I recently had a conversation with a male colleague whose wife gave up her very lucrative professional job to look after their children and, when she decided to return to the work force, she went to work in an environment in which she could never match her previous earning potential or career aspirations. Digging a bit deeper, my colleague explained that, when they first got married, his wife was an up-and-coming professional, working for a prestigious financial institution, with aspirations for her own career progression and growth. Then, when she fell pregnant with their first child, she felt ostracised and actively (albeit inconspicuously) squeezed out of her team and her job. This evidenced itself by assuming she had neither interest nor energy to work on high-profile projects, regarding her as not pulling her weight in the team, and changing behaviour towards her to such an extent that she no longer felt welcome in the team and the organisation. No-one in the company stood up for her and other than to confront the situation through formal means, the only sensible solution to her was to leave the work force. The wife’s confidence was shattered to such an extent that when she decided to resume her career, a career in the financial sector – or any other corporate environment – was no longer an attractive proposition.
My colleague told me this story when I shared with him what I had heard about another young colleague in our company who was expecting her first child and facing unprecedented difficulties and challenges from her previously supportive line manager. My colleague was dismayed by this behaviour and stated that, not only is this appalling behaviour towards the women in question, it is detrimental to the company, and most of all, detrimental to marriages. My colleague wanted very much to share the financial burden of having a family in London with his once equally capable wife, but has wound up in a situation where he is the sole bread winner, fearing to compromise his job, given financial family burdens. The colleague felt resentful towards his wife’s old manager who pulled the rug from under her feet and the company that let it happen. The colleague was now in a position where he could no longer pursue his passions, share in the upbringing of their children, or – being the main breadwinner of the family – hope for any kind of work-life balance.
This story opened my eyes to the exponential impact that corporate treatment of women might have on society. I realised that it’s not only women who might aspire to a reasonable work-life balance; more and more men recognise the value of sharing a home life with their spouse a more fulfilling proposition than dedicating their entire existence to the corporate beast. The generation behind me is certainly looking for this kind of balance, as other male colleagues have and continue to demonstrate. Yet corporate culture doesn’t recognise the fact that the kind of things that women are traditionally known to fight for – flexible yet meaningful work so that they can attend to more than just one priority – are also secret aspirations of today’s professional males. Unfortunately, as things stand, it wouldn’t do for a professional man to admit this to his line manager or even another male colleague as he would instantly be deemed uncommitted to his career and company. But I have no doubt that these conversations do take place among friends and families.
I therefore strongly believe that all the changes that we, professional women, are fighting for in the corporate world, will eventually benefit not only our own gender but also our male friends and colleagues. And the sooner the old-fashioned corporate thinking changes, the sooner will companies be able to start building a work place and work force that is equipped for the future.