Modern Woman: Part Three — A Conversation Beyond Quotas

A modern woman doesn’t have it all figured out because she’s still in the process of figuring it out. That’s what makes her modern. Gender equality at work goes beyond appointing more women to senior positions.

Adele Barlow
7 min readNov 17, 2021

“We just need more senior women in power, then they’ll fix everything for the generation that comes next,” goes the implicit argument of so many diversity initiatives.

While people often assume that women at the top will lead to a more hospitable environment, the messy truth is that women can be cruel — not just to men but to other women.

If someone has risen through the ranks of a misogynistic environment, they’re likely to have internalised a lot of those traits. They rise because they epitomise the characteristics the organisation values.

Vivienne Parry, a British science journalist and broadcaster, talks about how female misogyny is even more prevalent today than in her mother’s day:

“When there are so few women at higher levels, many of them think they must behave like a tigress, using every weapon at their disposal to protect their position against other ‘sisters.’”

Yet women are still held up as the symbol for a kinder set of work practices.

They are often forced to symbolise feminine values like family, childcare, warmth and relationships, and they are often treated as the “victims” of policies that go against work-life balance. But fairer work environments are not just “better for women” — they’re better for anyone who wants a balanced life.

Ultimately, fixing the world of work for women is about a conversation beyond gender. It’s about making work more human through stronger systems than any single individual and the bias they carry. This way, the onus for equality at work is not on these magical senior women who will miraculously transcend identity politics and make everything better for those who come after them.

Workplaces designed around humane philosophies accept that people thrive when they’re given autonomy. And so, whether you have to come to work a bit later because you’ve got school drop-off becomes irrelevant to whether you’re a high-performing worker.

Here are what those organisations sound like:

“We value employees who live rich and rounded lives… Our policy has always allowed employees to work flexible hours, as long as the work gets done with no negative impacts on others. A serious surfer doesn’t plan to go surfing next Tuesday at two o’clock. You go surfing when there are waves, and the tide and wind are right.”

- Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard

Photo by Jess Loiterton from Pexels

Another example is from American web software company Basecamp, which talks about their goals here:

Have fun, do exceptional work, build the best product in the business, experiment, pay attention to the details, treat people right, tell the truth, have a positive impact on the world around us, give back, and keep learning.

But what if you don’t work for Patagonia or Basecamp?

Claire Cain Miller reported in the New York Times that millennials are viewing career success in a less linear way than previous generations have. We expect career and family priorities to change over time because we know that the world of work is still tilted against mothers.

The thing to remember is that “work” doesn’t have to mean in the future what it’s meant in the past.

The script of traditional education was you go to school; then you go to college, then you get a job.

Photo by Nubia Navarro (nubikini) from Pexels

This is the script behind our parents’ advice. These days, the world has become a lot more fluid.

Perhaps you go to school then college, do an unpaid internship, find a job, complete another degree, take another job. You could have started as a banker then trained as a nutritionist before taking a break to raise your first kid.

This means that the traditional organisation career, which was once perceived as the norm, is now seen by many career researchers as more relevant to the last century.

In the future, we are likely to see careers characterised by flexible employment contracts, multiple employers, lateral job moves, and multiple career changes — also known as the protean career, as described by academic Douglas T. Hall: “a career that is self-determined, driven by personal values rather than organisational rewards, and serving the whole person, family, and ‘life purpose’.”

This model emphasises taking responsibility for your career instead of relying on an employer to draft and map your career for you. It emphasises employability by embracing a lattice-like career of inter-organisational moves and lifelong learning instead of climbing a career ladder.

The protean career is driven by personal career choices and a search for self-fulfilment. So these days, career progression is more like a jungle gym than a ladder.

It’s what Sarah Ellis and Helen Tupper call “Squiggly Careers.” While they both worked for large companies, they found their careers had been “squiggly” when viewed next to linear careers of the past.

This means more change and fluidity — among roles, industries, locations, and careers. As our lifetimes get longer and our working lives do too, there are implications for the type of work that we can do.

I admire the squiggly career of Jennifer Michelle Lee.

She worked as a graphic artist in publishing; she designed audiobooks for Random House. Then she went to Columbia University School of the Arts’ Film Program to do her MFA in film in 2005.

A former classmate at Columbia called her six years later: would she join him at Disney Animation to help him write Wreck-It Ralph? She did. What was meant to be a temporary eight-week writing gig turned into a much longer commitment.

She stayed until Wreck-It Ralph was done, and then she got involved with Frozen, first as a screenwriter and then as a co-director. She worked closely with the songwriters, and her collaboration skills meant she played a central role in the film.

Jennifer Michelle Lee is a mother and she’s also the first female director at Disney Animation Studios and the first woman director to pass $1 billion at the box office.

I love that interviewers don’t ask her how she “juggles” it: they ask about her vision as a writer-director, the collaborative aspect of working on an animated film and screenwriters as visual thinkers.

Her story is an example of what Randy Komisar describes in Goodbye Career, Hello Success:

“If you can do anything setting out, or along the way — because it’s never too late to start again — figure out who you are. What do you love to do? How do you want to live? Then, don’t let a career drive you, let passion drive your life. That may not get you up any ladder, but it will make your trip down a long and winding road more interesting.”

Komisar’s advice applies to anyone, regardless of their gender. And it helps to reframe ambition as a form of passion.

Too many women I know are scared of being called “ambitious” since media portrayals often treat it as a dirty word for a woman.

Kamala Harris had to face accusations that she was “too ambitious” for her current role, much like how in 2016, Hillary Clinton was accused of having “unbridled ambition.” In 1975, Margaret Thatcher was said to be “ruthlessly ambitious.”

It’s often been a word attributed to the masculine. To be ambitious is to be determined to survive. It’s the motivation to want more, to make something happen and have an impact. It’s being someone who gets things done.

But what if there is a distinctly feminine characteristic? What if ambition is the gift you give to the world? What if ambition is the way you protect your family?

So many women I know who were ambitious in their early twenties had moved onto another kind of ambition by their mid-thirties. Looking around, so many of my friends have a more holistic, evolved form of purpose now.

They don’t care about status. They care about balance.

They don’t care about what their boss thinks of them. They care about what they think of their boss.

They don’t want to go to networking events in the evenings. They want to get out of work to pick up their kids from school.

They are still driven but in a different way. And I wonder: why aren’t more of them running organisations, instead of being sidelined as women who ‘used to work’? What would the world look like if some of the most powerful organisations in the world were governed by inherently balanced individuals?

We can’t just wait for ‘more senior women’ to magically make it all better. That approach is a stalling tactic to delay, pause and ignore the heart of the issue. For years, I’ve read and have run campaigns about a slew of suggested solutions: quotas, returnships, mentoring programmes, and so on.

Are they working? I’m not sure. Much like with greenwashing, it’s becoming hard to tell the difference between the talkers and the walkers. All I know is that each millennial woman has to figure it out for herself, and all millennial women have to figure it out for each other.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

I write stories for modern women trying to figure out life, love and business. Read them here.