Stop asking women to change

Acceptable wisdom seems to be that for women to be taken seriously as business leaders they should only speak on business issues and studiously avoid addressing the so called work-life balance or the challenges of juggling a career and a family.

"f we are serious about developing and mentoring women leaders, ALL our leaders (male and female) should be prepared to lead on this and share their experiences."
Pam Rebecca, General manager of digital at ANZ

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I have a friend who is a senior leader in another organisation who will only accept speaking and panel engagements about business topics and refuses any invitation on the topic of work/balance. She has now progressed into a chief executive officer role, so maybe this strategy has worked for her.

I get the philosophy about this approach and I understand the intent as well as the risks of ignoring it. I still have a serious problem with it.

Like many challenges faced by women - including that of personal safety - the remedy is almost exclusively focussed on what women have to do to change.

If the objective is to get women leaders to be taken seriously, then the irony is the remedy of asking women leaders to be silent is likely to negatively impact them.

I speak frequently internally and externally on a range of topics and while I am asked questions about many topics I am regularly asked - by both men and women, but especially women - what advice I have about having a career and being a parent.

Aspiring women leaders really want to know about the challenges and trade-offs of having a family and a career. These things matter to them.

They mattered to me when I was at that stage of my career (and they still matter to me) but for me the role models to ask were few and far between.

The majority of the senior leaders I worked closely with had stay-at-home wives or were single. There were few people I could observe or ask who were successfully doing what I was trying to do.

If we are serious about developing and mentoring women leaders, when they have real questions and concerns about how to navigate having both a successful career and children, then ALL our leaders (male and female) should be prepared to lead on this and share their experiences.

By asking women leaders to be silent we subscribe to the notion that perpetuates the status quo - where women need to change rather than men. We also shut down a very important conversation.

We should encourage all aspiring leaders - male and female - to engage in these conversations. Both men and women leaders want balanced lives with careers and families and have serious questions and they should be able to hear stories from male and female senior leaders.

By discouraging senior female leaders to talk about this important topic, we yet again disadvantage women. The answer is not to shut down the conversation, but to ask male leaders to contribute to it and answer the same questions. It's not that hard.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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