June 29, 2003

Kiwi women leaders really know how to work and live

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Prostitutes, where would you be without them? They satisfy needs which otherwise might lead to domestic violence. Arguably, they act as a frustrationvalve for many thousands of men and possibly, indirectly, keep some marriages afloat.”

“Obviously, prostitution should be legal. Prostitutes should be treated like any other professionals,with bodies to articulate their rights, concerns and responsibilities to politicians and to the media.They should be part of civil society and as such should have a voice at the partnership table.”

“Clients should equally be treated with respect and privacy and should be able to shop around for the best service at the lowest possible prices. All needs and desires should be catered for, even the most exotic.”

These are selected snippets from the debate in the New Zealand parliament last week ahead of the decision on Thursday to legalise hookers.

Whether you support the move or not, the debate in New Zealand was unique in many ways. First, it was transparent and honest and second, most of those involved in the decision-making process were women because women rule New Zealand.

The prime minister is a woman, so too was her predecessor.The attorney general is a woman, as is the chief justice, the governor general, the head of the largest company and the head of the largest bank. Throw in the last head of the opposition, over 30 per cent of the parliament and the mayor of the biggest city and you get the picture. New Zealand, one of the last of the frontier societies, where the muscular masculinity of the All Blacks has come to represent the Kiwi image abroad, is characterised by women in high places.

Historically,the Kiwis were the first women to have the vote back in 1893. Yet it was not until 1919 (just after us) that they got their first women parliamentarians. Many argue that the frontier and pioneering nature of the society explain the sexual equality.

This might be true, although it seems to suggest our own grandmothers were pushovers, which is not the case. But for whatever reason, women have made it to the top in New Zealand in greater numbers than other societies.

Interestingly, and in contrast to the US, where most successful women have eschewed motherhood, all the notably successful Kiwi women are also successful mothers. This would appear to stem from a comprehensive system of flexitime, part-time work, teleworking and transferring to less stressful and time-consuming jobs while kids are young.The fact is, they are there now, and this changes the way a society operates – from laws on prostitution to changes in the workplace. Women on top make different decisions and these decisions change society.

Imagine Ireland if it was ruled by women. What would the office look like? Let’s start with what are sometimes described as the “small things”, but are really the “big things”, such as the working day.There are many persuasive arguments to say that the excruciating banality of the rat-race might be different.

The only way to explain why women are less successful than men in the corporate world is because they don’t want to be as successful. The rules of the game do not suit them. Women are opting out in a way that none of the statistics capture.

All stats indicate that there should be an equal number of successful women and men in their forties, but this is not the case. For example, women are getting better Leaving Cert results, women are more likely to be in third level courses and are beginning to outnumber men in traditional male professions, such as the law. Yet they are not bothering to break through.

With the exception of New Zealand, this is observed across the western world, not just in Ireland.

In Ireland, we have the possible excuse that our baby boomers are about 20 years younger than those in the US and continental Europe. So in Ireland there are still fewer educated women in the workforce as a whole than in other developed counties. But the only thing that explains the lack of female success is choice.

If women ruled Ireland, the first thing that would change, not just by legislation but by practice, would be our approach to work.

The long, unsociable and in many instances impossible hours that argue against rearing a family fuel the guilt many working women feel about leaving their children in creches or with nannies for long periods. This would change. Contracting out parenting doesn’t appeal to everyone and pressure in this regard would diminish.

The sheer male childishness of corporate ladder climbing would change.

Corporate rules are still very much male rules and children are the big obstacle. One of the rules of the corporate game is time: you give your time and in return the corporation gives you cash and status.

So many mothers have to make a choice between children and career. This is sometimes easier for men. Many (but not all) successful corporate fathers are rather remote from their kids.

Anyone who has tried both the incessant frustrating chaos of rearing children and the relatively tolerable, but at least adult, environment of long office hours would know which is easier – the office any day. The point is, that at some stage, the tradeoff between being a good mother and a good employee kicks in.Typically, this applies to women in their thirties and largely explains why there are simply fewer women around in corporations in their forties.

The structure of corporate life militates against mothers in other ways. Arguably, joining a corporation is like joining the army. Despite all the touchy – feely late 1990s stuff about corporate families, my experience in large corporations was that politics and only politics ensures advancement.

Everyone watches their back and makes alliances where they are necessary. Rarely does anyone in a corporation stand up for a colleague who is being hung out to dry and typically cute hoorism as much as talent dictates people’s career path.

Obviously, women are not above such duplicity, but appear, anecdotally at least, to be less driven by this type of carry-on.

Most corporate men join at 25 after college and work their way up, taking two weeks holidays a year and usually putting in a few brownie hours at the weekend. The tyranny of presenteeism, together with an acceptance of being almost “on call” for the institution debars many women from happily embracing such a career path.

An extraordinary number of men on the other hand seem to accept the progressive narrowing of lifestyle choices that a corporate career, even a good corporate career, implies.

So a major change to working life if women ruled would be changes to how we value time. Society would move gradually from the “cash rich, time poor” vacuum to “time richer and cash poorer”. By placing time before money, many suggest that a lot of the stress that is characterising modern life might abate somewhat.

It would certainly decrease the obsession with national competitiveness (which to an individual or a family is quite meaningless) and the obsession with narrow economic definitions that gauge the “health” of the society. It might also teach people that “Busy” is not the only response to “Hello, how are you”.

All this and prostitutes’ submissions to partnership. Now there’s progress for you!