'do it all' rule, instead of setting the scene for a joint approach to the care and support of their children and aging parents, became a way to avoid negotiations at home completely!

Putting our findings to the test, I re-visited an earlier study I'd completed on the use family friendly policies. Sure enough, the same rules showed up with women willingly acquiescing their needs for others.

" problems can occur with colleagues if you are seen to be taking too much leave"

"I've never heard of the flex policies but would be reluctant to inflict extra work on fellow staff members"

In contrast, there were women in our study living a different story. They figured out how to navigate the Feminine Filter rules adopting a 'both and...' approach to career and life. They freed time up to pursue their career and personal life without impacting their earning capacity. They asked and were paid what they were worth. They utilized technology and viewed purchasing support services at home an investment in sustaining an attractive career profile. They sought advice from mentors at critical times. They planned their career at every stage remaining clear about the experience needed to gain senior positions. They even raised venture capital to start and grow their own business. If they took a break they were intentional about returning. They were savvy when it came to streamlining workloads and shared resources as needed throughout their career/life path. Single or coupled, they modeled a different skill set.

From a management and organizational perspective, the Feminine Filter impacts retention, turnover, sales, training costs, stress leave and diminished productivity. Organizations are already seeing a talent drain as younger Gen X & Y women reject the work-centric 'do it all' paradigm and exit to start their own micro businesses in an effort to regain control and life balance. Could the deconstruction of the Feminine Filter be the pièce de résistance that shatters the proverbial glass ceiling? Or if ignored, will the meager 20 percent of women in top roles trend to 15 percent?

I'm not in any way implying governments and corporations relinquish functional responsibility for 'quality' childcare, flex options, career paths sponsorship and mentoring programs. Nor abscond from quelling workplace bias, discrimination or intense work hours. The fact is, women want to work; in our study, 75 percent said they loved to work and a further 12 percent said jokingly, "It depends on the day you ask me!" Of the few taking a break, virtually all planed to return.

In short, what I am saying is that the impact of the Feminine Filter on the work family debate is far reaching. It affects the economy, organizations, limits a woman's career progress, time with her family, finances and security in retirement. It is stalling equality. As a clinical psychologist, with 45 years experience in counseling commented "the outworking of the Feminine Filter, defined in The Orange Line: A Woman's Guide to Integrating Career, Family & Life, can lead to lower hierarchical standing in a woman's relationships, whether at home, work or in society generally."

There is a yawning gap between where the work and family debate is now and where it could be. Stimulating efforts and fragmented attempts to fix systemic issues by government and organizations have barely scratched the surface. It's time for women, supported by the men and employers involved with them to go deeper and challenge outdated assumptions and cultural nuances. When the women in our study rejected the Feminine Filter norm at work and home, they fixed the work family dilemma, lived a whole life and felt fulfilled. By simply altering perspective, everyone benefited.