New Economics: Women’s Crucial Role

We need a new economics. The Prosperity of Humankind statement suggests that women have a “crucial” role in developing it. At summer school last week, we looked at how and why this might be.

In my previous post – fresh from that study class – I attempted to summarise The Prosperity of Humankind, the statement published by the Baha’I International Community as a contribution to the United Nations Summit on Social Development in 1995.

In a nutshell, the statement asserts that “the history of humanity as one people is now beginning”. It sets out a vision of a world based upon the consciousness of the oneness of humanity, and the principles of a framework for action in building it. It calls for a revolution in our thinking to reflect humanity’s coming of age: “An old world is passing away, and a new one is struggling to be born”.

Noting that “the principle of the equality of the sexes is fundamental to all realistic thinking about the future well-being of the earth and its people”, it continues:

“A commitment to the establishment of full equality between men and women, in all departments of life and at every level of society, will be central to the success of efforts to conceive and implement a strategy of global development.”

But – and here’s what, at first, might seem surprising – the statement goes further, asserting that women have a ‘crucial’ role in the development of new economic models; a role beyond simply being equally involved.  How, we wondered, might this be?

It’s clear that humanity needs a new economics. The prevalence and persistence of poverty, unemployment and apathy, as well as the gross inequalities in income, wealth and opportunity, can leave us despairing.  If we want a just world, we need a new mindset – and the consciousness of the oneness of humanity has surely to be its starting point.

In that context – as humanity recognises its oneness and moves to build a just world – our old ways of thinking about work and employment are clearly inadequate, based as they are on assumptions of inherent conflict and contest. As the Prosperity statement puts it:

“The classical economic models of impersonal markets in which human beings act as autonomous makers of self-regarding choices will not serve the needs of a world motivated by ideals of unity and justice.”

We need to develop economic models that transcend simply the demand and supply of goods, services and labour; that escape materialistic pre-occupations to focus on human well-being in its fullest sense.  Our conceptualization of work and employment needs to reflect what really matters for our true prosperity:

“Society will find itself increasingly challenged to develop new economic models shaped by insights that arise from a sympathetic understanding of shared experience, from viewing human beings in relation to others, and from a recognition of the centrality to social well-being of the role of the family and the community.”

Women’s full engagement in this fundamental rethinking, the statement avers, will bring into play “a range of human experience and insight hitherto largely excluded from the discourse”.  And it’s clear that women’s voices are seen to bring something very special:

“Such an intellectual breakthrough—strongly altruistic rather than self-centered in focus—must draw heavily on both the spiritual and scientific sensibilities of the [human] race, and millenia of experience have prepared women to make crucial contributions to the common effort”.

A moment’s reflection and it makes perfect sense. If the well-being of the family and the community are to be central to our thinking about economic issues, then who’s especially well qualified to contribute? Who has so often – across centuries and cultures – been left to carry the burden of nurturing family life and building communities?

And What Is It To Work With Love?

“And what is it to work with love?

It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn

from your own heart,

even as if your beloved

were to wear that cloth.

It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved

were to dwell in that house.

It is to sow seeds with tenderness and

reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved

were to eat the fruit.

It is to charge all things you fashion

with a breath of your own spirit.”

– from Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

I attended my first EBBF conference this weekend, slightly daunted by its title Co-Creating The New Enterprise.  I needn’t have worried.  Re-discovering Kahlil Gibran was just one part of a rich programme of presentations and discussions that stretched from Building Altruistic Capital through Nudging Condom Adoption To Combat HIV to Building High Performing Teams Through Authentic Collaboration.

It was heartening that at least a third of the 150 attendees – from 16 countries – must have been under 30 years old. And yet quite a few of them seemed to have already founded, or been involved in creating, some form of social enterprise.

EBBF is, of course, just one small example of the extraordinary ferment of ideas around how, in the real world, we can envision enterprises and economic systems that can deliver for humankind prosperity in its fullest sense.

What distinguishes EBBF perhaps is that it is comfortable with spirituality, drawing freely upon religious insight.  It is Bahá’í inspired but also a genuinely inter-faith space, where agnostics and atheists too can feel equally at home.

It also has experimentation at its core. Its purpose is to create meaningful conversations that will stimulate a continual cycle of learning through consultation, action and reflection.

I came away with some answers and many new questions.  One is the mystery of why if, as the data suggests, many of our deepest motivations at work centre around the desire to serve others, and if, as again the data suggests, it’s when we feel we are serving others that we work at our peak performance, then why is service so rarely at the foreground of our work culture?  Why would I sound almost crazy tomorrow if I were to suggest at the water-cooler that, to quote Gibran: ‘Work is love made visible’?

Why are our deepest motivations so often hidden, and how might we surface them? These are themes to which I would like to return. Meantime, congratulations to the EBBF team of volunteers for arranging a great conference.  If you can be in Barcelona in October, you might want to consider attending the next one.

Lean Together

Lean InIt has been hailed as a turning point in the feminist debate. It has also been written off as an apology for Big Business. And everything in-between. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead has created the media whirlwind that its author intended in her quest to disrupt the status quo.

One hesitates to add yet more words to those column inches. But there’s an important connection that seems to have been overlooked. It’s why this fine book is ultimately flawed.

And it is a fine book. Sandberg may be wildly rich, absurdly well-connected and bossy – but it’s easy to like her [just watch her TED talk]. She’s clever and sincere and kind and, in some places, LOL funny. And she’s trying to be a peacemaker: “The gender wars need an immediate and lasting peace”, she writes.

Lean In is helpful. It abounds with nudges – ideas on how we can dismantle the barriers that our subtle prejudices create. From the Goldman Sachs partner who cancelled his dinner schedule and insisted on holding one-to-one meetings with his team only at breakfast or lunch – so that he could mentor women equally and without any hint of impropriety. To the story of the hospital physician who decided never to ask for a show of hands when he turned to his junior medics on the ward rounds (men being typically far more confident of their own abilities) but instead would ask his questions directly, and always evenly between the male and female junior doctors. And the CEO of American Express who, knowing that women are more likely to interrupted, will always stop a meeting to point it out when it happens.

Sandberg cites, as an example of what can be done, an initiative at Harvard Business School to address the under-performance of women and international students. The school’s culture was rigorously examined and ‘soft’ adjustments introduced to foster collaboration and respect. In just two years, the performance gap virtually disappeared – and overall student satisfaction levels rose. In a more equal environment, everyone was happier.

Sandberg is not blaming anyone in particular – we’re all complicit. She’s trying to inspire us all to engage in a ‘final push’ that will give birth to a world where there are no female leaders, just leaders. And she’s optimistic that things are changing as younger people, both men and women, look for new models of family life.

But ultimately – as The Times reviewer described it – Lean In is a manifesto for ambitious women. That’s not meant unkindly. Sandberg recognises that everyone should be able to make their own choices, and that most women don’t have anything like her resources or opportunities: “I am fully aware that most women are not focussed on changing social norms for the next generation but simply trying to get through each day”.

To change the world, says Sandberg, we need women to reach leadership positions. Women at the top will, she believes, lead to fairer treatment for all women, and a whole new dynamic in the workplace.

It’s a worthy aim. But is it as ‘simple’ as this? Is it maybe even a mirage?

The work environment within which Sandberg operates is brutally demanding. ‘Commitment’ boils down to being what we used to call a workaholic. It’s received wisdom that only the paranoid survive. Sandberg cites research that 69% of corporate managers can’t even go to bed without checking their inbox. OK, she is a self-styled alpha – so she enjoys the pressure. But this increasing addiction to work is not confined to Palo Alto. Crazy hours are expected across many professions nowadays. And it seems to be going global as well.

Interestingly, it’s not necessarily because employers demand total commitment, overtly at least. Sandberg quotes a McKinsey managing partner calling a town hall meeting to urge the entire team in his office to take their vacation. Most of the people who were resigning reported that they felt ‘burnt out’ – but they all had unused vacation that they had chosen not to take.

Almost wherever we look, the workplace is becoming relentlessly competitive. It’s an assumed ‘passion’ that jeopardises family life. And as work becomes more hyper-competitive, women’s opportunities shrink. Pregnancy and maternity leave especially become huge issues. Sandberg acknowledges her own fears that – even at her level and with her talents – her job and prospects at Google would be diminished if she took ‘too much’ time off [that is more than a week or two] after her first child was born.

Sandberg acknowledges that it’s a rat race. “A career is a marathon”, she writes. She believes that getting more women to win the race will change things. Maybe that’s true, but there’s surely a delusion here? We can’t all be leaders. Indeed, by definition, very few of us can. We’re still stuck in a rat race.

What if we try instead to slow down and step off this devilish hamster wheel that we’ve created?

First off, I think, we would want to reflect on the culture of contest that is embedded into our societies and so into our working lives. We have to recognise the myth of the inevitability of all–pervasive competition.

The irony of course is that the attitudes that enable this, the behaviours that can best shift our work environment from hyper-competition towards cooperation are precisely the ones in which women typically excel: humility, empathy and compassion.

To be fair, Sandberg isn’t asking women to drop these qualities. Her focus is on developing assertiveness. [And, as someone who often struggles with assertiveness, I have to say that I found her advice wise and helpful.]

But even if Lean In assertiveness can win the day for women, it’s likely only to further increase hyper-competitiveness. Women can’t fight their way to the top and then work 9-5 (unless they start their email at home at 5am, and continue to work late into the night after the kids have gone to bed).

The real challenge, surely, is to escape the culture of contest, to create new forms and structures [Enterprise 3.0?] that reflect the accumulating evidence of the desire for work that is characterised by reciprocity, sharing and collaboration.

If we can do that, we can really change the world. Because in a workplace built on cooperation and reciprocity, women’s contributions would be naturally and unremarkably accepted. Mothers would be able to follow Sandberg’s advice to ‘Do What You’d Do If You Weren’t Afraid’ and take whatever maternity leave they think is right for their child – without paying a big career penalty. It would be the world for which Sandberg is calling, where “expectations will not be set by gender but by personal passion, talents and interests”.

Sandberg says that: “I have written this book to encourage women to think big”. It’s a book from the heart, and well worth reading. But to truly change the world, maybe we must all think bigger.

Coming Up…

Here’s some of the kind of questions that I’d like to explore here:

Craftsmanship. Meaningful work and craftsmanship seem to be connected. We can easily recognise craftsmanship in a potter or a furniture maker. What does it mean in the world of knowledge workers in global enterprises, and how do we foster it?

Women at Work. Sheryl Sandberg has reignited a debate – and been castigated for founding Feminism, Inc.  Does her Lean In prescription move us in the right direction?

The Collaborative Economy.  Can we shift towards an economy that is less competitive and more collaborative?  Is it desirable and feasible?  How would it affect our working life?

Ethics. Perhaps the greatest ethical challenges in global enterprises come in the sales organization. To some, ethical B2B sales is an oxymoron. If so, what can we do to move the ethical needle?

Quiet Innovation. Does a corporate culture that prizes dominance systematically overlook the potential contributions of introverts?

Faith Perspectives. How does religion contribute to the search for a new work ethic? Is meaningful work somehow spirit in action?

The Bottom Line on Happiness.  What’s the ROI on meaningful work?

This being my weekend blog, it’s going to take some time to address these issues.  But I hope you’ll agree that they are interesting lines of enquiry, and want to join the discussion as it unfolds. Stay tuned!

Beyond The Culture Of Contest

Beyond_the_Culture_of_ContestImagine we live in a world of delusion. A world where everything we do and see, even the language we use, are based on a delusion. And the delusion is so complete that we see this as the only reality. In fact, it never even occurs to us that there could be anything else.

That’s the theme of Beyond the Culture of Contest by Michael Karlberg.

He makes the case that the delusion of western-liberal societies is normative adversarialism – the culture of contest, and its corollary, the culture of protest, grounded in the belief that human beings are incorrigably aggressive and selfish:

“Throughout the contemporary public sphere, competitive and conflictual practices have become institutionalised norms. Indeed, contest models of social organisation and protest models of social change have become so ubiquitous that they tend to appear normal, natural and inevitable to those raised in western-liberal cultures.”

So it becomes difficult to imagine alternatives to partisan politics, to legal advocacy and to unfettered aggressively competitive economies.

This is a serious book, meticulously researched and intricately woven. What excites me about it is its breadth – it draws upon Marx and Gramsci and Habermas and feminist thinking and communication theory, and far more.

It explores the hegemonic dominance of adversarialism and its destructive impact. It explains the concomitant marginalisation of mutualism. It suggests that much feminist and ecological thinking, as well as the work of systems theorists and others, has as its start point, or is converging towards. the ideas of mutualism.

It suggests that the core of adversarialism lies in three interlocking sets of institutional contests: political contests, legal contests and economic interests. And that the economic contests dominate.

Published in 2004 (no idea why it took me so long to find this book), this is much more than an academic book. It’s a convincing argument that the culture of contest has created, and continues to maintain, a socially unjust and ecologically unsustainable world. More controversially perhaps – for many sincere people are involved in this – it argues that the culture of protest ultimately reinforces adversarialism and has reached a point of diminishing returns. It makes the case that, in an age of increasing interdependence, social change can be pursued more effectively in a non-adversarial manner.

A final word of caution to atheists: this book works even if you ignore chapter 5, which looks at the experience of the worldwide Bahá’í community as a model of a non-adversarial community. I think it’s quite a compelling case study – an experiment that will take generations to evaluate – but this book’s analysis of the iron grip of adversarialism, and its devastating impact, is fascinating without the case study and stands by itself.