Successful women: The need for more role models
by: Human Capital - HR Magazine
Earlier this year Japan was hit by a severe earthquake and tsunami that mauled their 35-year old nuclear power generation complex in Fukushima. Recently Tepco, the power company responsible for running the plant, invited journalists to a guided tour to show how well the damage is being managed. One condition: no women were to come.Reason: there were no toilets for women in the entire complex. It is shocking to learn that a hightechnology complex that had been running for more than three decades in a democratic country with a highly developed economy, does not employ (-and has not ever employed-) any women.
The status of women in Japanese business is telling. Just 10% of the managers are women (against more than 40% in the US). And while half of those graduating any year are women only two-thirds of these take up a job. Most women cite the low glass ceiling and the unfriendly design of the work organization as a reason for staying away. In a survey, almost two-thirds of those who left their jobs said that they did so because organizations did not accommodate flexible working. The country pays a price for this neglect. In another study from Goldman Sachs it was estimated that the Japanese economy could expand by as much as 15% if it increased female labour
participation closer to male levels.
The story of Japan is pretty much the story of Asia, give or take a few percentage points. While public policy changes and globalization will drive improvements everywhere in the long run, there is also a place for the motivation that role models provide. These are sadly missing. The examples of successful women business leaders showcased by the media usually come from business families or that elite segment of society where child care and home management, two big problems for aspiring women in work organizations, are easy to handle. Where are the inspiring examples of women who brave great odds to succeed spectacularly at work and at home? There are innumerable stories of women who slog at hard work at low pay and raise their families with devotion, but there are fewer stars written about, who have gone right to the top of their chosen professions, while handling home and family. To be more precise, these stars exist but are not showcased adequately.
In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Jill Lepore has written about one such woman who has continued to amaze me ever since I first came across the book ‘Cheaper by the Dozen’ in the early ’90′s. Lillian Gilbreth co-founded the discipline of time and motion study and work measurement, so central to industrial engineering. In the early years of the 20th century that meant slogging away at observing, recording, measuring and improving work practices in hot and dirty male preserves of steel mills, and factories making chemical and mechanical products. Over the period 1905-22 she wrote several books, performed shopfloorbased consulting and research assignments for many large manufacturing companies, enrolled for and completed a PhD, and successfully ran the business she and Frank Gilbreth had built around work measurement. Some of her books on scientific management are early classics in the field.
While doing all this Lillian delivered 13 children, raised the 12 survivors on mother’s milk, and ran her home and the children’s school routines using all her learning at work e.g. efficient motion practices for, say, buttoning a shirt and soaping for a bath; incentive schemes for washroom use; innovative aids for mistake-proofing routine tasks; participatory group practices for decision making; hiring a general handyman and training him to become a complete housekeeper; and many more. Her routine during these years was incredible. Lepore describes a day when she (living in Providence) was invited to lecture at MIT (Cambridge, Mass.): “…On the day of the lecture, she got five children ready for school, nursed her four-month-old, handed the two toddlers over to the housekeeper, and caught a ten-o’clock train. In Cambridge, she talked for twenty minutes and showed thirty-six slides … when asked to stay late, she told her host that she had eight children to get home to. She made it back to Providence for the 6:30 P.M. nursing…”
The fact that she was married, had helped her gain access to the male-dominated manufacturing premises so vital to her area of work. After the death of her husband, who had cheerfully passed off much of her work as his own, she suddenly found this access denied. She switched gears to the emerging field of home economics and built a body of research-based knowledge on efficient work practices at home, particularly in the kitchen. For instance, the modern ‘island’ kitchen design is her idea. One among many that have become standard fare. Eventually she retired as a full professor at Purdue University and consulted for many other universities and colleges including the Harvard Business School.
Many of Lillian’s challenges in early 20th century America were similar to those faced by many Asian women today e.g. male prejudice, and complete responsibility for managing the home and the children. Not every one can or should do exactly what she did but the fact that she could do it all is surely inspirational. Particularly because she chose to do it in a field completely dominated by men. We do not have to dig too deep into Lillian’s story but have to search out and showcase similar stories of women who not only coped successfully but also actually thrived in our own milieu. Hopefully the affirmative action that several large companies like Hindustan Unilever have been practicing for gender balance, in recent years, will throw up role-models for the rest of us.
Written By: Gautam Brahma, a management consultant