Almost five years ago, I teamed up with Julie Johnson, one of America’s most successful executive coaches, to create a project aimed at looking at differences and similarities in how men and women perceived, defined and pursued satisfaction in their work.
The project was inspired by the fact that Julie and I kept hearing the same thing from an unsettling number of very successful women who were either leaving high-profile jobs or deciding to assume positions as individual contributors in their organizations—jobs that often required great skills and hard work, but did not put them on track for senior management.
What was it we kept hearing?
“It’s not worth it.”
What did this mean?
The women we talked to were in essence telling us that the tradeoffs their companies were asking them to make—in terms of time, stress, lifestyle, whatever–– were simply not worth the rewards their organizations offered.
Notice: the women were not saying they were unwilling to sacrifice their time or live with the adrenaline rush we all experience when we’re over-extended (or thrillingly involved).
They were saying that what their organizations offered in return was not sufficient reward. They did not value it enough for it to be worth it.
Of course, we did not hear this from all the women we talked to– not by a long shot. Some women joyously judged the rewards their organizations offered as well worth the effort, and embraced the opportunities they fought for with zest. Others took a stoic approach.
But we heard the “it’s not worth it” line enough, and in high enough places, that we decided we wanted to explore what these women really meant.
Why were jobs or positions that had been valued without question by generations of men viewed as not necessarily or entirely desirable by women?
As we pondered this, we began to realize was that most workplaces, most organizations, most jobs were designed in the industrial era for men, which meant that they reflected purely male definitions of worth in terms of tradeoff.
Now, there’s been a lot of focus–– research, articles, books, seminars, you name it–– on the fact that the structure of work was designed to reflect male realities (realities that we might note are changing fast). But there has been precisely nothing written about whether the rewards of work also reflect male values. When we realized this, we got excited!
What if—just supposing— women brought a different set of values with them to work? Not all women, of course, but enough to make it an issue. And what if—further drilling down on the “it’s not worth it” issue–– these values shaped women’s perception of satisfaction?
Could this be one of the reasons that organizations were still struggling to attract and above all to retain talented women? Was there some fundamental mismatch between what the market offered in terms of senior positions in the workplace and what women (again, not all women, but some really terrific ones) valued in their work?
The more we explored this idea with women—Julie’s clients, female leaders I met at leadership conferences where I was speaking, friends and colleagues from around the world–– the more we realized we were onto something quite big.
We started informally interviewing women and men on the subject. We ran a couple of focus groups. And we explored academic research from fields ranging from brain science the economics of happiness.
But we soon realized that we needed hard data if we were to really explore how women’s values and perception of what constituted satisfaction in the workplace might differ from that which shaped organizations as we know them. So Julie and I set to work developing a survey ( we call it the Satisfaction Profile Assessment ) that would enable us to identify the primary sources of sources of satisfaction that motivate people at work, so we could compare results for women and men.
We received guidance in designing the survey from Dr. Mark Fischman, Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory at Carnegie Mellon University, and from the wonderful people at American Psychological Testing. We secured some corporate support, which enabled us to have Harris Interactive run our survey out among a sample of over 800 men and women at mid and senior levels of management in corporations, associations, and government positions all over the US. And we made sure the survey enabled us to break down the data not just by gender, but also by age, industry, years of employment, and ethnic background.
What’s interesting is how many of the results of that original project’s data still apply at present. It has been extraordinary to see ideas we first batted around in conversation turned into verifiable data points. Analyzing our results has given us many, many insights about how organizations could be more skillful in their efforts to attract, retain, develop and inspire talented women by taking into consideration what women really value in their work.
This finding has big potential implications for organizations of every kind: for leaders, researchers, career development specialists, search firms, educators and trainers– the list is long.
I will be sharing this rich material with you over the next year, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts!