Confessions of a benefits manager: A woman’s work

Candid attends a conference for women in management and concludes that work-life balance is tilted in the wrong direction

It was Big Bad Boss’s idea for me to go to the Women In Management Personnel conference. So, of course, I should have been a bit more suspicious from the start. Since when has he been interested in my development? But it’s an opportunity for a day out of the office, so I am all for it. There might even be a nice lunch involved.

The meeting is in a large conference room in the NoSoul hotel. I hate being in a room with no windows. I feel claustrophobic and fidgety already. And they haven’t even offered us coffee yet. A dishevelled woman called Deirdre introduces herself as head of the women’s organisation hosting the event. Really? She looks like she couldn’t manage her way out of a paper bag. She presents a few slides on the aims of the group, and arranges for us to split into break-out sessions. My heart sinks. Not break-out sessions. Please.

I end up in a little conference room with a small group of women, one of whom is American and wearing shoulder pads in a get-out-of-my-way-I-am-on-a-career-path kind of look, with the others more dowdy and British looking.Our task is to brainstorm rewards for the group’s recognition programme, which will aim to spotlight women who have worked very hard for the cause.

The shoulder-pad woman quickly establishes herself as leadership potential by taking control of the flipchart and pens. The rest of us sit back with our arms folded. I’m not in a hurry to contribute. After all, I didn’t come here to offer free advice. I’d much rather relax and let information wash over me. One dowdy woman suggests offering a food voucher. Shoulder Pads rolls her eyes and reluctantly writes it down. Another one suggests a business book. That gets written down and underlined. We are clearly on the right track. Someone else suggests clothing. To my surprise, Shoulder Pads gets all animated at that. Yes, we could award branded apparel, which will help to advertise the group at the same time. Awesome.

Really? Personally, I wouldn’t be seen dead in any corporate-branded T-shirt, especially one with the acronym WIMP. The dowdy women make no comment, so it seems that would suit them just fine. When we are done with the exercise, the flipchart is left discarded in the room. I assume it was an exercise to make sure we tick the this-meeting-was-participative box.

Nice buffet spread

Lunch is just outside, and I am pleased to see a nice buffet spread. I notice many women sucking up to the more executive types among us, intent on networking their way to the top. Perhaps I should be social too, but I am more intent on negotiating my way to the profiteroles right now.

After lunch, Dishevelled Deirdre introduces the guest speaker, Glenda, a senior vice-president from the US. Glenda kicks off by letting us know just how important she is. She tells us the size of the mega-corporation she works for. She describes the function she manages and drops in that there are 20,000 employees reporting up through to her. That is more than are in my entire company. OK, so she has a very big job.†

Glenda then goes on to describe her career journey from graduate trainee to officer of the board. It seems she had to take a lot of lateral moves to get to where she is, and let’s not forget for one second: she had to work very hard along the way. She describes the sexism she met early in her career. That was the early Sixties and there weren’t many women in business in those days. Her answer to the problem: you have to work very hard.

She then moves on to the key focus of her talk: work-life balance. I perk up. This is a topic dear to my heart, because I don’t want to spend any more time at work than I have to. Sadly, this sets me apart from Big Bad Boss and the Higher Beings, who are happy to spend hours at work just to get away from their families. They never seem to understand why I should want to go home at all.

I am particularly hopeful that Glenda can help me align my personal goals (such as having a life) with a successful career in my company. I want to hear how she has managed to get to the top and still manage a home and family. I am all ears.

Glenda’s advice is this: always have dinner with your family. She proudly tells us that she never fails to eat with her family before she goes back to work. Yes, you heard it: this woman, chosen to speak to other women about work-life balance, goes back to work after dinner every single day. That isn’t my idea of a well-rounded existence; more like tucking your life into your dinner break.

She describes the technology she uses to work from home in the evenings. She tells us about the special conference phone for late-night calls to China and the gadgets that allow her to check her emails 24/7. Like any of that makes it any better. Finally, she summarises her talk on the last slide. The overwhelming message of the day is clear: if you want to get ahead as a woman, you have to work very hard. It is beginning to feel like some kind of sinister hypnotic suggestion to get us all to be Stepford employees as well as wives. No wonder Big Bad Boss wanted me to come.

Next time…Candid delivers some training

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