Equality in the Workplace – Wrong Question on a Fundamental Issue?
Equal rights for women is a topic I practically grew up with. It has always been about equality — opportunities for career choice as well as equal salary structures and promotions and career opportunities.
In recent years, I have been particularly interested in how the different ways in which women and men can combine family and career are represented as compared to one another. I have often asked myself how much progress has actually been made in the last 40 years (but I know that at least in small (or very small) steps something has changed), and also what is realistically possible in the end?
Currently Only an Apparent Equality in the Workplace
In my opinion, we will only have achieved equal rights for men and women in the workplace when women no longer have to worry about whether they want to concentrate fully on the family, want to remain childless, or want to combine family and career. It will be achieved when each of these alternatives can be implemented without any problems and with the same demands as those granted to men.
We are still a long way from achieving this! At the moment, it is the case that each of these positions is critically examined by society and judged with stigmatizing comments. No matter what a woman has chosen (perhaps even together with her partner), there is always some critic. Be it that the woman rests on the “resting-pad of motherhood,” or limits the “growth of society” because she “refuses to get pregnant,” or wants to bring both under one roof out of “pure egoism.” The loud negative comments are always heard.
In addition, there are a number of flimsy benchmarks which attempt to address the issue and, by means of their definition, suggest that men and women have equal rights in the workplace.
In addition, there are a number of flimsy benchmarks which attempt to address the issue and, by means of their definition, suggest that men and women have equal rights in the workplace. Yet the sometimes unofficial policy of many companies speaks its own language:
- Women are assigned a different, less demanding task after parental leave because the previous position is occupied by her substitute.
- The executive board of an international law firm explains to a promising, ambitious lawyer: “You can become a partner, but of course only if you do not plan to have children.”
- In recruitment procedures, almost unfair methods are used to find out about the candidate’s family planning situation.
- In a pharmaceutical company, there are two applications for parental leave: One for men, which runs for two months, and one for women, which can be taken for any length of time.
Career opportunities dwindle when men take longer parental leave, and with the imbalance in the salary structure still in place, many couples are considering how equally they can and should take parental leave.
And to top it off: In a multinational company in the consumer goods industry, a list is kept which assesses the pregnancy risk of female employees in order to avoid recommending women for management positions.
Black Sheep on Both Sides
Of course, I know also the other side of the coin. Here, employers are informed about the existing pregnancy with the minimum period of time that must be observed, so that a substitution arrangement is almost impossible. Women do not come back from parenthood as planned, or they use the child as an option to create a degree of freedom for themselves that contradicts a regular work schedule.
These are by no means isolated cases, and the discussion about what causes which behavior is futile. But they are, as it were, symptoms of the fact that we have not really got very far in our discussion or in our efforts to organize equal work.
There are certain things that cannot be discussed away and these are, among other things, the divergence of interests of employers and (female) employees when it comes to family planning and career. Employers want reliability and predictability. Not only in terms of time, but also in terms of performance and motivation. Careers are therefore usually associated with a long-term development phase and growing tasks and projects. Family, on the other hand, means limited planning possibilities, multiple dependencies, emotional commitment, obligation and (at least in part) energy-sapping commitment. And we are not even talking about single parents!
Instead of meeting natural necessity through an organizational structure which is not about maximizing profits but is instead about opening up scope for the diversity of family needs, companies must work out how to deliver on other people’s vision of a "family-friendly” atmosphere.
The Financing of Artificial Methods for Pregnancy Is an Expression of Helplessness
The new trends worry me. Companies that pay their employees to freeze eggs in order to enable motherhood at a later date or the growing number of paid surrogate motherhoods who are employed so that the restrictions of pregnancy and “hormonal impasses” do not have to be borne are not necessarily an expression of newly won freedom in my mind. They are an indication of helplessness and insincerity. This is not at all about equal rights, but about creating a framework that defines man and woman as equal simply by stripping away biological inequalities. It is not supporting to the goal of equal rights, but is rather misleading it.
Companies are helpless because they are at the mercy of entrepreneurial productivity mania. Instead of meeting natural necessity through an organizational structure which is not about maximizing profits but is instead about opening up scope for the diversity of family needs, companies must work out how to deliver on other people’s vision of a “family-friendly” atmosphere. The “compatibility progress index,” for example, is promoted as a seal of how much companies have achieved in this regard. For companies, obtaining the seal helps mostly with employer branding. However, the seal itself leaves many fundamental questions unanswered. By focusing on the “family as a success factor,” it presupposes that every woman “must” want this parallelism of child and career: While appearing to imply a move toward equality, it too is actually making a statement about what women should want with regard to parenthood.
Pregnancy, Maternity and Child Rearing Should Be Naturally Integrated Into the Life and Work Cycle
Helplessness is also evident in the face of the supposed limitations that are almost naturally associated with pregnancy, motherhood and bringing up children. Instead of integrating these as an essential part of the life and work cycle in a dynamic and flexible corporate landscape, society only takes into account and seeks to prevent their apparently-deficient elements.
We behave with insincerity, because there is not enough thought given to the balancing act that a woman and especially single parents have to engage in and which is wiped away by a sometimes unbearably superficial “family-friendly corporate culture.” No, equality is not achieved with flexible working hours, a home office or a company kindergarten alone. What is needed is a fundamental rethinking of the social attitude towards the raison d’être of different life plans, including the consequences of this. It requires a redefinition of the concept of career in the business environment, as well as its prerequisites and ways of realizing them. Agility as a new credo of the successful working world must also be shown in our efforts to give men AND women equal access to private and professional development opportunities.