It feels natural to set boundaries with ourselves. We define our days by the time spent at home or work, dividing ourselves into “casual” and “professional” personas in the process. We take pride in our willingness to stay late, come in early, and sleep far too little for the sake of our jobs. Somehow, we manage to minimize our personal lives into break room small talk and after-work relaxation. The mentality is pervasive – a norm in the business world. But what do we sacrifice by giving so much of our time and energy in the pursuit of employee productivity? What cost does this culture leverage on the people – and the women in particular – who can’t dismiss their obligations at home for the sake of a workplace project?
In recent years, debates about the value of gender balance have risen to the forefront of conversation in human resource departments – and with good reason. Compelling research has shown that a gender-balanced workplace dramatically outperforms an otherwise equivalent homogeneous one; one Gallup study found that one engaged and gender-diverse company pulled in over 50% more in net profit than their non-diverse competitors. When we talk about professional diversity, we often talk about the benefits of representation and social progress – but while those reasonings are more than worthy of consideration, I think that we may be missing out on an equally compelling case for homogeneity: sheer profit and innovation. By supporting a mix of perspectives, experiences, and skill sets, businesses position create teams that reject tried-and-true solutions and groupthink in favor of innovation, out-of-the-box thinking, and problem-solving.
With this data in mind, promoting gender balance stands as both a business prerogative and a social need; but creating a gender-balanced workplace isn’t a simple matter of throwing open the office doors and handing female employees a to-do list of work. As I mentioned at the top of this piece, conflicts between working expectations and personal obligations can build seemingly insurmountable barriers between women and career advancement. Consider this hypothetical: two engineers are vying for the same promotion. One is a single male who performs well enough and doesn’t mind staying late now and again to finish a project. The other is a brilliant female engineer who outperforms her peers on assignments but often needs to leave work early and take personal days to care for her two young children. From the outside, the male employee who comes in and stays late appears more dedicated and deserving of the promotion. That said, the women is clearly talented and hard-working; she isn’t skipping out on work for frivolous reasons. Should she be denied a promotion because she balances her professional work with her obligations as a mother? It hardly seems fair.
And yet, this is our current business quandary. According to a Harvard study published in 2007, women face a “motherhood penalty” for having and caring for children: competency rates for mothers were a full 10% lower than those for otherwise equal non-mothers and were seen as being 12% less committed to their jobs. Ironically, the same study found that fathers were perceived as being 5% more committed than non-fathers. As business professionals, the clear negative impact of this stigma leaves us in an awkward place. We want greater gender balance in the workplace because it ultimately leads to greater productivity and creativity, but are hesitant to break out of our compartmentalized “personal” and “professional” boxes to facilitate it. Our hesitation has a human cost: Women who need flexible working conditions to meet family obligations lose out on promotions they deserve, pay bumps they earn, and training they need to progress. We can’t have it both ways. Expecting to reap the benefits of gender balance without supporting the women who help spark the innovation we profit from is both unfair and impractical. Without professional support, women may find themselves needing to drop out of the workforce altogether – and leave businesses to unprofitable homogeneity as a result.
We need to shift our professional mindsets away from sheer productivity and towards supporting female employees. In the UAE, this process is already happening. In 2006, the federal government passed a law that required all government institutions with more than 50 female employees to establish nurseries for those employees’ children. Just two years later, another directive revised paid family leave guidelines for private businesses to allow full-time female employees 45 days of fully-paid maternity leave and extended breaks for nursing for the first four months after returning to work. Compared to regulations in the United States, these actions are clear and impressive strides towards prioritizing nationwide gender balance; the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 allows American mothers just 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a year.
But policy alone won’t strip away our barriers to gender balance; for that, we need to overhaul our workplace culture and management conventions. As I mentioned at the top of this piece, professional worth is often judged by an employee’s ability and willingness to go above and beyond for the sake of a project. But what do we truly gain by making workers choose between their professional aspirations and their familial obligations? Tellingly, the 2006 law mentioned above was put through under the reasoning that having on-site childcare would “boost productivity, reduce resignations and support family stability.” This is the subtlety that productivity-centered employers miss: Forcing mothers to work at the expense of their children only worries and distracts mothers and ultimately lessens productivity as a result. Think of it this way: An employer might abide by the letter of the law and provide a new mother with nursing breaks, but if he grumbles or tacitly makes is clear that he disapproves of her spending that time out of the office, will she? With so much unspoken disapproval, the employee may feel uncomfortable, stressed, and torn between her job and her child. In the end, she might choose to give up the legally-granted time, and feel worse as for the decision. If we intend to reap the full benefits of gender-balanced workplaces, we can’t just adhere to the letter of the law – we need to embrace it in spirit.
It feels natural to set boundaries with ourselves; to define who we are by our “work” and “home” personas. But in the end, employees are complex individuals with personal obligations that pull as strongly as any item on their professional to-do list. As managers, employers, and professionals, we need to stop making our employees choose their priorities and start helping them balance them. In a way, this is a conversation that extends beyond gender to touch on how we view and pursue success in business. Which employee is better – the one who drives herself to burnout and sacrifices time with their family for a project, or the one who thinks creatively and works cheerfully, knowing that she’ll be able to enjoy time with her children after work? As a business consultant, family member, and professional woman, I like to believe the latter.
Top Picture: Hanane Benkhallouk stands with three of her mentees following the Abdulaziz Leadership program.