The Concrete Floor

The hare had escaped.  The farmer yelled at his hunting dog, “You’re a highly trained animal!  How could you let that little hare outrun you?”  The hunting dog replied, “Master, I was merely hunting for my lunch;  he was hunting for his life.”  — Aesop’s Fables

I recently went back to the U.S. on a business trip, and caught up with friends I haven’t seen in a while – so the usual ten minute synopsis of recent developments in their relationships, job, and education.  My friends are at the age now where summer is now just considered “wedding season,” but people don’t really have kids yet.  It’s a moment when we’ve finished processing all the norms our parents gave us, and are now deciding what ones we consider our own.

One such norm is gender equality, specifically in the workplace. Thanks to the women’s movement, men and women can, at least in theory, now do the same jobs, get paid the same for doing them, and advance to the same seniority at them.  My mother fought hard for that privilege.  She was one of ten women in her medical school class of over a hundred.  Thanks to my parent’s generation (and my parents!), I could attend a formerly all-boys school in New York, play baseball on a co-ed Little League team, work on a historically male Wall Street trading floor, and drink scotch at a formerly all-male New York Athletic Club.  I have been told me there’s a glass ceiling somewhere out there, but I haven’t yet felt it.  We women have my parents’ generation to thank for such liberty.

And yet, I don’t have to look too far ahead to see something that looks suspiciously like a glass ceiling still out there in the workplace.  I don’t need to barrage you with statistics proving that there are notably few female CEOs, directors of companies, or Congresswomen in the US.  Here’s one fun fact though: Lehman Brothers, where I used to work, promoted 199 people to Managing Director last year. 176 of them were men. Only 23 were women. 

So why, after all these decades of gender equality, are women – ambitious, talented, smart women – still not keeping up with men in the workplace?

It’s not just the “glass ceiling” preventing women from rising higher.  There’s also a “concrete floor” preventing men from falling behind, a floor built by you, and by me.

Here’s what I mean:  For a woman in America today, having a job that pays a lot is a nice-to-have.  Yes, it can be a very nice-to-have.  But if a woman doesn’t end up making a lot of money, and instead dedicates herself to something she’s passionate about, or that does good for the world or for the next generation, or all of the above, then she’ll still be respected by those around her.  No matter how ambitious, successful or well-educated, women of my generation can opt out of high-powered career tracks, and do something they like more, just because they like it more.
I really don’t think that men have the same freedom.  Men are –  still after all these years –  supposed to be the financial breadwinners.  Supposed to buy the girl a $14 lychee martini at a bar.  Supposed to have a car so he can driver her to Costco.  Supposed to have enough money to buy the nice Manhattan apartment so that his girlfriend’s friends can come over to admire the view of the Chrysler building and raid the lovely wine collection while he watches his plasma TV in the other room. 
So these career-hungry guys will stick at their job on a Lehman trading floor, sweating through their ironed blue collared shirts, fighting with each other (and a few ballsy women) to become one of the 173 males out of 199 promoted to Managing Director, while their female friends are off building NGOs or solar panels, or teaching yoga, or writing about their travel adventures.
Of course there are exceptions.  We all know (or at least know of) some sweet guy who’s passionate about education and teaching high school in the Bronx, or some artist who lives in Park Slope (well, as near as to Park Slope as he can afford) pursuing his passion for music or tree branches, or some stay-at-home dad who takes care of the kids while his lawyer wife is running a corporation.
But admit it: there are other names for that “nice guy” who opted out of some bling-bling suit-wearing career to go find himself and do good for the world.  I think I once heard you use the term “loser.”
So boiling it down, it’s really just the old dog-and-hare Aesop’s Fable but for the sexes:  for women, doing well in one of those high-paying careers is a meal;  for men, it’s their life.  And as long as that’s the case, even if women work and push and convince themselves they want to win at the game of Corporate America, they will continue struggle to compete with men who know that they need it.
So let’s go back to where were started, observing ourselves perched at a moment in time when our generation gets to decide what norms we want to establish of our own.  And here we are, still slathering praise on men that bring home the bacon, and on women who don’t.  Still chiding that female consultant you are friends with (you think, as you haven’t seen her since she started pulling 80 hour weeks and six digit salaries) for not having work-life balance.  And still calling that freelancer guy with work-life balance a loser.
The fix is to take a sledgehammer to that concrete floor for men.  If we ever really want men and women to be equal in the workplace, all of us have to let men really have some work-life balance themselves.  It has to be okay for the girl to buy a guy a drink.  For them to make less money and — gasp — have a lower status job than their girlfriends and wives.   For them to be full-time dads.   Unless it becomes socially acceptable for them to do so, I don’t see how it will ever be that there a equal numbers of men and women CEOs or senior bankers or senators.  The hare will keep outrunning the dog.

Guys won’t do it themselves.  Fine, they may want to take flextime, pursue outside interests, and replace their BlackBerry with a spatula.  But they won’t.  They are too scared of we’ll consider them losers for doing so.  And they’re right — we probably will.
A generation ago, people thought women couldn’t be doctors either.  Here’s a second and much more fun fact:  according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the proportion of women in medical schools went from just 5.8% in 1960 when my mother was in college to 48% in 2008.
So I am hopeful that the next generation will give ambitious men the liberty to break through the concrete floor.  But first, ours has to give guys credit for being losers.
– Liz