I wanted to write the March 2014 Strategy Session (Alberta Venture) about the women leaders in the oil patch. Who are incredible… if, still, very rare. I ran into a couple obstacles right away. The first one was that while they had stories to tell and share, none of them wanted to be on the record with me–for reasons I touch upon in the final column. The second was that about 15 minutes into the research phase of the column, I decided that I was done writing that kind of gender diversity story. You know which one. So… I wrote “The CEO Has a Uterus: No, wait, the problem is that he doesn’t. But half of his company’s talent pipeline does” instead.
The full text of the slightly less risque official version is at the Alberta Venture site under the title Challenging the status quo in the Canadian workplace: A company’s competitive advantage comes from those who don’t put up with the status quo; the unedited risque full text with its original title follows:
Strategy Session: The CEO Has a Uterus
No, wait, the problem is that he doesn’t. But half of his company’s talent pipeline does.
Dude. Suit, tie, shoes, each of which costs more than my car payment? Yeah, you. Come over here. We’ve got to talk. I know you think this is going to be one of those glass-ceiling/diversity/affirmative action stories, and the little angel on your right shoulder is telling you not to be a dick and do the politically correct-enlightened-aware thing and read it-or-at-least-be-seen-reading-it, while the little devil on your left shoulder wants to make a totally-inappropriate-you-know-its-wrong-but-you-still-think-it’s-funny joke at the expense of my column pic. Tell them both to screw off. This is a story about why I don’t work for you.
Don’t roll your eyes. You should care, because I’m brilliant. Like, not just a little. Off the charts, top percentile of everything. You know all those “high potential,” “crème de la crème” candidates your HR people and all those succession planning coaches are eternally going on about? Yeah. That’s me. And you don’t have me.
And it’s not just me. See her, over there? She’s even smarter than I am: she can see connections in trends, economic forecasts and people’s spending patterns that would make you rich beyond the dreams of avarice if you deployed her talents on the behalf of your corporation. And that one over there? You know that hole in your talent pipeline you’re looking to fill? She’d be perfect for it. And speaking of pipelines—she’d sell Northern Gateway to David Suzuki himself. But she’s not in your talent pool. She left it 10 years ago.
We all left, because—hey, here’s something you’re not gonna hear a woman tell you very often, pay attention, darling—we all left because—eyes lower, lower, love, away from my face, lower, keep on going down… see this? We’ve all got this thing there called a uterus. Your wife’s got one, your daughter too. Your mother—that’s how you came to be, you know that, right? We’ve got these things, and that’s where new people incubate. And after they’re born, well, we’re kind of attached to them.
And even if we weren’t—the survival of the whole entire species depends on us, you know, taking care of them. Feeding them. Taking days off work when they’re sick or in high need… What? Nannies, day care? Not enough, dude, not enough—and you don’t get it, because, let me be politically incorrect here and blunt, you don’t get it, because you have a penis and a wife.
I’m talking with one of the most powerful women in the patch—and she managed to work for you, thank your lucky stars, because she’s beyond brilliant and amazing. “I have two wives,” she says. “My nanny and my assistant.” And a support network in husband, extended family. And even with all that—it’s been harder than for her male colleagues. She’s got to outperform, outpace, outgun. And also—never complain. “You can’t show weakness, vulnerability,” another of your VPs says. “It’s really sweet when the guy says and does things that show what a great dad he is. You can’t be too much mom in the board room.”
Now, dude, sit over here, uncross your arms and unclench your jaw. (You can keep your eyes on the uterus, I don’t mind.) This isn’t your fault. You didn’t create the environment in which half of your best and brightest feel they can’t be both brilliant execs and committed mothers. You were born into it, indoctrinated into it, and you don’t notice it at all—and so you perpetuate it. I know—and she, the exec walking out the door right now, you’re losing her, run, turn her around, too late, she’s gone—the oil patch is a meritocracy. It is. The problem is, it’s an unexamined meritocracy. With enough exceptions— enough stories of determined, ridiculously successful women who made it, who persevered, who are a-top the heap—that the dysfunction of its basic structure just pitter-patters along.
“My perception of women in the oil and gas sector is that to succeed, they turn into boys,” says a former oil patch exec. “And that’s not really shocking, right? When I look around at who I can emulate—there are very, very few women who are older than me who I can look up to as role models. So who do I, by default, look up to? The men. And who do I emulate? And what does that perpetuate?”
And now your ego’s a bit bruised, dude, because you’re inferring I’m calling you a bad role model, for me, for her. Well… you are. You don’t have a uterus. And, given your age and how your generation approached family management, I guarantee your career didn’t suffer a setback, slow-down or derailment when your wife started popping out babies.
So here’s the situation. I’m purposefully not leading you down any paths that talk about the strengths and benefits of gender (and otherwise) diverse corporate cultures and decision-making environments. You either get that or you don’t, and if you don’t at this point, the rest of us just have to wait for you to die or retire while the world moves on. I want you to focus, hyper-focus, on this: half your talent pipeline has a uterus. The perpetuation of the human species relies on most of them choosing to grow a child or two in that organ; the economic well-being of the country depends on them being a contributing part of the labour force; the financial success of your corporation depends on leveraging their talent, on keeping, grooming and using the best of them.
And this will inevitably happen: most of your talented, top-performing, best-suited-for-leadership women will have babies. It’s kind of a basic biological thing. One of the studies Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt examine in Freakonomics looks at the steadily widening wage gap between male and female MBA graduates. The researchers’ startling (not) conclusion: “The big issue seems to be that many women, even those with MBAs, love kids.”
Now add this to the equation: the other half of your talent pipeline? The daddies? They love their kids too. A recent Catalyst study shows that half of all high-potential employees, regardless of gender, want flexible work arrangements from their employers; 30 per cent report using FWAs frequently, very frequently or always—and leaving workplaces that don’t offer FWAs and flexible career pathways. When your high potentials, male or female, are withdrawing or downsizing their contributions to your corporation because you don’t know how to keep them—you lose. You fill your talent pipeline with who is left, with no guarantee that it’s the best ones. It’s just the ones willing to put up with the status quo.
Do you know who gives you the best competitive advantage, who will challenge your organization’s unspoken assumptions, who thinks outside the proverbial box and will point out opportunities that will crush your competition?
The people who don’t put up with the status quo.
In other words: the women, and the men, who leave.
The lecture’s almost over. Actually, dude, you can leave. I don’t need you for the next part. The cultural-institutional change Corporate Canada and the oil patch needs to see come from the top, it’s not going to really happen until you’re no longer in charge. Go, do what you’ve always done. This next part is for the Millennialist top potentials—boys and girls both. Your boomer bosses, they call you lazy. I know you’re not. You’re just not—stupid. You’re not going to do the thing that doesn’t work. So listen, darlings. This is how you change a culture: you stay. And you make demands. Look at what you need, to succeed on the corporate ladder, and at home, in your family, in your whole life. And ask for it. Ask loudly, repeatedly. If you don’t ask, you definitely won’t get. If you ask, and get, you’ve started to transform the culture.
Only caveat: you’ve got to perform. It’s top performers who rewrite the rules for everyone else. It’s like noblesse oblige, corporate-style. Got it? Now off you go. Transform the oil patch, Corporate Canada, and the world.
Marzena Czarnecka is a Calgary-based business and legal affairs writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @paddleink on Twitter, or via CalgaryBusinessWriter.com. Her alter-ego “Jane” blogs at NothingByTheBook.com.