Leadenhall Consulting recently ran a conference for HR professionals in the City and as part of the day we had a panel discussing ‘Sexism in the City: still alive and kicking?’

We took an initial straw poll and amongst the 50 or so attendees at the event and of those that expressed an opinion, 88% said that they thought it is.   This is not a great surprise.  While there have been massive changes over the last 30 years with increasing representation of women in the City in all professions and activities, there remains a stubbornly low representation of women at Board and Executive team levels.

I have seen many panel discussions but very few achieve the quality of debate and level of engagement that this particular combination achieved.  The audience was on the edge of its seat as the discussion unfolded.

One major theme of the discussion was around the choices that couples make if and when they choose to start a family.   In the vast majority of families in the City context, the woman takes time off, either temporarily, or more permanently to look after the children.  From these thousands of private individual decisions come the first statistics of underrepresentation.

In many ways there are probably only four major scenarios for working couples who choose to have children.  One is for the male to take the traditional ‘breadwinner’ role.   The second   is for the female to take the ‘breadwinner’ role and the man to take on the domestic role.    The third way is to ‘sub contract’ the domestic work to others, including childcare and the fourth is for both to work flexibly.

As the debate continued three comments got me thinking.  

One was from a senior male lawyer who mentioned that for a relatively short period between jobs he was a ‘house husband’ and took on the role of taking his child to school.   He talked about the way in which he felt like a ‘non-person’ when he was excluded at the school gate by the Mum’s club (my phrase, not his).   Other people expanded on the low status often experienced by males choosing to take the primary domestic role in their relationship.  

It struck me that until we live in a society in which a large percentage of men choose (because they want) to take on the child-raising role, we are seeing one side of the issue.  The focus (for obvious reasons) has been on women taking on roles in the public space – business, politics, the workplace – but very little on men taking on full time roles in the domestic space.    This is interesting.  If you ask most people what is most important to them work or family – they say family.  As the old adage says – very few people would put on their gravestone ‘I wished I had spent more time at work’.  But we don't always act like family is that important.  The primary race is for money, power, status, careers and activity outside of the family.  Until we give status to home working and family and see it as equally or more valuable than work outside the home then we have a problem.  Maybe we think there should be a 30 or 40% quota for the women in the boardroom, but maybe we should have a quota of 30 or 40% men taking on the child raising responsibilities?

The second comment that impacted me was the phrase ‘male, pale and stale’ which emerged from the discussion.  I thought, to all intense and purposes, this remark is about people like me?   I am male.  I am over 50, balding and probably carrying a few more pounds than when I was in my prime.  I am a little on the pale side (occasionally red after a sunny bank holiday in the sun).  I have held senior executive positions in companies and there I was wearing my favourite pinstripe suit, fairly expensive shirt and silk tie.  Oops.  I am that stereotype!

But hang on a minute.  Behind this male and pale exterior there is an individual story.  On a typical morning I get up at 6.30, have a bath and shave and then pop downstairs to warm the bottle for my youngest son, Harry.    By then Mollie, who is six, is up and about and  I then get them both in the bath.   My wife is getting children’s clothes ready, getting packed lunches sorted and maybe ironing a shirt or a dress depending on how organised we are that morning.  Depending on my business commitments that day, I might take my kids to school.     It’s very much a team effort.

I then catch a train into London, work through the day, and then leave just before the rush hour to get at table on the train and work on the way home.  I then spend a couple of hours with end of day family chores, which might include taking my older son, Charlie, who is in sixth form, a lift to the gym.   About 7.30, I get out the laptop and work until around 9.30.  Clearly, when I have client work in the City  which needs to be done in the early morning or  late evening, my routine is different.  The point of my ‘day in the life ’ is not to compete for ‘Dad of the Year Award’   but to suggest that stereotypes may not be helpful as we address diversity issues.  This particular pale male has been changing nappies, doing night feeds and attending nativity plays on and off for over twenty years.  As successful women ‘lean in’, successful men may need to ‘lean out’.

The third comment that impacted me was from a panellist that raised the issue of flexible working, mainly in the context of women returning to work.  It is in this area that I think there might be a solution for men and women who want to work and want to spend time with their family.   At Leadenhall Consulting we are all associates and we work flexibly.  We have an office but we do not work 9 to 5 or indeed 8 to 6.  We work around our clients and we meet in the office for team meetings and catch up at various times via Skype,  text and  email.   We all have our various domestic interests and fit them in and around our work.  We all work odd hours.  We don’t let down our clients, we will be there when they need us.     The move to this flexible model is happening all around us.  We measure outputs not inputs.  This might be why many women are beginning to look at self-employment and entrepreneurship as a logical career move before and after starting a family.

It may take a few more years but I can see a day when the vast majority of couples who choose to have or adopt children both take an genuinely equal part in bringing up their family and have a role to play in the public arena as well as the domestic.  A day when there is no stigma or low status attributed to domestic life and when it is quite normal to see female train drivers, male house husbands at the school gates, female CEOs and board members in significant numbers, male nurses and HR business partners and both men and women leading fulfilling lives – maybe juggling, maybe a little stretched  – and sharing the public and domestic roles.  Society, government, organisations and individuals will all have to play their part to enable full equality at work and home to achieved.