Archive | November, 2015

Is Mark Zuckerberg really changing the game?

27 Nov

Mark Zuckerberg has announced that he will take two months paternity leave when his daughter is born, a move that has been widely hailed as game changer for family-friendly working and gender equality. As someone who has long argued for the benefits of paternity leave for men, women and children, it seems churlish to do anything other than high-five along with everyone else who has rushed to praise him, and to remind us of the importance of CEOs leading on culture change in the workplace.

But there is a but. Or rather two buts. The first is the length of the leave. Facebook has just announced that staff will be able to take four months leave following birth. So yet again we have the image of a figurehead taking less parental leave than the full entitlement available to staff – two months may be great progress on the amount of leave routinely taken by senior American fathers, but it still leaves the impression that taking full entitlement is optional, and there for the little people, rather than those at the top.

And the second ‘but’ relates to gender. Zuckerberg is a man, and like many before him he seems to be benefitting from the halo effect of doing anything related to family at all. I’m an equal opportunities type, so I think it’s only fair to raise the question of his shorter-than-full-entitlement leave, just as I did for Marissa Mayer. And I’ll bet you’ve heard a lot more about her announcement to take only two weeks leave than you have about Mr Zuckerberg’s decision. He has not been submitted to the same level of scrutiny as she was – albeit that at two weeks, her own length of proposed leave was much shorter, and will of course include personally giving birth. It’s interesting too that Zuckerberg announced his decision as a ‘very personal’ one. This is typical of tech culture’s privileging of individual choice. The two months paternity leave for Facebook’s CEO will only be a game changer for working men, if a few more of them examine their navels (or the protruding ones of their pregnant partners), and reach the same ’very personal’ decision. It seems a little ironic that culture change in a social media environment is apparently down to the accumulation of a series of personal decisions….

So while agreeing that Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to take leave is broadly a good thing, let’s not get carried away. He is doing it because he can – unlike the majority of US workers who have few leave entitlements, and may not be able to afford those that there are. His actions may make a difference to some other people influential enough to impact on the rest of us. And perhaps we shouldn’t overlook the point made to me when I noted my dismay at Marissa Mayer’s fortnight – ‘don’t forget Yahoo is in a bit of trouble she may not have much choice’, corporate watchers said. Facebook is not apparently in trouble and the CEO is taking half of his full leave entitlement. Do I hear the sound of one hand clapping?

 

 

 

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The write stuff

18 Nov

You may have heard of the latest marketing foray into the area of gendered writing products (e.g. here and here) – the ‘Pencils for her’ on sale at a department store near you. These pink beauties bring back memories of Bic’s much ridiculed ‘Pen for her’ and their tribute to South African Women’s Day. As I tweeted when I discovered these latest lovely pencils – they’re perfect for using at your #headdesk …

In the spirit of disbelief encouraged by pencils which are not only pink but emblazoned with such woman-friendly slogans as ‘Buy the shoes!’ and ‘Glitter &Bling’ – oh, so that’s what we’re made of – and the wonderful concept that is ‘Girl Boss’ (because we all know that women are too raddled and/or busy with children to be credible at work …) I decided it was only fair to find out if there is in fact such a thing as a ‘Pencil for him’ .

I did a quick tour of the internet and found that gender equality is alive after all – the company responsible for ‘Pencils for her’ does indeed produce a set of  ‘Pencils for him’. And how do these pencils look? Well, like default pencils – they’re not even blue! – just classic wood tones for the traditional look of the empowered writer. Apparently though, this male selection comes in blue packaging, so no awkward crossgender mistakes might be made to embarrass the lucky recipient.

And what, I hear you cry are the uplifting slogans on these icons of literary machismo? They include: ‘Hell yeah!’ ‘Smooth’ and ‘You’re welcome’ – truly the gift that keeps on giving. Somewhat bafflingly the men’s pack also includes two ‘Best in show’ – perhaps because men are so dull they couldn’t think of anything else to say – or maybe the man in your life has more than one person he wants to impress with his winning ways. Or perhaps these are giveaways to compliment those displaying sufficient ‘Glitter & Bling’ – one shudders to think really …

And thinking is not much in evidence in marketing like this – it’s tempting to say that it’s about time that product designers sharpened up their ideas so that I’m not left wishing to erase all traces of their sex-stereotyped world . Unfortunately ‘use of this pencil is not defined by gender’ is too long to fit on the bespoke pencil range. Let’s just hope this ‘him and her’ writing stuff does not become a staple. Writing implements are for free expression by all. I rest my (pencil) case.

 

 

Fertile ground for change

1 Nov

It’s a familiar scene: a woman in her thirties without children attends a social gathering, and when the topic of conversation turns to babies, eyes turn to her. Has she thought of having them? Is she ‘more of a career woman’? And it’s only a matter of time before the phrase ‘biological clock’ comes up. There’s a common understanding that women’s fertility is time-limited, and that as we age, the chances of conception and childbirth fall. Strangely absent from these discussions are men – sometimes even as they stand there beside the thirtysomething woman…

There’s been a lot of talk again recently about egg freezing (e.g. here and here), the process through which women can have eggs extracted and stored frozen until the conditions are right for her to consider starting a family. Such technology was originally offered to women undergoing cancer treatment which could compromise their fertility, but it is now increasingly available as an intervention for women who wish to freeze eggs as an insurance policy for future childbearing. I wrote last year about the potential downsides of egg freezing being offered as a corporate perk – would it be another way to bend women to the corporate status quo, rather than looking creatively at more flexible working options for all parents in the workforce? The onus for timing of childbearing and achieving ‘work-life balance’ remains primarily a ‘woman’s issue’ in public talk.

But what if men had biological clocks too? What if not only women see their chances of conception decrease with age? These issues are now being addressed as fertility researchers turn their attention to men’s biology. An article in the Washington Post points out that our knowledge of men’s fertility is years behind our knowledge of women’s, and that a growing body of findings is showing that men’s fertility does decline over time. For example, a man over 45 may take five times as long to conceive as men of 25 or less. And although the risks overall are low, older fathers have higher risks of having children with certain health conditions than their younger counterparts. Shouldn’t this be part of our debate on later parenthood? Perhaps more importantly, shouldn’t this knowledge be shared widely so that couples know more about men’s bodies, and women are no longer exclusively burdened with all of the stress to do with ‘windows’ for conceiving, having attained a reasonable standard of living.

It used to be the case that research information on employment and socio-economic group was collected from men, as they were assumed to be the breadwinner determining the socio-economic group of the rest of the household. This meant we knew little about women’s employment. Similarly, in concentrating on women as the key individuals in fertility statistics, we know less about men’s childbearing behaviour, rates of childlessness and fertility trends over time. We’d no longer accept overlooking women’s economic role, so perhaps it’s time to look even more at men’s role in fertility patterns. We might even find out that they can’t have it all…

Back at a gathering of thirtysomethings, when the talk turns to having children, we should include men in the discussion. As two-earner couples are increasingly the norm, with both partners juggling work and family concerns, it’s high time we changed the conversation.

 

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