I’m beginning to lose track of all the panels and conferences I’ve spoken at about how to increase the number of women at the top of the corporate ladder. The talking points are mostly the same. The prescriptions are mostly the same. And the biggest problem is: the whole system is largely the same. And broken. Yes, in small ways there’s been incremental progress, but that can obscure the far more notable fact of how little progress there’s been in much larger and more important ways. By counting the trees, we’re missing what’s happening with the forest.
Obviously, all companies need to put policies in place to greatly increase diversity and inclusion at all levels. But there’s also another truth: that our system of working is not working. Our always-on way of working and workplaces fueled by stress and burnout are bad for everyone — but they’re particularly bad for women, disproportionately affecting their physical and mental health, and causing them to flee the workplace as fast as most of the well-intentioned workplace diversity policies can bring them in. So why are we spending untold energy trying to work our way up the ladder of a broken system? Instead of dreaming of 50/50 representation in a suboptimal system, why don’t we instead envision and build a new and better one? Why aren’t we having just as many conferences and launching just as many initiatives about how to create an ideal workplace in which women – and men — would actually flourish instead of one in which burnout and stress are proliferating and mental health problems growing year by year?
McKinsey & Co and Sheryl Sandberg’s LeanIn.Org release a Women in the Workplace report every January in Davos. And as Sheryl Sandberg wrote about last year’s report, “progress toward equality in the workplace continues to be slow—and may even be stalling.” Or as the New York Times memorably put it in a recent report, the number of Fortune 500 CEOs who are women (23) is roughly the same as the number of Fortune 500 CEOs who are named “John” (21). That’s equal representation for a group that makes up 50.8 percent of the population vs. one that makes up 3.3 percent.
That’s unacceptable. Yet according to the same McKinsey/LeanIn.Org report, nearly 50 percent of men believe that in companies in which only 1 in 10 senior executives are women, women are well-represented.
Another McKinsey study found that while women take 53 percent of the entry-level jobs, they hold only 37 percent of mid-management positions and only 26 percent of vice president and senior management roles. And that’s not just because women are leaving to raise children. Nearly three-quarters of women in professional jobs will come back to work after having a baby, but only 40 percent of them will go back to working full-time. So how can we redesign workplaces so we can change these numbers?
Some of those not returning, or returning only part-time, no doubt have no desire to go back to their full-time careers. But many are simply making a considered and not unreasonable choice when going back means burning out. And that’s a choice women face more than men. For many reasons, as a recent study by the University of Montreal found out, women are more affected by a culture of burnout than men.
And that’s not surprising given that, even though 70 percent of women with children under 18 are working, they’re still doing the lion’s share of the work at home, after they get done with their work at work. Yes, men are doing more than they used to, but it’s still not equal. As of 2016 men reported doing an average of 8 hours of childcare a week, which is 3 times what it was in 1965 but just over half of what women are doing. This becomes a powerful backdoor way of excluding women and making it harder for them to advance into leadership positions.
Then there are the internal dynamics that hold women back, like “imposter syndrome” and the stress of perfectionism, which studies have shown affect women more than men. For Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance, these are elements of an asymmetry in confidence. “There is a particular crisis for women—a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes,” they write. “Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities.”
When you combine the structural and internal factors, which of course feed each other, you end up with a system that’s just not working for women.
Jenny Blake is one of the many women who has had to make a change after realizing how broken our current workplace culture’s definition of success is.
She was working as a development program manager at Google, but the always-on demands of her job put her on a different kind of fast track. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was in the fast lane to burnout,” she told Fast Company. “My pace was not sustainable, and I only realized it after I crashed.” As Blake points out, it’s the expectation of being always on that drives that pace. “It takes a tremendous amount of discipline not to check email at night or first thing in the morning, and not all office cultures (or managers) endorse or demonstrate that restraint themselves,” she said. “Work comes in at all hours, and it can be hard to create boundaries that keep it contained and allow for proper rest and renewal.”
Rebecca Parekh’s wake-up call came after having spent ten successful years working in banking. And it wasn’t that she wasn’t enjoying herself. “I loved my job and the high-energy environment of the trading floor,” she told Thrive Global. “I was committed to giving as much as I could so when I wasn’t physically at work I was home reading textbooks and studying the parts of the business that I didn’t yet fully understand.” But, as she wrote, “it left little time for much else.” The breaking point came after one too many 4 am phone calls. “I turned the light on in my room and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror,” she wrote. “I was half awake with bags under my eyes and I was like ‘this is nuts’. It doesn’t need to be like this…I knew this wasn’t what I wanted for my future.”
When she was 28, Nikki Veliz Merzliakov left her job in public health after her work stress began causing heart palpitations. “My burnout took me to a dark, isolating and numb place,” she wrote on Thrive Global. “And despite the support of my husband, I felt like I was never going to crawl out of the despair and exhaustion.” She did, but, as she says, what would be even better would be to fix the problem upstream. “It would be amazing if we could prevent burnout from occurring in the first place,” she wrote. “And given my nursing background, I love the mantra ‘prevention is better than cure’!”
Sallie Krawcheck, now CEO and Co-Founder of Ellevest, a digital investment platform for women, recalls her days in corporate America. “I had a personal health scare, I told my CEO I would have to step out of an offsite for a bit to have a brain scan,” she wrote, “and he told me to get back to the meeting as soon as possible. No ‘Oh my goodness, take the time you need.’ Not even an ‘I hope you’re ok.’…He never asked me the results of it, either.”
Another sign of how broken our system of work is: the experience of those just entering it. According to a new Gallup survey, 7 in 10 millennials have suffered at least some burnout in their jobs and almost 3 in 10 millennials feel like they’re very often or always burned out. Another new survey by Deloitte found that 43 percent of millennials plan on leaving their jobs within the next two years. And according to the Labor Department, the rate of those – of all ages – quitting their jobs hit its highest point in 16 years this past May.
Our “burn out or walk out” workplace culture is also exacting a horrible toll on our mental and physical health – and again, the effects are falling disproportionately on women. Women in highly stressful jobs have a nearly 40 percent increased risk of heart disease and heart attacks compared with their less-stressed colleagues, and a 60 percent greater risk for type 2 diabetes (a link that does not exist for men, by the way). Another study found that women who consider their jobs to be highly stressful have a 38 percent higher risk of heart disease and heart attacks than women who report less job stress. And contrary to what many think, more women die of heart disease each year than men. In fact, in the year after a heart attack, women are over 50 percent more likely to die than men.
So yes, women deserve full representation at every level of business. By while we’re putting up the ladders, let’s do some renovating. There’s a lot of innovative thinking about how to achieve parity, but while we’re rethinking the old models of recruitment and promotion, let’s rebuild the whole thing. And there is a more urgent reason to do it.
According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2018, artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data, and cloud computing are going to result in the loss of an estimated 75 million jobs by 2022. But the same forces of change are going to create 133 million jobs, and those new jobs are going to be different than the old ones. This presents huge challenges, but it also brings huge opportunities. As the reports states, in the age of technology and machines uniquely human qualities “such as creativity, originality and initiative, critical thinking, persuasion, and negotiation will likewise retain or increase their value, as will resilience, flexibility and complex problem-solving . . . emotional intelligence, leadership and social influence as well as a service orientation.”
So that’s the larger task at hand – creating a workplace in which those qualities can thrive. That’s the heart of what I think of as the Third Women’s Revolution. The first was led by the suffragettes more than a century ago, as women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony fought for the right to vote. The second was led by women like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, who fought—and the latter is still fighting—to grant full access to women in every part of our society. The second revolution is, of course, still underway, as it should be. But we can’t wait for the third one to begin – and that should be about transforming workplaces in ways that allow women to unlock and realize their full potential.
The easiest way to get something to grow and flourish and thrive is to create the ideal environment for it. But right now women are not thriving in a workplace built by men, for men. And so the Third Women’s Revolution will be about not just getting women into leadership positions, but about what they’ll do once they get there: leading the way in redesigning the way we work and the way we live. And you know who are going to be the most grateful people in the world? Men. Including those named John.
And the science is giving us an increasingly clear picture of what that looks like. What the data tells us is that when we prioritize our well-being, reject our always-on culture and take the time to unplug and recharge, our performance actually goes up across the board – in creativity, decision-making, problem-solving, focus, attention, and productivity.
In today’s economy – and certainly in tomorrow’s — companies can’t afford to not realize all the skills and talents of all of their employees. Having employees who aren’t able to live up to their human potential means leaving a lot of human capital on the table. No business would rent a new 50,000 square foot office but only use 2/3 of it. But a lot of them are doing just that with their human capital, their most important asset.
So women aren’t asking companies to be soft, we’re asking them to follow the hard data. We’re not asking them to work slower, we’re asking them to work smarter. We’re not asking them to sacrifice performance — we’re asking them to do what we know increases performance. That’s a win not just for women, it’s a win for everybody. The bottom line included.