Balance and Productivity
In being proactive about employee discontent, corporate management has to confront the work/life balance issue, not just give it a perfunctory nod. This affects all workers, but particularly women with children, who are working in a system that’s toxic in most companies for anyone wanting to combine a career with motherhood. Allison Pearson’s tartly humorous novel I Don’t Know How She Does It has sold millions of copies, striking an even deeper chord than Bronson’s, with the hero, Kate Reddy, becoming an Everywoman figure. The novel does fall into the category of “chick-lit” fiction. But men would gain from putting down Tom Clancy and reading Pearson (guys, you can always put a brown paper cover on it) to learn what’s going on in the heads of female colleagues. Be prepared for a shock; this is a humorous book, but it’s also a mirror of a dysfunctional society.
Protagonist Kate Reddy, a star hedge-fund manager, is not a square peg in a round hole, and though she gripes about her Neanderthal male colleagues and a workplace hostile to her needs as a mother, she’s still an inspired worker. “Here’s the thing: I love my job,” she tells the reader. “I love the blood-rush when the stocks I put a punt on deliver the goods … the synapse-snapping satisfaction of being good at it, of being in control when the rest of life seems such an awful mess.” And her life is an awful mess. Poor Kate: “My lovely funny [husband] … once looked at me as Dennis Quaid looked at Ellen Barkin in The Big Easy and now, thirteen years into an equal, mutually supportive partnership, looks at me the way a smoking beagle looks at a medical researcher — aware that such experiments may need to be conducted for the sake of human progress but still somehow pleading for release.” Kate, not always likable in her misery, is neglectful of her husband, but she earns sympathy for her suffering at the hands of a manipulative nanny, incompetent house cleaner, ghastly in-laws, and those nasty co-workers.
In the end, like many corporate women, Kate realizes that the work world won’t be changing anytime soon. So, despite a sympathetic boss and an offer of more money, she gives up her job. She also departs with a bit of venom, engineering the career demise of her most brutish male colleague.
Then she moves her family to the country and goes into business manufacturing dollhouses. Certainly this is an ungainly capitulation for someone who says to a younger female colleague, “There’s never been anything like us before…. Century after century of women knowing their place — and suddenly it’s twenty years of women who don’t know their place, and it’s scary for men. It’s happened so fast.”
To be sure, such glibness is a trademark of chick-lit fiction. All the same, it’s not a genre that can be ignored, because it’s become an outlet for the frustrations of a new generation of women. They read it for the same reasons that an older generation read feminists Betty Friedan or Germaine Greer: to laugh, cry, vent, identify, and make sense of the world.
The New Individual
Bronson and Pearson are zeitgeist writers. They bring to life problems of an era. However, although they pose good questions, they don’t answer them. (Manufacturing dollhouses is not an answer to the saddening attrition rate among corporate women.) In their provocative, rewarding book The Support Economy, authors Shoshana Zuboff, a social psychologist and professor at the Harvard Business School, and her husband James Maxmin, the ex-CEO of Thorn Home Electronics, Volvo U.K., and Laura Ashley, try to provide some answers. As their subtitle indicates, they start from the same premise as Bronson and Pearson. Individuals today, they argue, have a sense of self that is “more intricate, acute, detailed, vast, and rich than at any other time in history,” but “a chasm” separates them from the business organizations in which they work and that provide them with goods and services.