“On principle, I refuse to speak badly of another woman, even if she has offended me intolerably. It’s a position that I feel obliged to take precisely because I’m well aware of the situation of women: it’s mine, I observe it in others, and I know that there is no woman who does not make an enormous, exasperating effort to get to the end of the day. Poor or affluent, ignorant or educated, beautiful or ugly, famous or unknown, married or single, working or unemployed, with children or without, rebellious or obedient, we are all deeply marked by a way of being in the world that, even when we claim it as ours, is poisoned at the root by millennia of male domination.
The consequence is that not only is female power suffocated but also, for the sake of peace and quiet, we suffocate ourselves. Even today, after a century of feminism, we can’t fully be ourselves, don’t belong to ourselves. Our defects, our cruelties, our crimes, our virtues, our pleasure, our very language are obediently inscribed in the hierarchies of the male, are punished or praised according to codes that don’t really belong to us and therefore wear us out. It’s a condition that makes it easy to become odious to others and to ourselves.
Is it possible, people say to me at times, that you don’t know even one bitch? I know some, of course: literature is full of them and so is everyday life. But, all things considered, I’m on their side.” (Source, Elena Ferrante for The Guardian)
Elena Ferrante is a pseudonymous Italian novelist. Her Neapolitan Novels are among her best known works and have been translated into multiple languages. Time magazine called Ferrante one of the 100 most influential people in 2016.
While we can’t tell who she is with precision, we can be sure that with her words, her articles and books, she consistently hits the nail on the head.
One thing I would add to her assessment, the "hierarchies of the male" that she refers to, have started to seriously tire many men too.
On May 30th, 2016, I wrote a post called “Mothers and Modern Tortures”. I had been writing my blog for about 18 months by then. Mostly posts about themes on life, at work, in private and in between, or topics that mattered to me as impacted positively life and society. On that day, on my way to Lausanne to attend an event, as I reflected back on a few recent experiences, I typed a few thoughts on my ipad. Back then I had been 16 years on the “career ladder” and no matter the country, the sector or the firm, what I had often witnessed, especially in Switzerland, was gender inequality in a business world mostly built by (alpha) males, for (alpha) males. On this note, how do we define seniority and success? The minute such alpha males (and alpha male-women) are laid off they often become unemployable as they just fit less and less in today's world. Was it really "seniority" and "success" they had in their own old world?
Said inequality hit an all time high for me when at 32 I became pregnant with my first child and was told that despite my very good performance, despite having been incredibly more senior in previous roles, having performed for 12 years straight, I could not be promoted, because I was pregnant. Instead, very junior (wannabe alpha) male colleagues with one tenth of my experience and education would go ahead. That was not the third world in 1850, that was the first world in 2012. Yes, that jaw-dropping moment. The upside? The incredible strength that my resilience muscles developed.
I have had to check that post's analytics a few times, because my very own story, my post on inequality in the workplace, was shared over 300 times, and collected consistently thousands of page views. Equally by men and women. For a post shared with family and friends on private social media, on a private blog with no paid traffic, those were quite some numbers. Those reflections had hit a nerve. Clearly, I was not alone.
Life went on. We thrive anyway, we learn, we empower each other, some don’t, back to the aforementioned b*tches, we hit walls, try again, we overcome incredible challenges, we succeed, consistently, and well, we happen to build successful businesses as we go by.
But how are we all driving steadily this very much needed change? What new real models for women and men are we raising awareness on? Men are as much trapped in most of this “alpha-male” world as women are. Times are changing, a clear reflection of this is the increasing number of millennials (women and men) who are less than fascinated by old corporate working models and by old and stale environments.
The lure that many large corporations once had in attracting and retaining talents is long gone, replaced by new working models, attractive start-ups, high impact lean companies that favour competence over arrogance. Old corporations who have managed to re-invent themselves, truly empowering their talents, successfully establishing a culture in line with our times, thrive. Those that don`t? A healthy read through the lines of our times and new businesses is recommended.
Millennials are not alone on their quest. Just pay attention to how many 40 something, men and women, are literally itching daily to change the way they work, to find more meaning in what they do, to leave behind the old ‘work life balance’ to find sustainable ways to create a winning synergy between their work and their life. They are everywhere.
So how do we go from here? A dear friend and successful entrepreneur, Riccarda Zezza, has been working tirelessly to change the perspective on work and life. Raising awareness on the much needed new culture with her work, her many clients (enlightened corporations across Italy and Europe), with multiple interviews, and with her own successful weekly column in AlleyOop - Il Sole 24 Ore, the Italian Financial Times. We have met a few times over the years, and I had the pleasure to ask her a few questions last week over breakfast in our hometown, Milan.
Q. Riccarda, work and life have been seen traditionally as eternally conflicting, but things are changing, how can we raise awareness on the new status quo?
A. By showing how life and work can generate strong synergies. This means having an impact on female employment, women representation in decision making positions, quality of life and productivity of working parents, and on the human capital available to companies.
Q. Can you tell us a bit about you and your work?
A. Our work at Life Based Value is to help companies and individuals to leave the “work life balance era” and enter the “work life synergy era”. This is the reason why we created MAAM, a digital learning platform based on a proprietary method that transforms the experience of parenthood in a unique opportunity to develop key business skills.
Q. What is MAAM?
A. MAAM comes from my personal experience. I always worked for big international and Italian companies and when I experienced maternity I witnessed a huge gap between what was happening to me in my personal life and what was perceived at work. A happy and natural event in my life was perceived as a “problem” at work, no matter what the reality was, no matter what the real impact this could potentially have on my professional life. I experienced this situation not once, but two times and this happened in different companies and different countries. It was an odd situation: while there was a lot of talks about diversity, smart-working, helping women’s careers, and all, the reality was that a natural event as maternity was one of the main obstacles women’s career path. As a woman and as a mother I thought that, before looking for the perfectly sized maternity leave, before talking about having more and more affordable nursery schools, we needed to look at maternity in a new way, it was imperative to build a new frame around it. This is MAAM’s starting point: Maternity As A Master, a research based book co-written with Andrea Vitullo. Maternity is an experience that leads parents - not only mothers - to face new challenges and to develop new skills and resources. Isn’t this similar to a master? Parenthood is a “life based learning” experience that allows people to develop many of these skills: from time management to prioritization and delivery of complex demands. Our work is to show that there is a common strong ground where both parties can win.
Q. What does impact mean for you? I hear you received an Ashoka Fellowship? That is quite an impressive achievement, Ashoka selects the world's leading social entrepreneurs!
A. Thank you, we did, it was a great honour. Impact is the ability to produce changes and social innovation. It has to do with commitment, trust, efforts and passion. I’m hoping to transform the workplace on a systemic level. The workplace I want is one that values diversity and in particular the experience of motherhood. The reason why I am dedicating my life to proposing and supporting a paradigmatic change of perspective towards the apparent conflict between life and work is that this conflict is anachronistic: counterproductive at an economic level, frustrating and painful at a social and individual level.
Q. How can we create new implementable role models for women?
A. I would rather prefer to talk about REAL models. When it comes to career and employment, women need to look at real life inspiring examples. We want to implement a permanent shift of paradigm and I think that women (and their employers) need to look at convincing, sustainable, well-rounded examples. The cultural element plays an important part: the belief that “they will not manage it,” convinces many women to avoid the experience of motherhood, or to drop their careers. There’s also lack of leadership models that doesn’t help and further stresses women’s hearts and minds. It’s a complex problem. We focus on changing this culture.
At a company level, businesses should see in parenting a gym for the development of human capital. Studies of over 2,000 women and men show that parents’ professional skills grow significantly following the birth of their children. They show a 15% improvement in managing change, a 16% improvement in solving complex problems, a 22% improvement in judgement and decision making, a 23% improvement in networking skills, a 31% increase in time and priority management performance, and a 35% improvement in delegating and collaborating, on average. Parents bring many other benefits to businesses, such as improved climate, better brand reputation, an increased ability to attract young talent, and great team cohesion. Parenthood seen through MAAM lenses can bring many other benefits to businesses, such as improved climate, better brand reputation, an increased ability to attract young talent, and great team cohesion.
This is why I put emphasis on real models versus role models: from the one hand we need to grow women’s self confidence in their ability to create the right synergy between work and life; from the other hand the positive and successful example of companies that consider maternity as a growth opportunity will inspire other companies and will lead to a steady shift .
Q. Riccarda, what drives you?
A. From a personal point of view, I care about the world my generation is creating for our children: I think it’s our responsibility to use at best all the power we have, to give a sense to every aspect and role of our rich lives.
From a company perspective, Life Based Value is driven by the vision of offering to businesses an “ecological way” to retain talents and improve vital soft skills, simply by leveraging what they already have at hand.
Q. There is a large debate going on around the future of work, talent retention, women and millennials values. What do you think the future holds for old school organizations?
A. The future of work, talent retention, women and millennial values are in some way connected to each other and the ability to take all mentioned aspects into account will positively impact all organizations by bringing them into the (very near) future. We already talked about the development of soft skills in parenthood and about the need to create synergy between personal and professional life. A recent McKinsey Global Institute report highlights the need for a global workforce transition in order to manage the challenges deriving from automation. Soft skills development is one the key areas that will contribute to create new jobs and retain talents. Effective work life balance is key for millennials and Gen Z. New generations put great relevance on company values and choose those organizations that are capable of motivating them beyond salary and benefits, with particular attention to their ability to respect their multi-dimensionality of life and work. Invest in soft skills development and a greater focus on creating synergies between personal and professional life is key for creating the future workplace. Transitions in life will be more and more common, while life gets longer, and transitions are great learning opportunities. This is the reason why the MAAM method is effective and will ignite a new way of learning.
Q. Riccarda, I have seen in the press your recent success with a new crowd funding initiative. What does the future hold for your work, what impact is it having on society and how are you planning to scale to Europe?
A. The success that our offering has steadily enjoyed in Italy, where companies such as Coca Cola, Poste Italiane, Comune di Milano, Unipol, OVS, Enel, as well as different financial institutions, has shown us that the time has come for a larger scale awareness campaign across key countries in Europe and for measuring the societal impact achieved.
In January 2018, we launched a crowdfunding campaign with the precise goal of enabling an international expansion and further driving our impact on society, we aim at supporting the UN Social Development Goal nr 5; the United Nations goal is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls by 2030. We will do this by providing proven methods to shift the perspective on life and work: from a tiring delicate balance to a source of synergy and energy between the different roles we have in life, in an powerful, holistic and sustainable manner that fits women and men across generations.
Our ultimate goal is to empower women to embrace a strong public presence: political, economical and societal. Sitting at the decision-making table with an iron-will to change the rules for a better future, for today`s women and men, for our children and for the generations to come. Providing women and men with real "role models" that successfully combine work, life and the impactful synergies deriving from it.
To find out more about Riccarda`s work and mission, send a note here.