My article about women and work has offered an unexpected litmus test on global gender equality...
When I wrote the cover article of the July-August issue of The Atlantic, titled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, I expected a hostile reaction from many American career women of my generation and older and positive reactions from women aged roughly 25 to 35. I expected that many men of that younger generation would also have strong reactions, given how many of them are trying to figure out how to be with their children, support their wives’ careers and pursue their own plans.
I also expected to hear from business representatives about whether my proposed solutions – greater workplace flexibility, ending the culture of face-time and “time machismo” and allowing parents who have been out of the work force or working part-time to compete equally for top jobs once they re-enter – were feasible or utopian.
What I did not expect was the speed and scale of the reaction – almost a million readers within a week and far too many written responses and TV, radio and blog debates for me to follow – and its global scope. I have done interviews with journalists in Britain, Germany, Norway, India, Australia, Japan, the Netherlands and Brazil; and articles about the piece have been published in Canada, France, Ireland, Italy, Bolivia, Jamaica, Vietnam, Israel, Lebanon and many other countries.
In many ways, reaction has been a litmus test of where individual countries are in their own evolution toward full equality for men and women. India and Britain, for example, have had strong women prime ministers but now grapple with the “woman-as-man” archetype of female success.
The Scandinavian countries know that women around the world look to them as pioneers of social and economic policies that enable women to be mothers and successful career professionals and that encourage and expect men to play an equal parenting role. But they are not producing as many women managers in the private sector as the United States is, much less at the top ranks.
The Germans are deeply conflicted. One major German magazine decided to frame my contribution to the debate as “career woman admits that it’s better to be home.” Another (more accurately) highlighted my emphasis on the need for deep social and economic change to allow women to have equal choices.
The French remain studiously aloof, even a little disdainful, as befits a nation that rejects “feminism” as an American creation and yet manages to produce a leader who is simultaneously as accomplished and elegant as Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund. Of course, the example of her predecessor, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and other stories about French male behaviour suggest that perhaps a bit more féminisme à la française is in order.
Japanese women lament how far they must still go in a relentlessly male and sexist culture. The Chinese now have a generation of educated, empowered young women who are not sure whether they want to marry at all.
Brazilian women point with pride to President Dilma Rousseff but also underscore how much discrimination remains. In Australia, with its robust work-life debate, women point to the success of Julia Gillard, the first woman prime minister, but note that she has no children.
The global debate demonstrates at least three important lessons. First, if “soft power” means exercising influence because “others want what you want,” as Joseph Nye puts it, then women the world over want what feminists in the United States and elsewhere began fighting for three generations ago.
Second, Americans have much to learn from other countries’ debates, laws and cultural norms. After all, women have ascended the political ladder faster in many other countries. The United States has never had a woman president, Senate majority leader, treasury secretary or defence secretary.
Finally, these are not “women’s issues,” but social and economic ones. Societies that discover how to use the education and talent of half their populations, while allowing women and their partners to invest in their families, will have a competitive edge in the global knowledge and innovation economy.
Of course, hundreds of millions of women around the world can only wish that they had the problems I wrote about. Worldwide, more than a billion women confront physical violence and overt gender discrimination in education, nutrition, health care and salaries.
Women’s rights are a global issue of the highest importance, and it is necessary to focus on the worst violations. Still, consider a recent report from a sober and respected American magazine. The National Journal observed that women working in Washington have come a long way, but “still face career barriers, and often the biggest one is having a family.”
If “having a family” is still a career barrier for women but not men, then that, too, is a matter of women’s rights (and thus of human rights). In the global debate about work, family and the promise of gender equality, no society is exempt.
When she was asked by Harvard Business School’s Antony J. Mayo and Mayuka Yamazaki why she brought men in her once all-female company, she said:
“How about if we put some men in here?” The managers said, “No, thank you, we don’t need any of those creatures.” But we did need them. A branch happened to hire a man as a part-timer, and wow, did sales increase! That was the turning point. The trick was achieving the right mix of men and women. We now have 60% women. But I wish there were more women in top positions. In Japan, the child care industry is inadequate, so women with children must stay home, and that makes it hard to change the ratio.”
One of my favorite line from this extraordinary woman is, when at the end of the HBR interview, she is asked:
“Were the obstacles you faced in starting a business greater because you are a woman?”
“People often ask me that. My answer is “How would I know? I have never been a man.”
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