Women are different than men. Women can do the same work as men. Women do things differently. Everyone should be treated equally. The debate circles on and on... and I don't tend to add my commentary very often because it has always felt like a false choice - to either assume women and men are the same or to assume they are different. However a couple of really interesting recent articles have appeared - the most lengthy by Anne-Marie Slaughter in The Atlantic called Why Women Still Can't Have it All and a shorter one that hit closer to home by my friend Morra Arrons Mele in the New York Times called Here to Stay, and That's Good for Women. Stepping back, both of these articles are about a lot more than being working mothers - they are about a societal structure that is broken for the way we live today and THAT is what feuls the passion for the work that I do. I think the structure of work is hurting all of us, both individually and collectively.
Our current societal structures are designed with the following assumptions in mind:
- We have to be together physically to get work done.
- There is someone at home full-time to make sure dinner is made, dry cleaning gets picked up, kids are supervised after school and the rugs are vacuumed.
- Children need the summer off to help tend the fields.
- Children and adults need the training to do explicit, structured tasks.
- Corporations sole responsibility is to earn a profit.
- Scale (large organizations) are more productive than smaller ones.
It's been a long time since most of those assumptions rang true - our society has gone through some very dramatic shifts:
- The Internet makes it dramatically easier to work together from different locations - and take advantage of talent wherever it is.
- The women's movement and its legacy has insured that working women are not only common but it's as expected that women would work as for men. Most families have no one at home full time.
- I have no fields near my house that need tending... and most other people don't either.
- Explicit structured tasks are increasingly being done by machines. We now need people to use what is unique to humans - our creativity and empathy.
- Both the positive and negative externalities of doing business are now easier to see - as is the reaction to them (Exxon & BP oil spills, BASF running zero waste plants, JC Penney supporting the GLBT community, etc) and organizations that don't take that into account will suffer for it.
- Technology, infrastructure and market access is now being commoditized through cloud computing, new business models and social media.
Because of this disconnect, people are struggling to figure out how to make life and work fit together in a way that makes them feel sane and happy - and it's not easy. It would not be too hyperbolic to say that I consider it my life's work to help people and organizations figure out how to fix this so that our organizations work for us again, not against us. After all, what is the purpose of an organization if it is not contributing to our well-being in a substantive way? The organizations (whether for profit or not) that best align with how we want to live will be the ones that get the best employees, the best support - and the best results.
What do we need?
- Explicit support and encouragement by organizations to work anywhere, which includes the responsibility and accountability to work independently.
- Choice in whether our work is 30-40-50-60-70 hours a week so we can fit our work to our life, not the other way around (with the understanding that we also choose our compensation levels accordingly) - and that working less does not result in working on less important and interesting tasks.
- School schedules that more closely resemble work schedules and expectations... or work schedules that can be adjusted to school schedules (see above)
- Radically different view of education, hiring and employee training.
- Companies that start with a purpose and then find the business model(s) that support that purpose.
- Organizations that operated as loosely coupled networks (see Dave Gray's new book The Connected Company for more info on this)
There are examples of many of the above practices throughout different organizations - I am optimistic that we are beginning to see how this new organization is structured and operates. Look at Giff Gaff, Whole Foods, Amazon, WL Gore for examples. It's happening and those that understand the power in these new models have no particular need to share their lessons... but the rest of the world would be wise to work on catching up.