Gender-Neutral Ladders

Breastfeeding symbol

Last Word: Gender-Neutral Ladders

Lexpert, February 201o

by Marzena Czarnecka

I’m interviewing Jane Allen, chief diversity officer at Deloitte & Touche LLP, while nursing my six-week-old baby, an action that seems eerily appropriate to the conversation. We’re talking about gender equity and inclusivity initiatives at the accounting giant (as per this month’s feature story on diversity). More specifically, she’s talking about change — real cultural and organizational change that’s reducing the ever increasing exodus of women in their child-bearing and -rearing years from accounting firms, law firms and other workplaces typified by six-day (heck, let’s make it seven) workweeks, 12-hour (during boom times, 16) workdays and rigid career-progression patterns (make partner in so many years … or get out).

Now, I’ve got to tell you this up front: if it is possible to be simultaneously a feminist and a misogynist, then I be that strange creature. I believe all women (especially this woman) should have the same rights and opportunities and privileges as all men. But, frankly, I’ve always preferred to play with the boys — be it in male-dominated sports or in male-dominated workplaces. Ballet was just, you know, too … girlie. And girls were too … what’s the word I’m looking for? Ah, yes. Whiny. And so damn few know how to throw a punch properly.

Wait! Don’t stop reading! I don’t mean to alienate half the readership. (Or is it half? Not quite, and if we go into the partner ranks, it’s a measly fifth). I’m just being brutally honest here: an ardent and politically correct advocate of gender-equity initiatives I am not. Whenever the topic has come up in the past, I’ve been inclined to roll the peepers and mutter, “Whatever.” See, feminist-misogynist women like myself don’t recognize barriers, be they visible or not. If the boys do key business at the urinal, we follow them into the bathroom. No, it’s not dignified and clearly against the rules — but when the rules of the game aren’t fair, the only ones who play fair are the losers.

This time around, though, Jane Allen has my full attention, because she’s talking about really changing the rules of the game. We’re discussing Deloitte’s Mass Career Customization (MCC) program — an idea that can only be described as revolutionary. And yes, I know I like to toss that word around a lot, but I really mean it this time.

The way it works is, each employee at Deloitte charts a customized career path, one that has productivity peaks and valleys. There are periods during which the individual might say, “I want to work like mad and progress as quickly as possible,” and there are times when he or she might say, “For the next few years, I want to work 25-hour workweeks, because I have other things on my plate. Then I want to ramp up again.”

Take it from an incurable skeptic: if Deloitte pulls this off, the professional workplace will change dramatically. This isn’t some kind of optional flex-time project. If the program works as intended, it will enable and legitimize hugely diverse paths to success at the organization. The normal way, requiring you to work like a dog until you make partner – then keep on working as hard as you can until you burn out and are told to retire – will no longer be the only path, or the best one.

You can, for instance, work at 75 per cent for five years, ramp up for three years, slow down again and get your Master’s, then ramp up for five more years. Or take another route entirely: work like a dog for 10 years, slow down for three, ramp back up again for five (but not to the “dog” state), then slow down massively because of health problems for two years, then get back into the groove, really get traction and – wow! – become a superstar in your 50s. (If that sounds too late, it’s not. You may well have 20 super-productive working years. We’re living longer, and golfing non-stop for two decades is not for everyone.)

I love it. In the unfair game represented by the current office environment – not just at law firms, but also accounting firms, most oil and gas companies, investment banks, public-relations firms, the list goes on – this is a rewriting of the rules that attempts to redefine “success” — not just for women, but for everyone. Success, after all, shouldn’t be equated with working 60-hour weeks or following one specific linear path through the organizational hierarchy. Success should mean being competent, productive, efficient, creative and, in the professional context, really kick-ass at client service.

Will it work? Fingers crossed. Deloitte must think so — remember, these are accountants, who don’t do nuthin’ unless it’s profitable and who possess a risk-aversion profile (accounting scandals of the early part of this decade aside) that makes lawyers look like bungee-jumping thrill-seekers.

Marzena Czarnecka is a Calgary-based feminist-misogynist contributor to Lexpert who knows most games are unfair… but fun to play nonetheless. Ditto life.

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