Last Saturday I had the pleasure to speak at a Women in Business Conference at my alma mater, Holy Cross. The keynote speaker, Nancy Taylor, President and CEO of Tredegar quoted Peter Drucker and said “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That quote held on to me during her speech, during my session later in the day, and ever since. I’m almost embarrassed to say, I had not heard that one before. It’s so elegant with its simplicity and it’s from such a well known management guru. It seems like I went out of my way not to hear it before. But now that I have, I see how it hits at many of the challenges we women face in business as a whole and in negotiating in particular.
This elegantly simple quote reflects the reality of women in business today. For more than five thousand years (since the first marriage) women had developed a culture that served us well in our subservient roles as daughters, wives, and mothers who had little if any legal rights or voice. The work we did was in support of our fathers’ and husbands’ work. We learned to farm if we were farmer’s daughters. We learned the trade of our husbands’ to act as their apprentices. We were the women behind the men. We knew how to get things done to benefit our men’s images. We knew how to manage the home so well that men thought there was little or nothing to managing a household and children. The trials and tribulations of our days were to be stifled while the credit of our successes were to be shared with the males of our family. This culture of support served us well but things started to change not too long ago.
About 300 years ago love-based marriages became acceptable and women had a say in whom they married. This was the first time women had a voice in such an important aspect of their own life. Until then parents decided for economic and political reasons who daughters would marry – if they would marry at all. In 1920 in the US another big change occurred. Women got the right to vote. This is a breakthrough moment. Women actually got a voice in the world around them. That is less than 100 years ago. Move forward to 1963 and John F. Kennedy signs into law the Equal Pay Act. That is less than 50 years ago that the government acknowledges and promotes the value of women in business.
Thousands of years had been spent creating and reinforcing the culture of women as supporting roles in the lives of men and society. This culture does not suddenly disappear within three hundred years as women legally win rights to be the leading characters in their own lives and co-stars in society as a whole. These changes are the antithesis of what had come before. They were well overdue but they are relatively recent.
We women are discovering our own voice, value, power, and the freedom of options afforded by the legal changes. At the same time, the men who supported women with their physical strength and ability to earn money in the past are struggling. They face the question of how to be men who are needed by financially secure women Both sexes are like teenagers who have a driver license and know where we want to go but we still need to ask for the keys to the car and be home by curfew. Part of us relishes the new roles and part of us reverts back to our old familiar roles that have been handed down from great grandmother to grandmother to mother to us.
The old culture required women to be advocates of others. The new business world requires that we advocate for ourselves. The old culture required that we hand control of ourselves to others. The new business world requires that we control our own professional development. The old culture required we be silent about small slights to keep the harmony of the family unit. The new business world requires that we know what battles to fight and sometimes those battles are the small things that quickly can add up.
As we continue to become comfortable with our new roles and forge a new culture, what lessons would you like to pass to the next generation?