The rules of the workplace were established long before women entered the corporate world en masse. They were set by those who established the game, for the purposes of illustration let’s call the game rugby. Not everyone currently playing rugby enjoys the rules but until very recently there hasn’t been another game to play at the first division level. But what if there were different ways of playing in the first division?
When women first entered the corporate world in large numbers around 50 years ago, the understanding was that they could join the game, but the rules were already firmly established. This rule absolutism was supported by a select few who really excelled under the existing system and had little desire for change. Yes, there are unfortunate incidents of excessive tackling and despite trying your hardest you can get fouled at the last moment by being offside, but that is all part of the game you signed up to play. This is the way things have always been done and everyone knows the rules of the game and they are applied 'equally'.
Women signed up to this agreement and worked hard to move towards the first division, often harder than those who were already there; more often than not we still had full time household and caring responsibilities. If we wanted to be rugby players we needed to buy the equipment, get with the program and accept that the rules are the rules.
Cue power dressing sprinkled with aggressive ambition of the 1980’s and 1990’s, and more recently the ‘lean in’ further movement.
By entering the world of rugby and agreeing to the already established rules we acknowledged that to progress we would need to change, thereby starting the intrinsic myth that there was something wrong with us. If only we could be ‘fixed’ enough, we would eventually find the elusive key to first division progression. We just needed to get better at negotiating, strike up more confident conversations and generally bend ourselves and our values more and more to stay in the game. This created a self-fulfilling cycle of inadequacy, where women more commonly question their decision making, worry what others thinks almost all the time and generally waste our valuable intellect. No wonder we get paid less – we spend so much of our time trying to fit in instead of innovating. It is easy to see how men seem to so easily glide past us into the first division, they aren’t carrying a bag of worries around with them.
By entering an already established game women accepted the idea that while rugby didn’t necessarily suit them, their values and unique skill sets there would eventually be sufficient numbers of us entering the first division to reach a tipping point where we could change the rules of rugby to be more progressive. Unfortunately, that critical mass has yet to materialize. While a dazzling few have been able to break through into the second and even first divisions, for the most part it seems no matter how hard we try at the last minute we almost always seem to be offside, with the penalty points awarded to those colleagues who are already benefiting from the rules.
Once you’ve been stalled one to many times your options are rather limited. The two most popular choices seem to be to 'lean out' either partially or entirely, or 'lean in' even further. But do either of these choices allow for women realistically to have a fulfilling corporate career?
Women often 'lean out' in two ways. The full 'lean out' is when where women have completely left the corporate workplace, a shockingly common phenomenon. This could be a proactive choice or as a consequence of redundancy. Either way, by not going back into the corporate world after a break they are highlighting that their needs cannot be met, and they are unwilling to exhaust themselves under the myth of potential first division play. I wonder how many of the modern ‘mumpreneurs’ would have realistically leaned out if we had had a more inclusive corporate culture?
The second way women 'lean out' is a partial recline. This is most commonly thought of as working part-time to support caring responsibilities, because don’t forget we still have the majority of household and caring responsibilities. In reality there is a far deadlier version of partial 'lean out' for organisations, the phenomenon of self-stalling. This is supported by a joint LeanIn and McKinsey paper from 2017 which found that 42% of women who opted not to pursue senior position did so due to concerns about family/work balance. In this version of lean out women are actively choosing to stay in the lower divisions where they are less exposed to the unattractive aspects of first division rugby.
It seems that stalling is an act of survival for mentally and physically exhausted women who have ineffectively leaned-in one to many times and now realise only a dazzling few outliers are going to make it through to the first division.
The other option currently available to women is the ‘lean in' further narrative. This assumes that it is our passivity and insecurity that is holding us back – i.e. we just need to be ‘fixed’ a bit more and we will find the magic key to the first division. Given that the rules of the game are not fit for purpose for the vast majority it is ironic that women are then told the solution is to fix ourselves further, rather than to fix the corporate culture that is holding back so many. I don’t believe learning to speak in a loud assertive voice, diminishing my communal traits and getting better at negotiating my pay are really the golden keys to me reaching the first division. I also don’t believe that I should spend time balancing and continuously rebalancing myself to gain the respect of senior male colleagues who are not undertaking a similar process daily.
I would like to spend my time progressing rather than fixing, balancing and rebalancing.
As part of this excessive 'lean in' culture women are often forced to seeking out different ways to succeed. This has led to the #glasscliff phenonium. Women seem to have accepted that given there are so few opportunities available to get to the first division we must take on the trickier unpopular assignments to prove our worth. We are called in to “pick up the pieces” and undertake difficult organizational change to help us develop our leadership skills – or at least that is how it is sold to us. Realistically this is a narrowing down of opportunity at best and at worst we are setting ourselves up for failure and a reinforcement of the view we are not yet ready to play in the first division.
Given that neither leaning in nor leaning out is leading women to be able to jump into the first, or even second divisions in sufficient numbers isn’t it time for a re-think? Do we need to re-focus the fixing lens somewhere else – to the societal inequalities that are keeping women from fulfilling their potential or the structural barriers at work that prevent equitable progression. Could we all start openly discussing what is wrong with rugby rather than blaming the players for not trying hard enough?
Over the next few weeks I’ll be investigating ways in which we could support the required systemic revolution. How we could start celebrating difference in skill and expertise and look to expand the first division options – anyone for cricket?
If you enjoyed this post please check out the rest of my blog here, including my post on the three cogs needed to ensure female progress and the importance of ground up allyship to really ensuring systemic cultural change.