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work and familyWomen are doing great in business – in its lower ranks. Women earn more than half of all undergraduate and graduate degrees. According to Catalyst, in the Fortune 500 they make up nearly half of the workforce and slightly more than half of middle management. Then the story changes. The percentage of women at each level above middle management is nowhere near their overall representation in the workforce.  When asked why women do not make it to the top of business proportionally, most people think first of their role in the family. Anne Marie Slaughter and Sheryl Sandberg have brought fresh focus to this very real issue.

Juggling family and career can be a very real obstacle for women. But it is also exaggerated as a cause for women stalling or leaving a particular job. And focusing on it alone won’t solve the issue of getting gender diversity at the top.

Being a good parent and good on the job is a struggle; I know so personally. But, if I am in a workplace where I feel included and valued (i.e., engaged), I am likely more motivated to make the juggling act work. If I am in a workplace where I do not feel a sense of belonging and cannot see myself succeeding, the struggle is less worth it. The balance is tipped on the side of a woman’s decision to change jobs – or quit climbing. Women who do either may not be able to articulate these subtle drivers of dis-engagement. Or they may just be politically savvy and want to avoid burning bridges. So, as they go out the door, they use that common phrase, “want to spend more time with my family.”

I applaud businesses that provide flexible work schedules and multiple paths to the top. As Slaughter points out, the work-life balance issue is now a generational (not just a women’s) issue. But providing flexibility alone will not get enough women to the top to result in gender diversity there. Leaders must create cultures where women, as well as men, feel valued and included. The obstacles to creating inclusion for women do not arise from conscious bias or malicious intent. The obstacles are unintentional.  They operate at the unconscious level. That’s what makes them insidious and hard to change.

There are many resources to help businesses deal with the challenges of flexibility and “balance.” I focus on the cultural issue and help leaders create cultures where both men and women are engaged. In the first blog of each month over the next months, I will deal with the invisible obstacles that keep women from the top – the double bind, the comfort principle and unconscious images.

Do you think an inclusive culture makes it more worthwhile to juggle work and family?