Balance for Better #IWD2019

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is “Balance for Better” for more gender balance in the boardroom, in media and sports coverage, within government, amongst employees, and more gender balance in wealth.

I was speaking to my mentor about this topic last year, particularly gender balance in senior management and board roles. What struck me about this conversation was that there seemed to be a clear disparity between what ‘balance’ truly meant for men and women. What does the term ‘balance’ mean in the workplace, and what does it mean for ‘women’. I want to share my thoughts with you on two words: “Balance” and “Women”.

Let’s start with Balance.

Up until a few years ago I, no doubt like many others, equated flexible work hours with balance. Surely if you started early and finished early, or started late and finished late, that was a flexible workplace? Maybe – except the flexibility didn’t extend out to the other physical and societal structures we have in place. Working hours, as we all know, are not conducive to life in general, let alone a family life. The more I thought about about balance and flexibility, I began to realise that I hadn’t really seen any workplace really question the rigid structure in which we continue to operate. All I was seeing, and continue to see, are workplaces adjusting to other patriarchal structures – something that Clementine Ford touches on in her book Fight Like a Girl.

Coming back to my conversation with my mentor, he told me that his workplace was working towards gender parity. Training and mentoring was provided, as well as feedback. I interrupted him, stating that at this very point in time, both the mentors and mentees were in a state of transition. If we are to achieve parity, at least in the boardroom, then the male mentors had to be willing not just to provide advice, but to receive it as well. What worked? What didn’t and most importantly, why didn’t it work? Most of you are employers and managers and are probably working through this issue at this very moment. He was taken aback but listened, and I’ve been stewing on that conversation ever since.

The second piece to this puzzle is Women.

All women need balance. But has any workplace asked what balance means to different women? Too often, it seems we are clumped into one garden bed, provided the water of flexible work hours, and told to grow into amazing flowers. Why should we accept this? I recently read Randi Zuckerberg’s Pick 3 and enjoyed the promotion of having a lopsided outlook on life. The chapters on choosing work as one of your “three’s” resonated with me. It also highlighted that we continually work in a confined space, and are still accepting options within a structure that is not woman friendly.

Should we go that one step further to recognise we do fall into different categories. You may be thinking, Darshana this is becoming too granular, but who better than to talk this through than with you – current employers, employees and the next generation to sit on boards and make pivotal decisions for the future. Once again, I think we have conditioned ourselves into thinking workplace flexibility is the be all and end all to balance for women, but I truly believe there’s more that we can do.

What does it mean to be a working mother? How does a workplace help a transitioning woman? What about a woman who cannot or will not have children and chooses to adopt a child instead? What if you’re a woman of a religious background with no kids but want to have days off to celebrate religious festivals? How do we openly and candidly talk about balance? There are some corporations, like PwC, that are working towards an inclusive workplace with corresponding policies. What I am asking all of you to do today is to go beyond policies and even stretch past the traditional working model, in the challenge that is Balance for Better.

I’d like to share some ideas with you:

  1. Lose the traditional working ‘9-5’ hours model, and introduce shift work into corporate culture. I’ve often questioned the validity of working ‘9-5’. The rat race seems to be about accomodating these working hours, if not more, binding everyone to their screens and chairs. Studies from ancient Greek through to modern sleep studies indicate that as human beings, we are used to working in short, sharp spurts. How would you feel if your workplace had official work hours from 7am -7pm, with shifts available throughout the week in 6 hour blocks. Corporate shifts could be swapped between employees, enabling personal appointments, pick-ups, drop offs or a swim before work.
  2. Following on from that radical idea – what if an employer offered you a 7 day working week, breaking the traditional weekend. This would, of course require similar structures like schools, day care, banks and service providers to follow suit, to really work. But let’s imagine some of the unintentional side effects – like less traffic on the roads throughout the week. Possibly a saving on childcare. A chance to volunteer during the week or simply go and see your counsellor without worrying about your boss watching you leave at 3pm on a Tuesday afternoon.
  3. Making it compulsory for all ASX listed top 50 companies to provide a creche at their workplace. Some of you may cringe at this idea (being so close to your children during the work day). Governments should be working with large corporates to bring about empowering changes. Lately, it seems our current government still can’t figure out how to bring about more women in parliament, quota debate put aside.
  4. Providing working parents with monthly Shebah credits to use in emergency pick-ups for their children so they could be brought back to their workplace. Parents can track the journey without having to physically leave the office, knowing that their employer has covered the cost and the drivers have had the relevant background checks.
  5. For women who are visually impaired – enable all workplaces with braille on door signs, or have a ‘talking office’ like Jeeves from Iron Man. We have talking technology available to us in the form of Siri – why not consider extending that. Who knows, maybe Cochlear could team up with Apple and tell a woman how far and how many steps to the bathroom in a quiet, dignified voice only she is able to hear.

I have shared these ideas with you because they distort and extend the notion of flexibility and balance. They pick at the system itself because if we are truly going to believe in Balance for Women, then we need to be brave and courageous as managers and employers and put forward ideas, no matter how large or audacious they may seem. As employees, we need to be bold and tell our male and female employers or managers that perhaps their version of Balance is not compatible with ours.

I do hope I have given you some food for thought that you will take back to your workplaces, family and friends. Balance for Better, women’s representation and women’s rights are not women’s issues – they are systemic issues that are at the moment are detrimental to women. It’s up to us to lead the changes.