I heard an article on Radio 4 as I drove back into work on 3rd January after the Christmas break – that unconscious gender bias was still alive and well in the work place with the usual baffling statistics wheeled out of the very few women at the top of the business game. It seems that although there are some super women out there, most of us simply don’t ‘fit’ the business mold, or don’t get it, or are rubbish at being noticed or climbing to the top. Could it be simply that women work in different ways – ways that are not currently noticed or valued much – by either sex? Joyce Fletcher undertook a brilliant study in 1990, whose potentially far reaching effects have in no way been exhausted yet, into what she found to be a more typically feminine style of working. She called the book ‘Disappearing Acts’ (1990, MIT Press) because this style of working was so easily disappeared by business and even by the practitioners of this style of working, which she called ‘relational’ practice (see my previous blog for Anthesis). The characteristics of this style of working tend to be collaborative and task focussed. These people also ‘naturally’ empower and enable others as much as possible. They are worth a lot to business!
I am not saying that all women are ‘relational workers’, that all men are not, or even that all business disappears this style of working.
What interests me is what we value and why.
Right now, income and status are our consensus measures of success – we all know and accept that the economy is the primary driver of our international decisions and has a world stage importance that eclipses just about anything else – making for a self-perpetuating cycle. There is a connection between this one sidedness and the unconscious gender bias being discussed on that Radio 4 show. The stuff we don’t value is disappeared by definition – we don’t even see it – why would we? This includes alternative ways of working and alternative measures of wealth. Take a look at Marilyn Waring’s thoughts in Who’s Counting, directed by Terre Nash for the National Film Board of Canada, for a powerful deconstruction of the how the economy – and especially GDP – works. She points out all the incredible work and activity that is ‘of little or no economic value’ to a country, including volunteering, home making and raising children. We might add to that non-human life that does not serve as a resource for humans. This trajectory leads to the sort of situation we find ourselves in now.
My sense is that anything less than an entirely radical shake up – an inversion of all we currently value – is not going to be enough. I hope I am wrong. But sometimes a shock is needed. I know this will be a deeply controversial thing to say – but as long as we chase eg closing the gender gap as our ultimate goal, we are accepting a one sided valuing.
I’m far from being the first to call for a new system of measuring that takes us beyond money – we have the NEF, various business reporting methods such as integrated reporting or triple bottom line reporting, Natural Capital Accounting, Bhutan’s happiness index (my personal fave) and local currencies such as the Bristol pound keeping money local and close to the natural resources we trade using it. So things are changing. Only their impact has not reached most people.
One short term action we can all take, and I have started by taking myself, is to de-couple income and status from our measures of success in our personal and work lives. This shakes things up interestingly, liberating us from the tyranny of one-sidedness in the way we measure ourselves and others. It allows for an entirely fresh and refreshing perspective and it can be undertaken entirely privately! It doesn’t mean we should not chase that payrise or promotion – we have not come that far yet! It just means remembering when we get it, that it does not make us any more or less valuable or important.
And maybe this action is enough. Small, collective, task focussed action – rather than grand heriocs – brings me back in mind to where I started!