CA Women's Conference, Awkward But Good: Men on Work/Life Balance

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Among the 15,000 women at Maria Shriver's The Women's Conference, "Men Who Get It" were featured in their own roundtable hosted by news anchor Brian Williams. It may have been the first time four high-powered men awkwardly talked work-life issues while live-streamed over the internet. Williams self-consciously cracked, "Spanx are for when dad comes home at night"; missing were the usual complaints about menstrual pain.

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The impulse to include and emphasize men as equal participants in caretaking may have stemmed from Maria Shriver's recent experience with her four brothers as all the siblings took care of their ailing, 86-year old father who has Alzheimer's. In her annual address to attendees this year, Shriver mentioned the comfort she got from seeing how her nurturing brothers took care of their father, and it made her appreciate again how important it is that men model nurturing for their sons and the other men around them.

Featured in the "Men Who Get It" panel were Phil Knight, CEO of Nike; Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks; and Nick Kristof, New York Times columnist and co-author with his wife of the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.

Kristof led off discussion by talking about the main thesis of his book: An investment in the well-being of girls and women worldwide pays off tenfold in social and economic benefits. It's a sort of Heifer International/virtuous circle theory of change: Give a family some chickens and they'll send their children to school, the children will be better nourished, and the family will have eggs to barter and sell, leading to even greater prosperity. Except when you spend development aid dollars on girls, they go to school, they get married and have children later, the children they do have are better educated and healthier, and in general, the girl or woman you've helped radiates her well-being in concentric circles in the community around her.

Each man had the opportunity to talk about something meaningful to them. Schultz, head of a corporation that has been criticized for not using fair trade coffee in the sourcing of its main product (which the company has since addressed), said that when he embarked on an educational tour of coffee-producing African countries, he was amazed to see the virtuous circle in action. He met a girl whose family had received a cow. She and her family were now flourishing, and Schultz was so inspired he came back and told everyone at Starbucks about widening circles of good that one cow had done. He immediately committed some of Starbucks' corporate foundation to this kind of direct support. And most astonishingly, Starbucks employees opened up their wallets and sent in donations on top of what Starbucks' corporate foundation gave.

Brian Williams asked Phil Knight (Nike) about decoupling the shoe company from sweatshops after activists successfully linked the two together. Knight said it stung to be accused of using sweatshops.

"Our first response was no, they aren't sweatshops. But we got a better result when Nike said, 'They're not good now, but they will be in five years. We invented water-based cement [used in their factories] which reduced environmental toxins."

Knight also talked about a brand new initiative the Nike Foundation has quietly launched along the lines of Kristof's Half the Sky, "The Girl Effect."

If you notice, neither CEO of the coffee company or the sneaker company addressed core re-structuring of their businesses around the issues activists have raised. Have labor standards truly changed at Nike? Why won't Starbucks allow its employees to unionize? This is where we consumers come in -- many of us are connected through social media (pdf), comfortable with relying on authentic voices online to research products, and very open to cause marketing and corporate responsibility. Consumers who care can continue to pressure companies to respond, and they can challenge corporate attempts at white-/green-/pink-washing.

There are two schools of thought on encouraging corporations to change to more responsible business practices. One is to make corporate DNA account for triple-bottom line profits -- beneficial results for People through fair trade and fair pay, Planet, and Profits from the company's inception.

Another is to put activist energy into encouraging the 100 largest corporations to change how they do business for greatest environmental and pro-social impact, as the World Wildlife Fund's Jason Clay argues. Why? Because we need change that scales up, fast.

With the exception of Kristof, whose work is more abstract, what's interesting is that men are often equated with work they do to make or sell a product. Certainly corporate CEOs liek Phil Knight and Howard Schultz represent how many men define themselves by their impact on the world and in the work they do. The big insight is that work can be performed in a way that shows care for the people who are employees, producers, and consumers. The quest for environmental sustainability by corporations can be one piece of the overall shift from doing business in a destructive, exploitative way to doing business in a caretaking way that means good stewardship of the planet as well as a good relationship with workers.

Who knows? Maybe by addressing how best to cultivate the potential of girls and keep our planet green through corporate responsibility, it will have the unintended effect of making men more likely to talk, however awkwardly, about work-life issues that are closer to home.

Cynematic blogs at P i l l o w b o o k and MOMocrats. She tweets at @cyn3matic.

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