They came from different professions, but they shared much. They were all women in their mid-to-late thirties; all had worked hard at their careers; most of them had supportive husbands and families; and all of them had made very similar decisions to quit the conventional workplace.
Some made the decision after they had children; some quit in order to spend more time looking after ill or ageing parents. Meera said: “I wasn’t happy to leave. I felt I could do the job, given flexible working hours and a very helpful partner. But the norms of the workplace are too rigid to accommodate my needs.” She’s continued to work with more understanding employers, but at a price ? her flexible working hours come with a substantial pay cut, and she has fewer career opportunities.
Ayesha was blunt. “It’s the offices, no matter how many cr?ches they put in, it’s still a man’s world out there.” This week, an international business magazine looked at the European conundrum. Europe offers working women more maternity and family leave, better day care and flexible working hours; America did nothing of the kind, but there were more women in the top job ranks in the US.
That’s because flexitime and longer leave worked to the disadvantage of women in the workplace: employers are reluctant to hire women who might take time off to have children. Women who sacrificed personal time in order to get the job done were rewarded, like their male counterparts. Women who took advantage of what seemed to be personally enriching policies were penalised at the workplace.
But listening to my friends’ stories, I began to wonder about the other side of the picture. Gender policies at the workplace are all directed towards helping women to balance the roles of mother and employee, CEO and daughter, executive and wife. Men are missing from this equation. Paternity leave may be available, but it’s not taken seriously. The new, sensitive workplace may give them “fathering time”, but they get fewer promotions.
“All my colleagues will tell you they’d like to spend more time with the kids, with the family,” said a cynical male friend who heads his own consultancy. “But the truth? Not if their careers will take a hit. And the joys of family life? Get real: given a choice between doing a business lunch at the Oberoi and picking up the kids from school, what would you rather do?” A few others were less cynical, though the strongest reactions came from men near retirement. “I wasn’t there through my kid’s first play, my mother’s illness, wasn’t there when the dog had puppies, and now I think, what was I doing? ”
The problem with today’s workplace isn’t that it’s not woman-friendly. It’s that offices and companies don’t see it as their job to enable their male employees to be good fathers, husbands and sons, as well as good bosses and colleagues. In the short run, the masculine workplace seems to offer men a good deal. In the long run, it cripples men by forcing them to pretend that being in a suit 14 out of 24 hours is the most important thing they can do with their lives.