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The F word

I’m a feminist. Allow me to elaborate.

As a little girl, I used to envision my future as a corporate career woman. I would picture myself in a skirt suit, walking in heels, smoking cigarettes and drinking freely to seal important business deals (I was born and raised in Vietnam, where real business happens at restaurants over drinks after hours, not in the office). It wasn’t because I was fascinated by the act of smoking or drinking. I simply wanted to do something that seemed to be reserved for men, something socially and culturally inaccessible to the women around me.

My teenage years could be best described by all the things that I didn’t do. I didn’t see myself as a “real” girl. I wasn’t interested in “beautifying” myself. I rebelled against the pressure to speak gently, walk gently, and be generally helpless when it comes to anything that requires a tiny ounce of physical strength. I stopped wearing anything that was considered feminine (skirts, dresses, anything pink!). I refused to let a guy pay for my portion on dates. Trivial as they were, these were the only ways I knew to express my opinions about gender roles and stereotypes.

A new world opened up to me (physically and culturally) when I moved to Canada and stumbled into a liberal arts education. I still remember reading my textbook for my Women’s Studies class, feeling justified and understood in a way that I hadn’t felt before. Finally, I had the language to describe what I had been feeling all along. Most of all, I knew that I wasn’t alone, or an odd duck.

Fast forward to the present day. Here I am, a working mom who’s progressing up the career ladder. I didn’t need a diagram to know that there is a gender disparity at the senior management level. I can see it with my own eyes as I look around my workplace. Men are underrepresented in my industry yet somehow manage to be overrepresented at the senior leadership level. But just in case you haven’t seen it yourself, here’s a diagram from the 2019 Women in the Workplace report by McKinsey and LeanIn.Org.

So, obviously, we need more women at the C-suite level. No, scratch that, we need more diverse representation at the C-suite level.

We need the diversity in opinions, experiences, and perspectives when making important decisions that determine the trajectory of an organization, city, or country.

But I also believe we’re missing the boat if we just focus on diversifying the make-up of our executive boardroom and ignore the elephant in the room: how the demand and structure of these roles make them inaccessible or undesirable to a variety of people.

Do you know any executives? How many hours do you think they work on average? According to a small scale study by Harvard Business Review, CEOs typically work an average of 9.7 hours on a typical work day and also put in an average of 4 hours per day on the weekend. Even while on vacation, CEOs put in an average of 2.5 hours a day. Across the board, the CEOs that participated in the study agreed that managing time is one of their greatest challenges.

Even if we ignore the effects that this level of sustained pressure may have on someone’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being, this type of demand can only be accommodated if you want work to be the center of your life and you have someone else taking care of all the personal and household management tasks. Until we address the inflexibility and unrealistic demands of these positions, we will never achieve gender parity and true diversity in our boardroom and our government.

I used to think that as a feminist, I needed to support efforts to get more women into executive positions, starting with myself. I now think that we need to change the structure of our work in order to make it more accessible and manageable, not just for women, but for all people.

As the WHO declare burnout an occupational phenomenon, we need to wake up to the reality that the workplace that may have made sense 50 years ago needs a serious update. If we can make self-driving cars, surely we can figure out a different way to lead our government and companies that doesn’t require people to work themselves to the point of burnout.

So, let’s hit a pause on asking more women to “lean in” and start asking organizations to step up and do work differently.

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