The Seed and the Soil: A 50/50 Career Deal

Young African American business woman with spectacles while at work
Young African American business woman with spectacles while at work

Recent discussions about women's careers have focused on the apparent divide between what women should do to ensure their careers go well (Lean In) and what institutions need to do to change policies to help women ensure their careers can be possible ("Can Women Have It All?"). The debate seems to be about which is more important.

My response is: that is like asking, "Which line is more important in a rectangle, the long line or the short line?" In a rectangle, both long and short lines are equally essential. So too in careers for women, it is impossible to disaggregate between the individual and the institution. I call this reality the seed and the soil -- a 50/50 career deal. (I am grateful to my colleague, Aynesh Johnson, Managing Director at Goldman Sachs, who has helped me frame this issue).

The institution, i.e. the company, the organization, is THE SOIL. It has a 50 percent responsibility to make sure supervisors, managers, and leaders develop and maintain awareness that men and women have different approaches (as do other historically underrepresented groups such as Blacks, Asians, the disabled, different cultures, etc.). Most importantly, the institution must give tools to those who lead, and manage these tools to work with those who are different and come from both dominant and non-dominant groups. Organizations should not strive for heterogeneity and diversity if the tools and programs are not there to make it work.

Let me also mention that government policy is part of the SOIL. Government policy comes in the form of such things as tax benefits or family leave policy, immigration decisions, and child care regulations.

On the other hand, who cares most about one's own career? Aside from one's mother, the individual cares most about their career. The individual has a 50 percent responsibility as THE SEED to have the skills, tools, awareness, planning and personal development to ensure their career goes well.

One example would look like this:

The issue is communication styles. It is known that men and women, and often other cultures, learn through societal example as they grow up to communicate somewhat differently. Not everyone is different, but the cohorts probably speak with slightly different mannerisms.

Women, for example, may use ritual question to demand something. Many men know this from the often-parodied question (statement) from his opposite sex partner, "Do you want to stop for a cup of coffee?" Almost everyone is bilingual and knows that the woman means "Stop now because I want a cup of coffee."

In the workplace, a woman (the SEED) may ask her manager, "Do you think I should get a promotion?" The male manager (SOIL) hears a question and says "No." The SOIL has a responsibility to have learned that this is known as a ritual question and treat it as such. The SEED has a responsibility to realize that there are other speaking frameworks besides ritual question and that she may need to use a different approach given her intended audience.

This is a small example, but these abound in the workplace. Yes, women should lean into their careers and understand how to stay engaged if they off ramp for a time in their careers, or ask for their assignments, get critical feedback, seek promotions, state their accomplishments, and learn more ways to behave other than just those learnt through societal norms. It is 50 percent their responsibility to stretch themselves and get out of their comfort zones.

But there is a similar 50 percent responsibility by the institution, as represented by the managers, supervisors and leaders, to be taught and to understand the implications of their requirements for long hours of face time, for the unconscious negative career consequences of doing telework, flex work, or hitting the career pause button. To understand exactly how a double bind works and how they may be engaging in one (assertive men vs. aggressive women).

The institution has to make managers far more aware of how "like" gravitates to 'like," how people bond with those who are similar to them, and to mitigate the consequences of this in hierarchical organizations where rewards are given out unequally. The organization, if it is going to state that its goal is to have a diverse workforce for its innovation and creativity, then must teach managers to appreciate that some people have no trouble stating how good and accomplished they are, and some people have a background that taught them not to brag.

Organizations teach their employees how to handle diverse technical products and diverse ways to generate revenue. They know that nourishing excellence in employees requires a fertile soil. Having an organization filled with diverse individuals also requires that same level of rich soil.

The individual will only flower if there is a strong seed, which he or she must come to provide to the organization to make their own careers blossom.

The SEED and the SOIL. It takes both.