Outside forces shape a woman’s choices whether she realizes it or not, says Laura Liswood of the Council of Women World Leaders.

Much has been written and discussed about women’s ability to have it all – meaning both career and family. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s July/August 2012 Atlantic Monthly article turned the volume up even louder on the debate.

I attended a session recently where this issue was the main topic. At least 12 successful women described their life circumstances and the choices they made. It was highly personal and, as my English teacher would say, ad hominem, or, more accurately, ad feminem. That is, the arguments on this sensitive issue were framed by individual experiences which the individual believes are the determining factor.

It is often clear from the start how the discussion will go when a woman starts describing her situation and what she did after having her first or second child with reference to her career. Similarly, a man may start the dialogue with, “I have three daughters,” or, “My wife decided to stay home after our second child was born.”

These experiences are often poignant, relevant and informative. Particularly with reference to the Have It All Debate, or Why Women Don’t Make it to the Top conversation, a person relates their own experiences, believing that is dispositive. But that is only one leg of a three-legged stool and I wish more discussions on the topic were better informed by the research, the best practices and the clear articulation of the other forces at work when women and men make what appears to be personal decisions.

Having it all isn’t only determined by a person’s or family’s choices. Those choices are informed and even forced by policy, custom, and structures that are way beyond the control of the individual. The outside forces shape a woman’s choices whether she realizes it or not.

What are the other two legs of the stool that go beyond an individual’s control?

Institutional policy/programmes/culture. These include the references to family-friendly organizations, the ability to work part-time, reward and compensation and promotion systems that are inclusive or exclusive of non-linear careers. They are shaped by the cultural encouragement or punishment around “face time” and being present. Do organizations really believe the part-time worker is equally committed to the organization or is there a subtle but punitive evaluation if the employee works less than the dominant group?

I often feel like challenging individuals who immediately default to the excuse that women aren’t making it to the top because of work-life choices. This makes it makes it seem as if the individual has made an independent decision about her career and her desires. From the beginning of a career, women start with lower salaries and even those who are not married and have no children still do not get as far as men in a similar position. And it must be noted that African American, Hispanic, or Asian men in corporations who presumably fit more of the dominant group’s roles and distribution of labour at home, are not making it to the top in their proportionate numbers.

Government policy. Government policies vary widely and wildly among countries, but each policy creates its own magnetic force for choices people make. Visa policies may determine how many daycare workers are available (versus entertainment workers, for example). Legally mandated paid maternity and paternity leave shapes how companies think about the cost/value relationship of men and women. If paternity leave isn’t mandatory as a government dictate, women will be unduly seen as being more expensive than men to hire and retain. Governments either support crèches or they don’t. France has a superb crèche system; for the USA it isn’t even on the radar.

The World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Women’s Empowerment is looking at these issues better to understand the levers of the economic gender gap. With the Forum’s guidance, Mexico, Japan and Turkey have engaged their private and public sector in task forces to investigate the intersections of the individual, the organization and the government. The goal is to find the best practices of each country and create a template for other countries to follow. With these efforts, maybe we will be able to stop putting the onus solely on the individual for forces beyond her control and spread them where they equally belong.

Author: Laura Liswood is Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders and Vice Chair, World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Women’s Empowerment

Watch the Davos session, Women in Economic Decision-making, at 11am CET.

 Image: A businesswoman is seen walking in the Financial district in Paris REUTERS/Christian Hartmann