On International Women’s Day, isn’t it about time we told a new story about women’s careers, to change the conventional wisdom about high-achieving women?
Just over a year ago, Harvard Business Review published an article challenging thinking on high-achieving women1. Several thousand Harvard Business School educated alumni responded to a detailed survey looking at the views and beliefs of Baby Boomers, Generation Xers and Millennials about their goals, satisfaction and career expectations.
Some of the findings were expected. For example, both women and men alike believed that women advance more slowly because they prioritise family over career. Or that, across all generations, men were more satisfied with their career than women. But the researchers anticipated a shift in views as a result of understanding the media hype on the disruptive potential of Millennials. They hypothesised that, as they have become more prevalent in the workforce that thinking on high achieving women would shift significantly.
Surprisingly it seems that there has been slow progress moving forward the views held about women’s careers. Little has changed from Generation X to the Millennial generation. Like their predecessors, half the young Millennial men surveyed held the view that their own career would take priority over that of their partner; despite three-quarters of Millennial women anticipating a career at least as important as that of their partner. Linked to this, over two thirds of Millennial men expected their partner to shoulder responsibility for childcare, constraining the drive to equality heralded by this new generation.
Why has the rise of the Millennials not changed the story? And does International Women’s Day mark the time to institute a new story about female leadership and achievement? Should we now challenge the script that is handed from generation to generation about women’s place in the workforce?
Eric Berne developed the notion of life-scripts over 50 years ago. Like a story, scripts have a beginning, a middle and an end. Whether male or female, we all have a life-script, shaped by us based on our interpretation of the internal and external experiences of our early life. According to Berne we begin writing our life story at birth, have the essentials of the plot by four, and at age seven have completed the story in all its main details. In adolescence we revise the story with some real-life characters and take this into our adult life and careers.
This story is reinforced at every turn in our life. Imagine for a moment the behaviour around gender modelled by our parents. A story shaped observing the behaviours and rhetoric of those around us, of people close by attributing us with characteristics, “you are just like (your mother, aunt and colleague)...", and justified at each point in our life journey.
But the key – this life plan, this script and this story is outside of our normal awareness. Whilst we may take many conscious actions, the life-script is played out almost unconsciously.
Not only that but stories persist within families, they are passed on from generation to generation. No wonder Millennial men and women are still running some of the same scripts as their predecessor Gen X and Baby Boomers!
But we can change this life story as, and for, women in the next generation.
The starting point is to name the story. If we are unaware of our life story, our script, we remain unaware of those early decisions that unconsciously shape our behaviour. Our story needs to be something we bring into the consciousness. We need to articulate it, discuss it, and see it for what it is.
Then use the data. The data shows that women have similar goals to men, women’s careers can be as important as their partner’s, few women “opt-out” of their career, even if it takes on a different form to that planned at age twenty1. We need to be willing to use data and debunk the myths about high achieving women with fact.
Finally tell a new story to break the cycle. Start with the stories that we are telling our children, our colleagues, our teams, our bosses. Tell a story based on our lived reality, rather than the script we learned and shaped in our youth. And it is our responsibility to tell a new story to the next generation.
When you re-write the life story for women, what would the story title become? What kind of story is it – happy, sad, tragic or comic, high drama or kitchen sink opera? Who is the heroine? Who is the audience and what are they doing? What is the closing scene of the story?
And what is stopping you from telling that story over and over again to the next generation of Millennials and beyond?
1 Ely, R. J., Stone, P., & Ammerman, C. (December, 2014). Rethink what you “know” about high-achieving women. Harvard Business Review