A Revolution for the Next Generation

I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of business students from the University of Utah who are at the very beginning of their careers. Although I don't feel particularly old, I took on the role of the older, experienced guide, recounting the days of yore and how much has changed since I entered the workforce. My point was that they have the opportunity and the responsibility to finish a revolution that was started decades ago: when technology infiltrated the workplace, we simply overlaid it over the existing male competitive model - the "in the office" "primary breadwinner" model - without adapting the workplace itself to technology's new capabilities. That workplace adaptation is now the revolution of their generation. It was a blast to speak to them and I hope I have more opportunities to speak in the future.


The conversation got me thinking about the historical trajectory of women in the workplace which informs my Gender Optimization philosophy. In the mid-twentieth century, a successful women’s movement opened the doors of opportunity to the female half of the population. The challenge at that time was to provide equal access to opportunity and then allow enough time to go by to let the talent pipeline fill up. But as Carolyn Buck Luce has observed, “The reasoning was simple: if you eliminated barriers and created a truly level playing field so that men and women competed on equal terms, then, over time, as successive cohorts of well-qualified female professionals filled the pipeline, women would eventually be fairly represented in top jobs. This has not happened.” What was not anticipated, it seems, is that women are not “men in skirts,” to use Shirley Conran’s famous phrase. Many qualified professional women have different motivations and fulfillment factors and find it difficult to thrive in the male competitive model. Although much ink and speech has been used to train women on how to be more like men with the good intention of arming them for the male competitive model, the Seneca Council sees an opportunity for the workplace to change, not just the women in it.

The Seneca Council is contributing to a second revolution, one in which women work hand in hand with men to evolve the modern workplace to  meet the needs of the modern worker. This revolution already benefits from having dedicated soldiers in the trenches - skilled academicians, advocacy and research groups, foundations - but it can be strengthened by more momentum, different approaches and more variety of voices.

Me visiting my dad's Wall Street law firm in 1987, with my dad's secretary Annette and her enormous typewriter. I was even dressed like a boy to visit the office.

Me visiting my dad's Wall Street law firm in 1987, with my dad's secretary Annette and her enormous typewriter. I was even dressed like a boy to visit the office.

The traditional male competitive model functions on the premise that more worker time results in more revenue, and that more revenue is always the ultimate goal. More “time” has been defined by years of experience, hours in the office, willingness to work however much and whenever needed, and a boundaryless dedication to supporting the product. These qualities have been perceived as producing more billable hours, promoting loyalty from clients, allowing for faster work, and giving an edge over competition. The Seneca Council, however, asserts that this competitive model excludes all other elements of a fulfilling and well-rounded life, and with the economies of the 21st century demanding more and more two income families, fewer individual workers can pay the price exacted by this 20th century model. In addition, research continues to provide evidence that happier, thriving workers produce better and more work in the long term.

Princeton professor and former State Department policy planner Anne-Marie Slaughter talks of “two complementary human drives: competition, the impulse to pursue our self-interest in a world in which others are pursuing theirs, and care, the impulse to put others first.” While these two motivators drive men and women alike, the 20th century workforce was built largely on the genderfication of these drives: Men claimed the competitive (public) sphere and women claimed (were assigned to?)  the caring (domestic) sphere. Thus each drive was satisfied communally, even if not individually.

With the rise of women in the workplace, the default caregivers of past years are no longer fully dedicated to the care of children, elders and home, resulting in a communal shortfall but also an individual famine in many women’s souls. Caregiving, Slaughter states, has been devalued and discriminated against to the point that women who attempt to both care and compete are penalized in their careers and never recover. Motherhood, in fact, is one of the primary indicators of poverty, with 40% of single mothers falling below the poverty line. The workplace rewards those who can outsource caregiving to someone else, and it places a low financial value on those for whom caregiving is their professional skillset.

Because care is still considered a predominantly female activity, women who prioritize care (of children, of elders, of self) at some point in their career often find themselves dropping out of the competitive model and having difficulty jumping back into it. As Carolyn Buck Luce has said, “We need to develop work environments where women can both take charge and take care.”

What We Need

The answer is not to send women back into unpaid caregiving roles and let the men continue indulging their competitive drives. The Seneca Council believes that, while women have embraced more competitive pursuits but are still expected to provide needed care, the door leading to men’s embrace of care has not yet swung wide open. The answer, we believe, is in adapting the 21st century workplace so that women and men can nurture both their competitive and caregiving drives equally, by having equal access to flexible work policies and individualized career paths. The Seneca Council wants to reward companies that allow both women and men to successfully manage a caring role as part of their time commitments, and still be challenged, rewarded and fulfilled in the workplace.

Too often today, women especially feel the tension between competing and caring is impossible to manage, resulting in gender gaps in the workplace as women “off ramp” but never on-ramp again, or as they take part-time but more flexible jobs that don’t keep them on an upward trajectory. As Patricia Fili-Krushel, executive vice president of administration at Time Warner has said, “Women who leave or languish are, in effect, the canaries in the coal mine, the first and most conspicuous casualties of an out-dated, dysfunctional career model.” These gaps will never fully close unless companies believe in the productivity and cultural health benefits that come from gender optimization, and then experience those benefits. GO Certification identifies how a company can claim these benefits and offers a competitive advantage by celebrating the company’s existing efforts.