A Crisp White Shirt

I don’t want this to be about gender, but about power. The problem is that power is gendered. My focus is the world of work.

First, let me state my assumptions:

  • The gender pay gap is very real, but nuanced. It is not simply a case of men always being paid more than women by the same proportion at every level, in every industry. For instance, the gap is much smaller for younger, more educated women than it is for older, less educated women.
  • The personality attributes which lead to a successful career do not fall more to one gender than another. Plenty of women have them; plenty of men lack them. Contrary to what was once popular belief. The gendering of personality attributes is regressive, at best.
  • There are disproportionately more straight white male CEOs than we would expect from the population. The ability to become a CEO should not depend on one’s race, gender, sexuality or economic background: the door should be open to all, based purely on the ability to do the job.
  • Advancement to the highest levels of a business is not the only metric of success; genuine happiness and the ability to look oneself in the mirror are of paramount importance. Having a work-life balance is worth more than either status or wealth. This notion does not sit well with everyone.
  • Some people will do literally anything to progress in terms of status and wealth. This is regardless of gender, race, identity or background. I am not one of those people, so I don’t understand their view of the world. Most likely they will never understand mine.

I’m about to talk about several different things at once, but they are all inextricably linked. Let me begin with where this all got started in my head.

I see a type of man on occasion, and he makes me question a number of things. He is driven, makes easy conversation with important people, but most importantly, he always wears a crisply pressed white shirt. I imagine his home being well-tended and immaculately clean, just as he is.

I engage in conversations with these men, and I get the impression that they have absolutely no domestic skills whatsoever, but their golf swing is coming along nicely. I wonder how this could be. I make one of two assumptions, based on our discussions:

  1. They have help, like a laundry service or a cleaner;
  2. Their wife does it for them, as she does everything else in the home.

I admire the former and wish that I both had the available cash and was able to relinquish such control to someone who was prepared to work for me. I shake my head at the latter: it screams that a man’s world and that of their women are separate. It is not the 1970s.

It is my assertion that these men are the ones who are being inadvertently groomed through the ranks for the next generation of business leaders. When they leapfrog over everybody else in to a project or position no one else had the faintest clue even existed, let alone the opportunity to apply for, it is their crisp white shirt I remember. They had nothing to do with its maintenance; they have devoted their energy to their work, and none to their lives.

Yes, they socialise frequently with their friends – why would they not play golf every Saturday morning? Their dads did – but their home is almost a foreign country to them. Except that foreign countries are far more familiar to them, especially on business trips.

Someone at the top of a business – whether the CEO, or other members of an executive body or SMT – will have got there through extended periods of hard work, dedication, and sacrifice. Sacrifice of any aspect of their personal lives. The jet setters that I know spend much of the week living away from their families, they spend much of their time travelling for work, and they answer emails at the weekend. They are always smartly dressed. And they think that this is the definition of normal.

It is this level of attire, and this commitment to the extended working week which they are looking for when they hand out the new opportunities. This willingness to devote all of their time to their colleagues, building and maintaining relationships at work, rather than in the home, is how invisible doors are opened, and they are opened regardless of gender. If leaders see these attributes in the people who do not look like them, then those people stand a chance of progression. But who wants to sacrifice their lives like that?

These men, it seems, these captains of industry, they do not have home lives, they do not have partners: they have live-in maids with whom they have sex and occasionally procreate. There is no societal reference for a women who chooses this path in business. We can see it in entrepreneurs, where some phenomenally talented women have grown their own businesses on their own terms, but we very rarely see such monomania in existing businesses. Two options:

  1. If we don’t build a path like this we will never have sufficient women in the top positions in business;
  2. We should scrap this path for men, as they are losing so much of what makes life worth living in the pursuit of someone else’s business.

I’m not about to say that my home life is precisely equal, but it is getting there: we are getting closer to sharing duties equally, and that is a good thing. I do this not to seek praise or to make my life easier nor because she nags me, but because it’s my home too, and I am responsible for it. I want to be able to look around with a degree of pride and ownership and achievement, rather than thinking “well, hasn’t she done a good job with the place; I must get her another pearl necklace.”

The same goes for child rearing. I change nappies, I tidy up toys, I do the school run, and I provide a 24 hour catering service for my children, not because society tells me to, but because I want to be part of the lives of my children as they grow up. Note, my partner does all of these things too, but I think you may have assumed that already, what with her being a woman. I wouldn’t feel part of my own life if I didn’t do all of those things. I don’t think I’m alone in that. Not any more at least.

Yet, this was not always thus. There was once a time when I had no domestic skills whatsoever, and I was in the land of student flats. Only, there were students in our flat who did have standards, skills and the will not to live in a hovel. This produced a level of conflict which I could not wrap my head around at the time, but which I now feel acute embarrassment about. For some men, they never grow out of this phase, and will always have to be treated like babies by those around them.

No one at all can “have it all” without losing something very important. Top business people have no home or family lives of their own, and that is the waste of a life. At best, all those of us with the desire for success at home and at work, can achieve is partnership. The burden of the second shift should be shared, lest we have no energy for the first shift. Men need to grow up and pick up the hoover.

Equality is a situation where we are all treated equally. To paint our unequal society as one where one group or intersection is the worst off ignores all of the situations where other groups have it worse off. We need to talk, to share and to understand. I am a straight white man, and I am probably paid less than you are. It doesn’t mean that women aren’t paid less than men, just that life is always complicated.

I do not see why anyone would want to progress to senior management, but I feel that everyone should have equal opportunity to be tested against their standards. That is regardless of age, race, gender, sexuality, height, eye colour or the university they went to. At present, the boys club is even closed to most boys, and certainly everyone who isn’t a mirror held up to the existing norms of the club.

Additional opportunities for advancement are often open only to those who partake in the extra curricular activities which go on outside of the working day, when the rest of us are feeding our children or doing yet more housework. These are invisible doors, and are closed to most people; they are the reason why some people advance miraculously. It is intensely frustrating to all of us.

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