October 18 was Persons Day in Canada. It marks the date when women were recognized as persons under Canadian law.
A lot has changed for Canadian and American women in the past eighty years. Our rights and our ability to access those rights have increased. The question is, have our workplaces adjusted to reflect those changes?
According to the recently released Shriver Report, the answer to that question is a resounding no. The report, authored by First Lady of California Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress, documents the fact that in 2009, for the first time in history, women will make up half of all U.S. workers. Mothers are the primary breadwinners or co-breadwinners in nearly two-thirds of American families. And that, states the report, creates a “woman’s nation that changes everything”.
The problem is that neither society nor most of our workplaces have instituted the kinds of fundamental changes needed to support this new reality. Increasing numbers of workers are juggling work, child care and elder care responsibilities. The report found that a majority of both women and men want more flexibility at work. It also found that a majority of individuals are not getting that flexibility and further, that they are afraid to ask for it.
When I interviewed Jane Sillberg, former HR Director of Intuit Canada for my book Road to Respect: Path to Profit, she told me that one of the practices that supports Intuit’s consistently high level of employee engagement is respect for the whole person. “In the 70’s and 80s I often heard leave your personal life at the door. That makes no sense to me. We don’t just tolerate personal lives, we embrace them. If your child gets sick in the middle of the day what can you do? We don’t worry about which day off they access. We say how can we help? We want them to deal with the situation and come back to work comfortable that they can be there.”
As First Lady Michelle Obama has said, “If you are worried about your children, you can’t breath”. Workplaces that want engaged and focused employees must create workplace cultures that respect the whole person. A respectful workplace culture supports and empowers employees by creating a safe environment where employees feel safe to speak up. Now is the time to start the conversation with employees, both women and men, to determine what policies and practices need to shift in order to demonstrate respect to the whole person and allow each employee to be focused, committed and productive at work.