The recent Atlantic article by Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” has created conversation about an important issue. The article focuses on the challenges of climbing the organizational ladder and being a good mother. Clearly this challenge is among the primary causes of the pyramid problem (that women still are not proportionally represented in the upper ranks of business). I focus on a cause that is equally important, and equally challenging to solve: creating inclusive workplace culture.
Some responses to the Slaughter piece have pointed out that men cannot have it all either. That reaction underscores the historical evolution we are seeing. Before the 1960’s, for the middle class (where having one partner working at home was an option), this was not much of an issue. In the typical middle class family, the man worked for money; the wife worked at home. Then the Baby Boomer women arrived, trying to prove that, like men, they could have it all. Unlike the men, most of us did not have a “wife” at home. If we left the office early to deal with a child’s needs, we feared we would be judged as lacking commitment (while a man leaving for such a purpose was lauded as a great dad). Now it is an issue for men as well as women as the younger generations avoid the workaholism of their parents and share family responsibilities more equally.
Because of this, it is more important than ever for employers to implement Slaughter’s suggestions, which are structural in nature: create flexible work schedules, design multiple paths to success and re-think the standard arc of a career. These structural changes will benefit both men and women—but, importantly, will help employers engage and retain talented women and so achieve gender diversity at the top. That is because, as Slaughter suggests, missing out on children’s lives may on average affect women differently than men and because the “have it all” issue still affects more women than men.
To achieve gender diversity at the leadership level, leaders must also create cultures where women as well as men feel valued, have a sense of belonging and feel they can succeed. In a culture that is masculine in nature and places a higher value on masculine ways of thinking and behaving, women are less likely to feel included and able to succeed. The unwelcoming culture may be the tipping point that causes them to quit, stall in their careers and not reach their potential. In an inclusive workplace, the stress of juggling career and family is more likely to be worth it. Women are more likely to stay and do great work, and more will reach the top.
The bad news for leaders is that, in order to achieve gender diversity at the top, they must attend to both structural and cultural challenges. The good news is that, if they do both, they will reap the documented business benefits of gender diversity in leadership.