I get teased sometimes because I am not a fan of “women’s initiatives.” I always say that I AM a fan of “people initiatives” – ways to make work and life get along better. And I think the way to do this is different for different people at different times in their lives; not necessarily simply differentiated by gender. I know many people disagree with me, but I feel in small ways many well-meaning efforts to help women end up separating women into almost a different class of professional. I don’t mean you can’t highlight particular issues for women, but I think we need to be careful how we go about it. As an example, an idea I hear a lot is that we should all learn to “measure success differently.” This is usually in the context of “not everyone needs to be a partner or a CEO.” Which is fine. And completely true. Many fulfilling lives have been lived by people who were never partners or CEOs. But, when I hear this, it’s almost invariably used in relation to women. My thinking is simple – if this is good for women then it should be good for men as well. I think we all win when choices are open to those who need them and cultural norms allow for many options. (This culture bit is crucial.)
Last year, I asked a question at a conference of a professional I admire very much. This professional was describing the female CEO of a CPA firm as someone who has “lived work/life balance, raised a family, had a career and was very impressive.” That’s nice, right? Who doesn’t want to be considered very impressive? Awesome. But, the way the comment struck me was like this – “See, a woman can have it all! She did it. Isn’t it great?!” and so I asked about it. My question was – would you ever say “Joe is a great guy. He’s got three kids and a successful career. I don’t know how he does it. He’s really impressive.”? I never hear that. The response I received was thoughtful – he said statistically, the number of women in leadership roles in the CPA profession is not as high as it should be considering the number of women who enter the profession; he said citing examples is a good way to bring awareness to that issue.
I get that and appreciated his response. He made me consider my initial reaction. I couldn’t tell in the moment if I was alone on this or not. I was a little nervous about asking the question and not really paying attention to the audience reaction. But, people came up to me for next three days of the conference. They thanked me. They said I was brave. They fist-bumped me and they emailed me. Women with kids, women without kids, men with daughters, women older than me and younger me, and a couple of friends of mine who happen to be men who challenged my question. (I’m sure some women didn’t like it either, but they didn’t talk to me about it.) I was shocked. I didn’t think I was saying anything that others weren’t also thinking. It turns out that I wasn’t, but, I was the only one who said anything. I loved every conversation I had that week, especially with those who disagreed and provided other points of view. I loved the conversations because I think that’s how hard situations are figured out. Not by settling in and standing your ground no matter what, but by discussing what you think and hearing what others think. By understanding the unconscious-biases we all have and how to work through them instead of pretending they don’t exist.
Last year, during a one-week period I heard from three different young, male CPAs who were leaving three different public accounting firms because they wanted more time with their families. And just recently, the responses to a thread on vacations during busy season in the CPA Center of Excellence Open Forum makes me feel great that we are thinking and considering that there’s no single right way for everyone and that we can change how we think, or at least consider changing. Life, in every aspect is about choices. Our workplaces should make our choices about home life a little easier and the choices we make for our home lives (for women and men) should help enhance who we are in our careers.
What we say can make a difference in encouraging or discouraging someone – we should express our opinions, but we should also be open to hearing criticism. What do you think?