If Norwegian Women Can’t Have It All, Can Anyone?

Even in a country with forward-thinking child-care policies, women still can't get ahead.

The author, a former CEO of Hewlett-Packard Norway (Reuters)

From the outside, life for a woman in Norway seems nearly perfect. According to UN Reports, Norwegian women enjoy the best standard of living in the world, with free education, one year of paid maternity leave, a liberal paternity-leave policy, state-funded nurseries for all families, and affordable child care.

But all that perfection hasn’t managed to dissolve a sticky cultural roadblock that derails women around the world. You see, even with a plethora of policies aimed at supporting women and families at home and work, Norwegian women only make up three percent of the country's top business leaders. Why? They’re facing a different kind of glass ceiling that may sound familiar: too many women are striving for perfection instead of success, and think the former is required to climb business ranks.

In order to multiply numbers of female business leaders in Norway—and everywhere else—we have to break the cycle of believing that a lack of failure is the same thing as success. When we strip away the shiny public policies and withdraw the time it takes to change a male-dominated business culture and traditional family patterns (because that takes decades) we’re left with perfectionism—and our narrow and unhealthy definition of what makes a successful life. That’s what’s holding many women back.

This obsession with perfection (just have a look at your latest glossy magazine or a TV ad portraying a successful businesswoman juggling children, homes, fashion and friendship) is partly why so many women’s leadership trajectories stop at middle management, their aspirations crashing into the glass ceiling.  Coined by two Hewlett-Packard staff members, Katherine Lawrence and Marianne Schreiber, the “glass ceiling” is commonly defined as the barrier between middle management and top management positions, and is shorthand for what’s arguably the most difficult period for any leader. Middle management is a time of extensive staffing and budgetary responsibilities, limited freedom to make your own choices, and few opportunities for relief or assistance. It also tends to coincide with the phase of life where you want to have children (or child number two) and build a home and family. One of the most instructive—and stressful—periods in a managerial career, this phase helps you move towards the next step.

If only you never fail, and at the same time create a perfect home and family life, right? Wrong. Attempting a perfect performance as a middle manager won’t guarantee success, because it assumes that any failure is a barrier to career ascension. It may, however, guarantee insanity. This is the key element of the glass ceiling for women in Norway—and yet, women around the world face more than one ceiling. One is the ceiling they often create for themselves—interpreting imperfections as disqualifications for leadership positions—and the other is one that’s built with poor work-family policies, or a lack of policy entirely.

If you sign up for a leadership position (and remember, this is a personal decision), you are guaranteed to meet defeat and opposition on your journey. Encouraging women to understand that is key to filling the ranks of top spots:  That takes the focus off of failure and success, and shifts it instead to thinking about making an impact in a position.

A lot of women in Norway—and around the world—get that, but not nearly enough of them. As the CEO of Innovation Norway, the Norwegian government’s instrument for the development of new industry and enterprise, I can tell you that being a CEO is understandably not for everyone, man or woman. And that’s okay, as long as it’s your own decision. Enduring long hours, setting strict priorities, and focusing on making a difference, rather than obsessing over perceived missteps, is a daily challenge.

It’s also hugely risky. For example, there are almost as many women as men in employment in Norway. But we still have a relatively segregated job market, gender-wise: 70 percent of the start-ups in Norway are run by men, for example. The fact that 48 percent of women and only 19 percent of men work in the public sector might also indicate that women are more prone to choose job security over the private sector, which is vulnerable to downscaling, cost-cuts and competition. It is also a challenge that 34 percent of the female workforce have part-time jobs.

We cannot escape the fact that Norwegians still have traditional family patterns, in which many women still run most household matters. They work the so-called “second shift.” Our much-lauded flexible workplace policies are not yielding similar numbers for men. While most male entrepreneurs are encouraged to aim for growth and take risks, most female entrepreneurs are happy to make a living. Women, in other words, are shying away from failure, and drifting towards fields where they can achieve that ever-elusive perfection. That’s hurting all of us. We lose great potential if the reason they don’t do it is because they don’t dare to fail.

As New America President Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote in 2012, women still can’t have it all. My question is: who decides women can’t have it all and what does “all” even mean? I don’t know if I “have it all,” but I have a lot. I certainly have more than enough. I’m healthy, I have three daughters and a husband with a career, I write blogs, and I published a book this year. When people ask me how I do it, I tell them my secret: I decide what “good enough” means for me.

That’s something I learned from my father’s favorite expression, “It’s good enough for the bastards.” He encouraged me to determine what “ good enough” meant for me. In other words, if you don’t take care of yourself, set your own standards, decide when enough is enough, learn to balance and rest, you’ll have limited success. I learned from him that life was not about striving for perfection.

I’ve chosen to combine family and career, and I refuse to be burdened by the guilt of not being good enough in either of those roles. I am not perfect. I’m far from it. I make mistakes at work. I don’t exercise. I don’t have a perfect home. My three daughters are independent and make their own choices. There is a lot I choose not to do, not to control. But we manage our lives well, and that is more than good enough for me. In a way, maybe you could even say that for me, it’s perfect.

This post appears courtesy of New America's Weekly Wonk magazine.