18 diciembre 2014

Is the personal also professional?

Do home lives have a direct impact on professional careers?

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“What does your husband do?” a woman asks me as she picks through some of my garage sale items. “I don´t have a husband,” I respond.  She excuses herself and explains that she should know better. But should she? This is the 587th time I have been asked about “my husband’s employment” during my four years as an expat. I have even become accustomed to being referred to as a “working girl.” It earns me looks of awe from the expat wives.

Many international organizations and businesses, and even governments have set goals to increase gender diversity in leadership, operating in contexts where international assignments are a crucial step in career development. But the average profile of a professional expat (almost 80%) is unchanged: males, between 35-49 years old and accompanied by a female partner who although she may have worked in her home country does not or cannot work because of visa restrictions in the host country. Offices dominated by internationals are very male, especially at the top.

And, guess what: several studies (examples here and here) have found that full-time employed married men whose wives stayed at home or worked part-time are more likely to:

  1. View the presence of women in the workplace unfavorably
  2. Perceive that organizations with higher numbers of female employees are operating less smoothly
  3. Find organizations with female leaders as relatively unattractive
  4. Deny, more frequently, qualified female employees opportunities for promotion

The studies also find that gender biased views and actions were even more strongly associated with traditional marriage when the numbers of women in the men´s workplaces increased. More troubling is that men experienced developmental setbacks in their gender egalitarian beliefs when their wives left work for more traditional arrangements, an occurrence more common when children are under 5 years old. Many of these women never return to the workforce.

The good news is that in the U.S. only 20% of people report being in a traditional marriage, while 47% report dual-earner marriages (although these women are 3 to 5 times more likely than men to work part time). But in many countries, the proportions are starker. In Peru, for example, in 2007 only 36% of all married or cohabiting women reported working formally outside the home.

Do home lives have a direct impact on professional careers?

This is not the first time we have seen that home lives have a direct impact on behaviors at work.  In 2011 we found out that the employees of male CEOs experienced wage declines when male children are born and saw their wages increase when the CEO had daughters. So how do we address the conundrum that our professional lives can be affected so directly by our superiors’ home lives?:

1. Diversify the workforce. It will improve not only the professional talent of the institution but will also ensure a more varied balance of marriage/intimate partner arrangements. Policies that attract a more diverse work force include equitable maternity and paternity leave for the birth or adoption of children; job placement and language support for “trailing spouses” of international employees; and reallocation of education and spousal supplements normally restricted to parents and married employees to activities that support single and child free employees’ quality of life; among others.

2. Make domestic work visible. Studies show that men in cohabiting relationship do the least household chores of any men in heterosexual relationshipshomosexual marriages/partnerships, demonstrate much greater equity. Improving institutional images and expectations of men sharing in child care may have a profound impact on gender equality.

3. Act preemptively. Making gender a part of regular discourse may go a long way to improving attitudes about women´s career advancement. There is evidence that mere exposure to positive messages about women in nontraditional roles can reduce sexist beliefs.

These are my recommendations for organizations to transform gender equality from problem to expectation. Which are yours?

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