By: Fiona Hathorn and Claire Braund

The debate ignited by the frank confessions of Anne-Marie Slaughter, the first female Director of Policy Planning for the United States Department of State, around ‘can women have it all’ can be viewed through a global lens.

Enlightened countries, such as those in Scandinavia, view working and having children as the two great things anyone (male or female) can do for their country so therefore make then mutually inclusive, rather than mutually exclusive. To this end they enjoy both strong economies and a replaceable birthrate.

So rather than argue whether women (or men) can ‘have it all’, a better discussion might be how to change and adapt 19th and 20th Century work policies and practices to the 21st and 22nd centuries? If governments, businesses and communities wish to ensure people live valuable, meaningful and contributory lives, adding value to the economy and society AND procreating the next generations, then clearly ‘the system’ will need to change.

Let’s start with some basics. Making school schedules match work schedules would be a great start for many countries. In Germany where school finishes at 1pm, children come home for lunch and there is a virtual absence of any sort of after school care options, participation of women in the workforce is very low. France, with its excellent child and afterschool care options, has one of the highest workforce female participation rates in the western world. Emerging economies, such as Georgia and Thailand, have more than 50 per cent of their management roles occupied by women simply because their rate of growth is such that they need every available labour unit working.

In the United Kingdom we are generally fortunate with our child and after school care systems, however we tend to fall down when it comes to workforce practices and expectations. Many companies have excellent policies for flexible work options, but these are accessed in the majority by women and can result in a stalled or slow tracked career. Men tend not to take up flexible work options as readily, I suspect not because they don’t want to, but because of the expectations of peers, colleagues and the general work environment. Tackling these issues through discussion and active programs to allow men and women to more equally enjoy and share child rearing would be a useful start – and one I suspect we need to start in our schools.

Working in asset management Fiona found she was fortunate because she had the support of a fantastic CEO who was determined to keep her post child birth. To ensure she stayed with the company he personally re-organised her  client travel commitments so that she only needed to be overseas twice a year instead of four times a year. He also told her he would prefer it if she left the office at 4pm each day. The business needed client continuity and he knew that by supporting Fiona for a few years he would keep the clients happy. She was rarely able to leave the office at 4pm every day but when she did take a few extra hours off, to see her children at important school events, she never worried about what others in the company thought as knew she had the full support of senior management.  

Another intervention we could make in the short term is to bring in a ‘father’s quota’ on the parental leave scheme. "Add six weeks paid leave to the scheme only if it is accessed by the other partner”. This proved to the game changer in Norway, ensuring men and women took time out of the workforce to take care of their equally important family responsibilities. This included Audun Lysbakken, the Norwegian minister of childhood, equality and social cohesion, who took four months' paternity leave after the birth of his daughter. Imagine that in the House of Commons!  

A variant on this article appeared in both The Australian Financial Review (5/7/2012) and the Managing Thinking Blog from The Economist Group (31 August 2012)