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Career Women Redefining Success: On Their Own Terms


This article also appeared in Finweek Magazine in their 19-Jan-2012 issue

blonde careerwomanThe workforce is changing. Gone is the stereotypical 1950’s model of male breadwinners having a career, while the wife stays at home, makes babies and does the housework. This old-fashioned framework needs a makeover to make way for today’s working woman and the way she is redefining success.

The US evidence in favour of a shift in thinking is strong. In 2010, the total US workforce comprised 47% women, and the level of women who are sole breadwinners of US families reached a record high. Women make up over 40% of all entrepreneurs. Since 1979, earnings for women with college degrees have risen 33%, compared to only 22% for their male peers. Women occupied 52% of all management, professional, and related jobs in 2010.
However, women still have far to go to reach the top of US companies. In 2011, females hold only 14% of executive officer jobs and 15.7% of directorships in Fortune 500 companies. And women still make 77 cents on the dollar to men.

Are we seeing similar trends in South Africa? The evidence is mixed. Women make up 52% of our population and over 50% of the higher education workforce. However, the Businesswomen’s Association (BWA) Women in Leadership Census showed that women accounted for only 16% of all directors in South Africa in 2011. This is up from 7% in 2004, so there seems to be a slight increasing trend. In 2011, a higher percentage of women hold director- and executive manager jobs in South Africa than in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand.
MBA trends are also a useful marker for business trends because the MBA is widely regarded as the benchmark business degree. On the one hand, some South African business schools reported that women MBA representation rose as much as 10% from 2005 to 2010. However, many schools asserted that this stayed roughly the same. On MBAconnect.net, the social network that we run for all MBAs in South Africa and worldwide, the percentage of women MBA students and alumni has stayed constant at 37% despite considerable growth in MBAconnect.net membership in the 4 years since MBAconnect.net was launched. Clearly, more data is needed on South Africa’s workforce trends for women before definitive conclusions can be drawn.

So how does today’s woman define success? Flexibility and balance are key.

According to experts and US stats, both sexes want flexibility and more control of their time:
• 78% of US couples are dual-income earners;
• 63% feel they don’t have enough time for their spouses or partners;
• 74% say they don’t have sufficient time for their children, and their children agree. When asked what they wanted from their working moms, 10% of children said “more time.” Over a third wanted Mom “less stressed and tired”;
• 35% of adults are spending significant time caring for an elderly relative.

So what does this mean in terms of work schedules?
• Half of the population want fewer working hours;
• Half would change their schedules;
• More than half would trade money for a day off;
• Three-quarters want flexible work options.

Data from the US Families & Work Institute show that more and more male and female employees want to cut back on career goals. “Lower aspirations don’t mean less talented workers,” asserts the Institute’s Lois Backon. “Most do want to feel engaged by their jobs. But in focus groups they make comments such as ‘I need to make these choices because my family is a priority’ or ‘I need to make these choices to make my life work.’ ”

What’s driving the shift in priorities? The most crucial factor is that we now realise women are very good for business. Many studies indicate that companies with women in senior management roles perform better and make more money.

Other drivers include burnout, lack of job security, reduced company benefits and rising job mobility, say experts. The insecurity of that new mobility has a surprising bonus – more freedom. Not staying in the same company for years and years gives women huge leeway to move sideways or backward – to define their own career trajectories.

This desire for freedom rises as age decreases. While Baby Boomers are increasingly frustrated by the 60-hour workweek but often tolerate it, the next generation has zero interest in it. Personal lives and family are vital to them. “Generations X and Y do have a very strong work ethic, but they seek more balance— a satisfying work and personal life. And that’s not only the women,” says Kathleen Christensen of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which funds research on families and work.

There is also a strong business case for flexible working for both sexes. It enhances staff productivity and lowers overheads, while staff have significantly better work/life balance, higher satisfaction and motivation. Flexible working also helps companies to scale quickly in times of rapid growth.

Many companies are losing senior women executives to entrepreneurial endeavours. Why? Flexibility. According to recent US data, over 50% of female entrepreneurs started their businesses because of a lack of flexibility in the corporate environment. As a woman entrepreneur myself, I left corporate and started my business largely to find better balance between work, family and other areas (I now realise that entrepreneurial balance is a myth, but that’s another issue…).

Erin Albert, a US entrepreneur and teacher of entrepreneurs, unpacks the motivations of female entrepreneurs in her book, Single. Women. Entrepreneurs. In agreement with Christensen, Albert said “Women, especially Generations X and Y, want to make their business, personal lives and aspirations work in greater harmony.” Thus, they often prefer to restrict the size of their businesses and not to seek outside funding from investors or loans to fuel more growth.

Many women entrepreneurs – and, in fact, an increasing number of young male entrepreneurs – intentionally limit the growth of their businesses so that they have time for interests outside their business. They want to spend time with their family, friends or in their community, or pursue other personal interests such as hobbies or studies.

Some entrepreneurs prefer to chase high growth and high returns in their ventures. While this can potentially mean more income and wealth, it comes at a high price. The owners’ families typically see them a lot less, and there is little, if any, time for interests outside the business.

The change is coming. An increasing number of women executives are defining success on their own terms, and no longer mainly in terms of their jobs. While their career paths seem atypical, and they’ve made job decisions based on their family and balance — something which would have ruined most corporate climbers in the past — today it works for them.

At the upper end, there are US triumphs like that of Brenda Barnes, CEO of Sara Lee from 2004. Barnes left her job as CEO of PepsiCo in 1998 to bring up her kids. She got heavy criticism at the time. Now that her children are in college, she has become the US’ most high-profile, top-achieving “on-ramper”—a person who re-enters the workplace after taking off time to raise kids. Barnes’ negotiation, and those of other women like her, are collectively eroding the old hierarchy.

“Today’s business world, where work can be done anywhere at any time, calls for a flexible environment that gives the opportunity for work/life balance,” Barnes says. “This doesn’t mean employees work less; instead it means empowering employees to do their work on a schedule that works for them. So if they want to work from their kitchen at 3am, as long as the work gets done, who cares when or where they are doing it? Companies need to realise that this kind of flexibility offers employees the ability to manage and balance their own careers and lives, which improves productivity and employee morale.”

Sadly, there don’t seem to be similar victories publicised for South African women “on-rampers” in leadership positions. This could be because it isn’t big news in South Africa for women leaders to successfully re-enter the workforce after raising kids. Nevertheless, we sorely need more role models in this area for other South African working women to follow.

In the US, the company shift is happening in a big way, as companies implement company policies with innovative, manageable work packages:
• In the US, KPMG gives its staff work-compressed workweeks, flexi-hours, telecommuting, job sharing, or even reduced workloads. They have also implemented wellness scorecards to determine if a staff member is working too hard or missing holidays. If so, managers encourage a slowdown. They also get 8 weeks fully paid maternity leave, even for adoptive parents. And two-thirds pay if you need more time.
• Chapman & Cutler, a US law firm, started a two-tier pay scale. Hard-chargers who bill 2,000 hours per annum are paid the most. Those who choose to slow down and see their families and friends, can bill 1,800 hours and earn less. Over half selected the lower scale.

Are there similar successes for companies in South Africa? The good news is that 85% of companies in South Africa like IBM, Accenture, and more, give their staff flexible working. So it is the norm rather than the exception. In South Africa and other countries Dell is leading the way in flexible working and work/life balance. They offer flexible work arrangements such as job sharing, compressed work weeks, work-from-home arrangements, plus other initiatives to promote work/life balance such as mothers’ rooms, Well at Dell wellness initiatives, such as Weight Watchers at Work and stop-smoking programs, and many more. Unfortunately for many companies in South Africa, trust is still a major barrier to flexible working– 48% offer flexible working only to senior staff, even when so many of them realise that it can cut costs. So we still have a long way to go in this area.

Although it seems to be happening slower in South Africa than some other countries, the shift towards more flexible, balanced working conditions is happening here at the company level. In the pursuit of balance, women worldwide are using their greater economic power to negotiate more creative, manageable work schedules. So it’s a matter of time before more South African female role models emerge, paving the way for our female workforce to redefine success on their own terms.

Author: Colette Symanowitz

Director of FraudCracker. Passionate about entrepreneurship, personal branding and networking. I also tweet under @FraudCracker

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