Stop being so macho in your approach to parental leave (and your women)

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Why taking a less masculine, more feminine approach to solving the problems around caring for your working parents can be the difference between success and failure.

Whilst Sinitta may have wanted a man that was “so macho” businesses today would be wise not to follow her lead, especially when creating effective parental polices and procedures. A recent conversation with a successful management consultancy that were seeking advice for an all too common problem that many businesses experience around strengthening the pipeline of female talent highlighted the default, masculine way many businesses typically respond – which, rather than improving the situation, only compounds it further, creating the proverbial catch-22.

The issue was this: A high potential individual had resigned, as she couldn’t see a future for herself within the business as it stood currently. She remained motivated, ambitious and committed to her career but her next 5-year plan also included becoming a mother, which seemed at odds with her current working practices, environment and culture. She’d secured a position elsewhere with a business that had responded favorably to her desires because whilst her current company are working on all sorts of initiatives behind the scenes and valued her greatly, they hadn’t communicated it to her and her colleagues effectively.

Sadly from her perspective all she could see was a lack of great role models to connect with and a board full of men with non-working wives who talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk. An exit interview may give some further insights as to why she took the decision not to raise her concerns before resigning but the likelihood of receiving really honest and open feedback is slim. Stable door and bolted comes to mind.

A flurry of internal emails soon followed with all parties determined to “fix” the problem to ensure it didn’t happen again (“fixing” is a masculine approach) but in their haste they were missing the underlying reasons why it actually had.

Another business advised of another resignation. This time from a second time mother who had lost faith in her company’s commitment to paying more than just lip service to their policies for advancing women. Despite investing in coaching for their mothers-to-be they hadn’t understood the value of the work and shared this with their managers or invested in training for them so that their women returned to a mixed bag of support. Successful transition depended on the manager they reported to and lack of understanding by their line manager could render the coaching work done null and void. A scarcity mentality and fear of challenging their managers too deeply (masculine approach) lead to a “band aid” solution to a problem that clearly needs a long-term commitment.

Many times when someone resigns it acts as a catalyst for change with those closely involved rushing to take quick and immediate action to address the problems they had been too busy or too uncomfortable to really address in the months or years before. How many managers make time to talk to their male or female employees (it generally needs to be a different approach for each) about how happy, emotionally fulfilled or supported they feel in their role outside of mandatory appraisals? Let alone their personal goals for the future. How many even adequately know how to coach or hold a space to do so?

So the problems keep re-occurring as the approach to solving them remains steadfastly masculine, and herein lies the rub.

There is no getting away from the fact that managing people is complex.

We all have a different view of what success means to us, which also evolves as we age. There is a level of comfort or discomfort we all have around sharing our personal desires – legalities aside – and how truthful and open we are all prepared to be.

We can no longer work on the assumption that men want one thing and women another as our roles become more blended and intertwined. Conversations with millennial dads confirm that men no longer want to be just a financial provider but an emotional one too. Men and women today want to be present parents, which means the solutions to attracting, retaining and promoting talent needs to be co-created (a feminine approach) with these individuals not done in isolation or by heads who think they get it, but actually don’t. Having the courage to be vulnerable, asking questions of others, listening to the response and admitting you don’t have all the answers (a feminine approach) can be difficult but losing your best talent will hurt you more.

Many businesses want to know the answers to their “female problems” but then are reluctant to invest in challenging the root causes. They want bold and exciting initiatives not messy, difficult or intimate conversations.

The feminine approach requires you to go deeper, develop more connection and take more time so at first glance it can appear a more expensive route to workable solutions, but it does get to the heart of the matter and uncovers root causes, which a masculine, fast, focused approach doesn’t. Collated data will give you a great overview and starting point but never the insight or nuances face-to-face conversations can bring. I’m not wholly surprised that after decades of allowing employees to perform their jobs remotely, IBM has announced it is changing course to foster more in-person collaboration, an equally controversial decision Marissa Mayer made at Yahoo some time ago.

Working in a more feminine way doesn’t necessary mean every decision is completely family friendly but the way a new policy or process is communicated should ensure it brings everyone on board with the rationale for change.

It’s not to say masculine values don’t have their place and the overall value they have provided in creating business structures that have got us to where we are. There are definitely times when we need to embrace focus, competition, confidence, bravery and dynamism – traits commonly perceived as masculine. But as business evolves we need to be willing to step away from the masculine or more macho way we’ve done things and find a way to move forward that works for everyone, not just the boys: a blended, more gender-neutral approach to embracing a set of values that underpins more connection and creativity alongside drive and commitment. Organisations that describe themselves as “Teal/Yellow” have become so learning from the the integration, balance and blend of all that preceded it but it’s safe to say “Teal” organisations such as Patagonia naturally embody and lean towards traits we commonly identity as feminine -caring about the planet as well as profit and the impact of our decisions on future generations as standard.

If you are not convinced then ‘The Athena Doctrine’ offers a wealth of evidence on the rebalance needed both in leadership and business with a strong leaning towards the feminine. It’s based on the research of 64,000 people across 13 nations and stories of women and men who lead organisations with the skills and values commonly associated with women.

If your business, parental policies and strategies could do with a feminine makeover contact me to discuss a FREE Survey and Culture Review and ways I can help you to create an inclusive culture with strong feminine Leaders who nurture all talent.

Lisa Barnwell
About the author

Lisa Barnwell has over 15 years experience working with more than 2000 women and their corporations through the pregnancy journey and transition to motherhood. She is the Founder of Bumps and the Boardroom and leading the campaign “Changing 100,000 Lives” which aims to positively change the maternity journey of 100,000 women and girls by 2020. @Bumpsnbabyguru @BumpsHQ Facebook:

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