Introducing Gender Optimization: A New Angle to the Unfinished Revolution

I often wake in the middle of the night, unable to fall back asleep. My brain is already going full speed, though my arm can barely shuffle to my phone on my bedside table to check the time. It's like my subconscious was tapping its toe impatiently, waiting for the rest of my brain to get with it and join the party. And that subconscious has already detailed a list of conversation starters: Is my daughter prepared for her history test tomorrow? Is there anything besides cold cereal for breakfast? Do I have enough time between meetings to finish the brief I'm working on? Unlikely since I'm scheduled to the hilt. Do my kids have any clean underwear for school? No, I forgot to start the laundry. When can we fit in the 8-year-old's cavity filling? How will we pay for it? In other words, I'm a typical modern American working mother, like 70% of American women with children under 18. I work for the money, for the personal satisfaction, for the example I set for my daughters, for the intellectual challenge and the camaraderie. I am a small cog in a great economic machine that is fueled by the productivity of millions of people like me. I am a mother for the soul-filling challenge of it, for the joy and devastation of having a part of me walk around outside of myself, for the opportunity to shape the future. I am the central engine in my own incubator of the future.

I look over to my sleeping husband. I know he helped my daughter study, so I can rest easy about tomorrow's test. Perhaps he remembered to put in the laundry. But he's just as overloaded as I am, so probably not. He is, after all, a working father.

The United States is the greatest economic powerhouse the world has ever known. And it has worked for that accolade: our people work longer and harder than most other places in the developed world. Part of the secret of our success over the past half century has been the entry of women into the mainstream workforce. Since 1970, women have added $2 trillion to our GDP, allowing the U.S. to stay at the top of world economic markets. But America also needs babies. Babies who are nurtured and educated - both academically and emotionally - to become the next generation of taxpayers, workers, leaders, parents and citizens. As things stand now, women continue to be the primary caregivers in our country. But, 40% of working women are also the primary or sole breadwinner in their home. An equivalent number of men, however, aren’t the primary caregiver. Something doesn’t add up.

Building on the tremendous revolution of the past fifty years since women entered the mainstream labor force, we as a country are now at the brink of a new revolution: a transformation of the workplace that allows women and men to do both the labor and care that are needed for a flourishing nation. Today, according to Sylvia Ann Hewlett in Off-Ramps and On-Ramps, a staggering 60% of qualified women leave the workforce entirely or languish on the sidelines. Increasing research demonstrates that organizations do not live up to their leadership or financial potential when they do not optimize their gender balance and take greater advantage of this sidelined workforce. Additionally, anecdotal and scientific reports indicate that company cultures and intangible workplace characteristics still lag, even when official corporate policies make efforts to close gaps. Companies’ abilities today to recruit and maintain top talent, compete at their highest potential, and attract key business partners, investors or clients all require equitable gender policies and practices. In fact, a recent report from McKinsey estimated that the U.S. GDP could increase by as much as $4.3 trillion by 2025 if the gender gap were erased. 

The reality of caring for children, elderly parents or oneself often complicates the working landscape. Although women today have fully infiltrated what previously was a man’s competitive landscape in work and education, men have not equally crossed over into the domain of care that traditionally was a woman’s sphere. The result today is men who, to use Anne-Marie Slaughter’s paradigm introduced in her book Unfinished Business, still inhabit the “competition” domain while not equally embracing the “caring” domain, while women inhabit the competitive world while simultaneously continuing to be responsible for the majority of caring. Baby busts and global expansion mean companies’ competitive strength and economic survival are dependent on effectively utilizing this marginalized workforce, and thus dependent on finding a way to make better use of the women on non-linear paths.

This is why I created the GO Certification, an independent assessment of a company's ability to maximize female employee potential using quantitative data and ethnographic behavioral observation. At the GO Certification, we believe that gender equality means more than just having the same numbers of men and women at every level of workplace structure. We believe it means more than just having a good maternity leave policy in place. We believe gender equality in the workplace ultimately means a more balanced opportunity for men and women to embrace both competition and caring. In evolving to that from our current reality, we believe it means creating policies and cultures that support women who both care and compete, and encouraging men to embrace caring roles more completely. It means that a company needs a structured and systemic approach to measuring, addressing and closing the corporate gender gap.

In fact, we believe that what we are striving for is better described as “gender optimization,” rather than gender equality. (That's what the GO stands for in GO Certification.) “Equality” inherently suggests women need to stretch to grab hold of something men already have; that women need to be lifted up from an inferior position to a level on par with men. “Gender optimization,” on the other hand, suggests there is an ideal that is currently not being met for either men or women, and that adjustments can be made to the workplace that benefit workers and the bottom line alike. We reject the notion of shoehorning women into a male competitive model. Rather we look forward with optimism to the day that the workplace can be optimized for both men and women to advance in their careers and nurture themselves and others in a way that’s beneficial to all.

“Gender optimization” suggests there is an ideal that is currently not being met for either men or women, and that adjustments can be made to the workplace that benefit workers and the bottom line alike.

To support and reward companies who take seriously the undertaking of becoming gender optimized, the GO Certification indicates companies’ level of commitment to gender optimization through four levels of award, including an entry level for those companies just embarking on the gender optimization process. With sociologists and human resources professionals, we've developed a comprehensive evaluation that relies on trained assessors spending time on-site at the company to confirm that policies are aligning with practices. The GO Certification provides a company with a public, standardized indication of its current state of gender optimization and its dedication even greater equanimity. Because it's important for companies not only to see greater retention and profitability from their efforts but also get media and investor recognition, we supports the awarded company by advocating on behalf of the company to media outlets, recruiters, job seekers and professional networks.

I'm dedicated to making the American workplace a place where we celebrate and cultivate not only the diversity of race and sexual orientation, but also the invisible differentiators of parenthood, family structure, interests, work styles and caring needs. The GO Certification is an important step for every company.