Monday, December 19, 2011

Where Are Women Going?

“The greatest achievement for a woman is to be as seldom as possible spoken of.”

Unfortunately, the quotation still rings true today. It was written during the 4th century BC by the Greek historian Thucydides.

When recently in New York City, I saw the entertaining film Margin Call which is roughly based on the final days of the investment bank Lehman Brothers. Over a 24-hour-period, the fiction film follows the actions of seven employees from the boss to junior traders, as they try to salvage the bank by unloading its toxic assets to clients. Demi Moore plays the head of risk management, the only woman among these Wall Street’s Magnificent Seven. Although she had warned the boss of this impending financial disaster (but no one listened) she is now slated to be the sacrificial lamb. But we only learn this later.

When the film credits were scrolling on the screen, my neighbors, two middle age women started to chat and one said with a shrug: “To be able to stay all night at the firm, this woman cannot have kids”! I had a jolt, and if she had kids? Why do women keep blaming professional women for wanting to be successful? Is motherhood the only success criteria for a woman? Actually the film raises two related issues: women’s professional achievement and the poor recognition for it, more on this later.

In my generation, women aimed for the corner office; some got there but many of them chose to stay single or childless. In the 1980s, progress was impressive, but progress brought false expectations, namely that thanks to generous maternity leaves careers could be balanced with motherhood. Too many Western women believed that they could combine home bliss with successful workplace. Business construed this as an ambition-gap and a woman’s lack of commitment to the corporate bottom line. As a result progress in the workplace stalled, private sector female salaries continued to lag behind that of their male colleagues and female occupations became increasingly segregated with less pay and subsequently smaller pension. Promotions are also increasingly biased towards women. Studies indicate that women are promoted on their performance and men are rewarded on their potential. By being constantly tested women have slower promotions. Many women have come to think that a successful career means becoming a member of the rat race and that it is not for them. Consequently, a number of successful North American women dropped out to stay home. It is a Catch-22 situation.

Early December 2011 The Economist magazine[1] ran an online debate entitled “This house believes that a woman’s place is at work”. At the end of the week-long debate, 53% of the respondents had disagreed with The Economist. Although it was meant as a quip, the title was not liked by many women respondents who thought it was too dogmatic. The debate was old-fashioned for its lack of new ideas. Apart from a couple of contributions from macho provocateurs, it was the voice of the gynecium (Thucydides probably kept his wife in one of these). One of the conclusions was that many women “were compelled to work”. In other words women would have preferred not to work but stay home with their children. Unless a majority of men join women in regarding paid work as a requirement and constraint, the work-centered and the home-centered groups of people are defined by gender determinism.

In her book The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir asserts that women have difficulty to reconcile their reproductive and productive capacities. Both allow them to contribute to societal well-being. Beauvoir stressed that “woman is neither exclusively a worker nor exclusively a womb”. Sixty years later, women’s social contribution is still overly reduced to that of reproduction: wombs wins over brains. Wombs belong to the home and brains to the workplace where both men and women can engage their minds in creative and competitive pursuits.

According to The Economist‘s special report on women and work (November 26th-December 2nd, 2011), data on what is best for children are far from being clear cut. The quality of parenting depends on several elements; stay-at-home mother is one of them, significant but not fundamental. If baby-boom mothers had full time jobs at home, 21st century mothers in OECD countries[2] have a much lighter load as their fertility has dropped to 1.7 children per woman. They also tend to be much better educated. In economic terms, these highly educated stay-at-home mothers seem to be a waste of talent and money. For the state, the return on investment is absurdly modest. In Europe, the tertiary education system is predominantly financed by the tax payers.

On the other hand, many studies have made clear that a large number of women in the higher echelons of the workforce are good for both the economy of a country and the financial and market success of companies. Similarly, countries that have the higher number of women in political decision-making are in general much better managed. In these troubled financial times, it is probably not coincidental that the Nordic countries show a better socio-economic performance than Greece, Italy, Portugal and even France. Sweden, Denmark, Netherland, Norway and Finland have an average of 40% women in parliament. Greece, Italy, Ireland and France don’t even reach 20%[3]. In some situation numbers are not relevant as women tend to be elected by parties on the left which often bestow unrealistic social benefits that the economy of a country can ill afford. E.g. by granting unrealistically long maternity leave and benefits to women only, these politicians are de facto distorting the job market, making women workers less valued than men.

The current predicaments of women in general and working women in particular result from a lack of women critical mass in decision-making positions in both workplace and political sphere. Legislation and fiscal policies should able to reconcile productivity with reproduction. Not only women’s views must be heard, but women must understand the socio-economic implications of their choices. Once again the diversity of the workplace provides a much more dynamic environment than the isolation of the home for healthy work-life balance decisions.

One cannot discuss women issues without bearing in mind the impact of globalization. There is evidence that women in emerging economies will leapfrog and achieve a higher level of political and economic empowerment than their developed economies’ sisters. The formers obviously started from a lower base. In a competitive globalized world, the deflated economies of the aging developed countries can ill afford to allow 40%[4] of their human resources cut from the productive sectors.

In China, in the 1950s, Chairman Mao Zedong got women out of the house. He liked to quote and old Chinese proverb “women hold up half the sky”. In many parts of the world this proverb is still more aspiration than reality. Many would have added that women hold the better half. Now women should run with it, and the world will be all better off.

The title of this article is a quote of a Greek philosopher who died 400 years BC. The punch line is from a 21th century woman role model Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO who according to Forbes magazine is the fifth most powerful woman in the world: “So, the question is, what are you going to do with it (your education)? What will you do with this education you worked so hard to achieve? What in the world needs to change, and what part do you plan on playing in changing it[5]?

This article is dedicated to four bright young women Elsa, Clémence, Tiphaine and Béatrice who are pursuing higher education. I hope that they will hear Ms. Sandberg’s message and manage a harmonious work-life balance by reaching their full potential as productive and self-reliant women.

[2] The Organization for Economic Co-operation for Development, OECD has currently 32 country members; most of them are high-income economies.
[3] Ireland: 15%; Portugal: 26.5%; Greece: 17%; Italy: 21%; France: 19%.
[4] OECD average: 64% women employed in 2010.