You Don't Know This Matters to You (Yet) - Fifth Letter
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You Don’t Know This Matters to You (Yet)

As a member of AIGA (the professional association for design), I have participated in several student portfolio reviews at a nearby university. Each soon-to-be grad is assigned to a team of senior-level designers and directors who critique their presentation and prepare them for job interviews. During these reviews I noticed that, despite the majority of the design students being female, most of the evaluators were men. I was so struck by the disparity that during a review with one especially talented young woman I couldn’t help but ask, “Do you want to have children and, if so, what’s your plan?”

 

She looked at me as if she smelled something nasty.

 

Granted, I’m sure none of the guys at this review were asked that question. And maybe I was wrong to jump to the conclusion that the gender gap had to do with motherhood (except that’s totally the reason). But it was a spur-of-the-moment sort of question that I wish I would have been asked earlier in my career. It’s a shame that some topics have been deemed off-limits to the detriment of professional women who are left hanging because we’re afraid of asking the “wrong” questions. So, I felt I had to make my point. “Look around the room,” I told her. “How many women do you see evaluating your peers?”

 

“Including you? Two.” (There were between 10-12 men.)

 

“Why do you suppose that is, considering how many female students there are?” She looked a bit dumbfounded. “You better have a plan or you’ll end up like most of the girls in this room — not working in design.”

 

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I don’t know why the disparity hadn’t been more obvious to me until that point but I’m not the only one who has noticed. Recently, AIGA launched an initiative called Women Lead, in order to stress the importance of women in leadership roles within the design community. The inspiring women who have been interviewed as part of the initiative are worth learning about but they focus more on mentorship and encouraging each other rather than the effect of motherhood on one’s profession.

 

Lack of women in high-level positions isn’t a new topic. And it’s not a problem only to design professions. It is perplexing, however, especially since studies showing that women make better managers have been featured in major business publications including Forbes and Business Insider. So what is really holding women back?

 

Here’s something interesting that takes a little reading between the lines. This Pew Research Center paper shows the results of surveying men and women across generations about why women don’t hold a higher share of leadership roles. The results rank “Women are held to a higher standard than men” and “Many businesses aren’t ready to hire women for top executive positions” as more significant than “Family responsibilities don’t leave time for running a major corporation.”

 

Here’s my two cents: Many businesses aren’t ready to hire women for top executive positions because unequal family responsibilities don’t leave time for running a major corporation.

 

There. I said it out loud. Now we can move on.

 

If you don’t believe me that the “incorrectness” of saying what I just said is the reason for the leadership gap just scroll down the page of that same Pew Research Center study. Close to the bottom you’ll see another poll titled “A Woman Who Wants to Reach a Top Position in Business is Better Off…” and the choices are: 1. Having children early on in her career, 2. Having children later in her career, and 3. Not having children at all.

 

Now, if the people who participated in this poll were being honest in their answers to the previous questions, why weren’t their answers to this last question “It makes no difference at all”? Because it makes a big difference, actually — but not all of those differences are negative. In my humble opinion, being mothers is likely the reason women make better managers. But until we are willing to look the problem square in the face instead of pretending it doesn’t exist — the attitude that parenthood is a woman’s responsibility 24/7 and a man’s responsibility only on evenings and weekends — we’re not going to see any improvement in the leadership gap.

 

Is there a double-standard in the measurement of work/life balance? Of course there is. Men who “have it all” (successful career, happy family, physically fit, great social life) are seen as ambitious and accomplished. But there has been much written about how unrealistic it is for a woman to “have it all”. And maybe it is unrealistic until we can finally convince everyone that this is not a woman’s issue — it is a human issue. Once we all start to address this issue with an open mind that it CAN be done if we don’t put the weight completely on the shoulders of women — as if this is only our problem to solve — families, society and the businesses we run, will be better off. Don’t believe me? Check out these awesome examples from a recent article in Fortune.

 

And so, this Mother’s Day I have a gift — from a mother to new grads standing on the precipice of the amazing career that you just know you are going to have — my advice to you. (Aren’t you lucky.)

 

Women: Don’t work for a jerk.

 

I have two school-aged kids. After school care is expensive and often isn’t available on holidays or teacher work days. Sometimes school is cancelled because of snow (or the mere mention of snow). Sometimes my kids get sick. Never once in any of these scenarios has my employer, Elliot, been anything but supportive when I’ve had to clock out early or come in late or finish my work at home because he understands that parenthood is unpredictable. (Plus he knows I give 100% when I’m on the clock and I’m not using my kids as an excuse to get out of work.) Look for employers that offer flexible schedules or the ability to work from home and who are just as likely to get a call from the school nurse as their spouse is.

 

Men: Don’t be a jerk.

 

Assuming that one day you will rise to a leadership role and will have a female employee come to you in the same situation as outlined above, be like Elliot. Don’t be a jerk. The same applies when you get a call from the school because your child is sick. Don’t assume that your wife will leave work; you can too.

 

Women: Choosing an employer is like choosing a spouse — don’t think you can change them.

 

Seek jobs with employers who have established women already working for them who can support and mentor you. Take advantage of networking opportunities early in your career and keep up with the contacts you make. You’ll need them when it’s time to adapt to work life as a parent. Also, a strong mentor will help you learn to be assertive enough to get the raises and promotions you deserve. Then use your awesome skills to put the non-women-promoting competition out of business. That’ll teach ‘em.

 

Men: Ditto.

 

Seek jobs with employers who have established women already working for them who can support and mentor you. Because 1. women are awesome and 2. employers who encourage leadership from women likely also offer work/life balance benefits that will make your life better when you become a parent.

 

Women: Choosing a spouse is like choosing a bra — they’re better when they’re supportive.

 

Whether you plan to have kids or not, choose your partner as if you are going to. Because you might change your mind. Will he support you if you want to take time off work to be with your kids? Will he support you if you want to continue working outside the home? [note: expecting you to work full time and take care of 90% of the household chores is NOT being supportive.]

 

Men: Double your income.

 

Want to take all the pressure to provide off of you? Support your spouse so that she can build an amazing career with maximum earning potential. [note: “support” means you’ll need to do more around the house and take turns taking the kids to the doctor.]

 

So there you have it. If all you new grads take this mom’s advice, we should have the gender gap in leadership resolved in about 20 years. Go get it done.
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Jan Badger, Shape Shifter at Fifth Letter, is handy when you want to start a fire and fills many roles including making sure projects deliver on time and on budget. She is the mother of two rowdy kids, ages 10 and 12. Contact Jan at jan@fifth-letter.com.