Athena Swan

Athena Swan promotes and supports the careers of women in Science, Engineering and Technology (STEM), and aims to address gender inequalities and imbalance in these disciplines and, in particular, the under-representation of women in senior roles.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

In the news - Forget flexibility. What working women really want is power

While attention is often focussed on blatant forms of sexism, its more pernicious counterpart is 'benevolent' sexism. When people are convinced they are helping because they 'know best,' or they've 'had no trouble with female staff so there isn't a problem,' or assume something they've read/heard about a group must apply to all people with that characteristic, lines of dialogue are shut. An article in today's Guardian reports on a new study which quantifies this effect for women leaving the workforce at the mid-career point. The most common reaction amongst managers? This is when women are having children, so they must want a better work-life balance. And yet, if you actually ask women, the most common demand is power, not time. So if you are a manager who wants the best out of your staff, sit down and have that conversation to benefit you and your group/company. Staff who feel wanted are more likely to stay, whatever their external circumstances. And if you are a member of staff, keep pushing to have that conversation - because one day you could be in their place.

In their report published last year, Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Melinda Marshall found that in order for women to succeed at work they needed five things: to feel in control of their career path, to have their work recognised, to find meaning and purpose in their work, to be able to empower others and to have financial security. It seems women don’t need work-life balance in order to be happy, we’ve just assumed they do. Celia Moore, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, suggests that this assumption is a “benevolent sexism”. 
An interesting point made by Hewlett and Marshall is that women themselves opt out when they believe their current circumstances won’t change. When they find themselves in a role that doesn’t challenge them or present them with the opportunity to empower themselves or others they grow disillusioned. Rather than trying to attain more power, which would give them the autonomy they want, they choose to leave and try their luck elsewhere.  

Read more here.

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