A great divide: planned parenthood and corporate planning

Corporate plans in place for a terrorist attack or natural disaster, but not maternity leave

Stereotypical thinking
I have just taken a flight across Europe. For 2 hours and 20 minutes straight, a new-born baby screamed without taking a breath the entire trip. The parent (male) and steward (male) did their level best to soothe the poor mite – but to no avail. It was a totally natural scene and possibly apart from being thankful it wasn’t their child, no one on that aeroplane gave the matter a second thought and especially not the gender of the 2 care givers

Perpetuating stereotypes
Which made me think of the Forbes Power Women List which came out last week. I’m not a fan and generally believe it leans towards bull rather than buzz, although I will admit this year’s list is an improvement on 2010, despite Christine Lagarde only coming in at #9. I also think perhaps somewhat contentiously that it promotes stereotypical thinking, just as much and perhaps more so, as it tries to debunk it.

A vital statistic that stood out for me in this year’s promotional roll call, in that slightly breathless, condescending, incredulous, ” didn’t they do well” tone, is that 88% of the women on the list have children. They are mothers. What’s particularly interesting about this information, is that it is even mentioned. I assume most of the Forbes powerful men list are fathers. Does anyone ever comment about that? Exactly!

Planned parenthood
One of the greatest historical changes to impact the lives of couples and women in particular in recent times (perhaps ever) in the developed world, is the wide availability of sophisticated birth control and contraception.The Economist (December 31, 1999) called oral contraceptives ” the greatest science and technology advance in the twentieth century

This has given both women and men (let’s not forget these are not immaculate conceptions) in developed economies, the opportunity to plan with the military precision of a space mission, not just the number of children they have, but also the timing of each pregnancy. Diets are adjusted, alcohol intake modified, exercise increased, temperatures taken, ovulation cycles monitored, sperm counts checked, baby rooms prepared, ante natal classes attended, showers held, mother and baby classes subscribed to. Books are bought, family are alerted, dad-to-be helps with all the heavy breathing, romper suits arrive by the dozen. Buggies, bouncers and baby chairs are ordered. Names are chosen, christenings or similar naming ceremonies are planned. Plan Bs hover in the background , with frozen eggs and sperm on hand just in case mother nature doesn’t oblige.

Strategic planning
So it would seem, notwithstanding the odd surprise, that having a baby has to be one of the most orderly and thought out processes that many men and women undertake in their lives. So I ask myself (and you too!) why does the planning seem to stop there? If employees are planning their families, why can organisations not plan to the same degree? Instead the careers of women in their 30s becomes a major elephant in the sitting room, that people hope will amble away on its own. And women do – in their droves.

Female workforce
Janine is a Client Services Director for a well-known financial services company based near Brighton, UK. She manages a team of 120, of which 90 are women. 80% of that number are between the ages 18 and 40. “ If all my team became pregnant at the same time, I’d have a problem!” she told me smiling. “As their manager I’m not allowed to ask my employees what their plans or intentions are with regard to having a family. Their supervisors are close to their staff in an informal way and have ideas about who we would move where and to cover which gaps and skill sets. But there is no official succession planning policy to cover maternity leave, although we do have an emergency plan in the event of a terrorist attack or other natural disaster! ”

Terrorist threat
Now I’m sure there could well be any number of subversive, underground, terrorist cells plotting to target financial organisations near Brighton, but I wonder how these threats, including a meteorological catastrophe, would stack up against the likelihood of any of those female staff becoming pregnant. There is a plan to cope with both of the former, but not the latter. Does that strike anyone as a little incongruous? I also find it frustrating than women are not expected to plan beyond the start of their maternity leave and although having a baby is discombobulating on many levels, it doesn’t close down brain functionality completely. They are having a baby, not a lobotomy.

The father factor
A Fatherhood Study carried out by Boston College tells us “ According to a study by the National Study of the Changing Workforce, for the first time since 1992, young women and young men do not differ in terms of their desire for jobs with greater responsibility (Galinsky, Aumann, & Bond, 2008). As a result, young women may be less prone to be the “accommodating spouse” in two-career couples, placing their career aspirations second to that of their male spouses”.

In fact the study also suggests that men also have different expectations. “Their wives are likely to be at least as well if not better educated, just as ambitious as they are, and make more money than they do. More importantly, these men feel that being a father is not about being a hands-off economic provider

Cultural changes
It would seem that although the expectations of both men and women are changing, organisations are not adapting fast enough to the cultural shifts in the societies around them. Economies need to counteract a declining birth rate and stimulate economic growth. The economy of the euro zone for example has been predicted to grow 16 per cent if women were in formal employment as much as men. Both men and women are looking for better work/life balance, not just women, and the business model for corporate culture, which creates a gender divide needs to be re-examined rather than emulated.

Lists such as the Forbes list with messages which portray women with successful careers as mothers are actually perpetuating stereotypical thinking rather than knocking it on the head.

Men get married and are fathers too.

8 thoughts on “A great divide: planned parenthood and corporate planning

  1. Wendy Mason

    Hi Dorothy
    This is a really challenging subject. I share your frustration. I think if organizations were allowed to plan properly for pregnancy they would make women more, not less, welcome. Gender should be irrelevant in the workplace but the reality is that for many it is not. This is so particularly among some of the older generation at the top of some of our more long established organisations. We just have to keep waving the flag and pressing forward, I suppose!
    Best wishes

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Wendy for your comment. Do you think when this generation of baby boomers, a post war generation raised more frequently by stay at home, careerless Mums finally retires that there will be some more creative thinking in the work place?

  2. Gwyn Teatro

    Brava Dorothy~ Sometimes, I think we get so tied up in preserving privacy rights that we forget to be sensible. “Sensible” is acknowledging that women have careers and they get pregnant. Encouraging some planning around that, both for themselves and for their organizations just makes sense for everyone.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Gwyn – yes it seems that everyone talks and plans for terrorist threats and not about planning for maternity leave. Unhappily even women become previous and buy into it. I read recently that Goldman Sachs have introduced mentoring programmes for expectant mothers in India. So much healthier!

  3. Anne Egros, Global Executive Coach

    Great subject Dorothy. I think it is still taboo for a woman to say she is planning when to have a baby as part of her strategic planning for her career. Women without children seems to always need an excuse for not having the “mother instinct”. I got my baby late as I was pursuing an expat career but before my son was born, I felt each time I got the question, “do you have children?”, I had to say “I could not have a baby” rather than saying “I decided not to have a baby now”.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      I think Sheryl Sandberg also touched on this when she said ” don’t leave until you leave”. Many women are daunted by machismo in the workplace which isdriven by out dated business models. That’s why the Goldman Sachs initiative is excellent providing a mentor.

      Organisations would rather not hire women than sit down and discuss a strategic career plan which will include a family. But they do plan for terrorists threats. In some countries companies are not allowed to ask women their career plans before maternity leave or to contact them while away – so this attitude has been institutionalised in our legal systems. Before I wrote this post I spoke to a number of HR contacts and they all said they had no official plans or processes for dealing with maternity leave -they just dealt with it informally on a “as must” basis which is crazy if a high percentage of the workforce is women!.

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