We often hear the “Can we have it all?” debates particularly when it comes to discussions about women’s careers. This is perfectly reasonable given the pace of social change, especially when you consider the rapid increase in the workforce participation rate for 15 to 64 year old females from 46% in 1975 to 66% today (IGR, 2015), this includes part-time work.
However, often neglected in debates of this nature is the question, “Whoever said any of us could have it all?” and more to the point, is having it all desirable? Also, what about the variability of what ‘having it all’ means from one person to another? No matter the answer, perhaps this merely serves as a distraction to what sits at the heart of career satisfaction. What we now consider satisfaction to be (like self esteem) can be elusive. How many can claim they have really achieved career satisfaction in their working life?
Life and career satisfaction in today’s world is multi faceted and individualistic. Achieving satisfaction seems incredibly complex. Resolving conflicts between balancing all aspects of working with other interests and responsibilities external to the work place is challenging at the best of times.
There doesn’t appear to be any metaphorical rulers that can be broadly cast to create a neat heuristic of what career satisfaction now constitutes. Historical combinations of fit, attributes, capability, skills and qualifications (while still critical indicators of career drivers and satisfaction) seem incomplete measures when there are so many other external forces at play. Increases of women in senior roles and overall participation in the workforce along with the genesis of corporate social responsibility, triple bottom lines and carbon credits in the ‘naughties’ demonstrate how our societal values are evolving, and further weighing in on career satisfaction and personal gratification.
It’s not sufficient to look only at external factors to explain variations in career success and satisfaction for women. An article by Marguerite Rigoglioso cites research by O’ Neill, O’Reilly, Buck et.al that resolves the conundrum that has plagued women in the business arena: To be successful, you must be assertive and confident, but if you are aggressive as a woman you are sometimes punished for behaving in ways that are contrary to the feminine stereotype. Such negative response to assertive women has been labelled the “backlash effect”.
This research indicates that certain women high in “masculine traits” — defined as aggressiveness, assertiveness, and confidence — were also able to “self-monitor” their behaviour. “These women were able to be chameleons, to fit into their environment by assessing social situations and adapting their actions accordingly,” explains O’Neill. Women who were high self-monitors did quite well professionally, according to the study and received 1.5 times more promotions than men. “The interesting thing here is that being able to regulate one’s masculine behaviour does not simply put women on par with men, it gives them even more of an advantage,” notes O’Neill. According to the researchers the effect of managing “masculine” traits is significant, since it can have a noticeable effect on success early in women’s careers. Even small differences in success rates at the beginning of one’s career, have large long term effects. It is possible that as more and more women understand and adopt this behaviour pattern, the lower percentages of women currently in the upper managerial ranks could reverse out over time.
Amanda Sinclair in her book, ‘Leadership for the Disillusioned’ discusses the risks and difficulties in being oneself, citing that in professional contexts it has left her feeling punished for it. She also argues where leaders are seen as different from the norm, for example gender, that being successfully oneself or one’s authentic self can require a lot of camouflage!
A recent paper authored by Kay and Shipman in 2014 put the case that, for women, confidence matters just as much as competence in achieving career success. The authors acknowledged that men also doubt themselves like women but claimed that men don’t let their doubts stop them as often as women do. Moreover, Kay and Shipman argued that the result of low confidence is inaction and that when women hesitate because they aren’t sure, they hold themselves back.
It continues to be challenging for women to stretch the limits and push the boundaries of societal norms that confine and constrain workplace thinking, which serves to hold back organisational performance and can make career satisfaction elusive. However, career satisfaction for either gender is there for those who want it; but beware, it may come with some hefty sacrifices.
We should all have a right to career satisfaction, irrespective of gender, especially since work occupies a good deal of our lives. Paradoxically, this may sound simple; but simple doesn’t mean easy, particularly in a fast changing world. It may be that to ask only “Can we have it all?” may serve to simply divert attention away from what intrinsically matters to us as individuals with respect to career satisfaction. Moreover, we may need to ask many fundamental questions to gain glimpses, if not clarity, of what overall satisfaction means to us. Finding the time and energy to ask the right questions is worthwhile in this pursuit.
It’s great to dream big, just so long as we don’t airbrush reality and then, as a result, feel that we are underachieving. Building a truly inspiring and rewarding career, must meet with your definition of success, (the only definition that matters).