The Women’s Dilemma: Becoming Less Happy?

In our client workshops we focus on helping teams identify their biggest challenges, and redefine tough dilemmas in ways that reveal underlying opportunities. And, often we’ll ask the individuals in a group to discuss their personal dilemmas. While there are dangers in delving into personal issues in a business setting, sharing issues that may be common to members of a work team quickly builds sympathy that improves group communication. (Keep in mind when we talk about dilemmas, we are talking about deep major tradeoffs between competing options, under conditions which are often beyond your control. We differentiate between decisions, problems and dilemmas here.)

Not surprisingly, many of us share the same dilemmas. While it is dangerous (for a man, especially) to generalize in this way, there is a recurring pattern to the dilemmas described by women in our classes. This dilemma is fundamentally about wanting or needing to do too many things in too little time. Some say they feel torn between family and job, between commitments to husband, children and aging parents on the one hand, and career goals and job demands on the other. Other individuals may use different words to describe similar circumstances. And, these conflicts naturally result in feelings of inadequacy at not being able to give enough in or another area of their busy lives.

timeThese client experiences came to mind recently when we read that women literally are becoming less happy. Since 1972 the General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Council has tracked demographics and attitudes of Americans. According to their data, and that of some other recent surveys, women have become less happy in recent decades. Men, on the other hand are becoming relatively more joyful, especially as they age. This was reported in newspapers and a recent Time cover story about women.

In her column, Blue Is The New Black New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd explores this phenomenon and looks at possible causes. As it turns out there are plenty of experts in the happiness business, and they’ve got opinions as to what underlies female gloominess. For example:

  • Children: One expert points out that children make people less happy, both men and women. However, few survey respondents say they would rather have not had kids.
  • Sex role differences: Women are often expected to shoulder the majority of home and child responsibilities. But recent research suggests that men continue to increase the amount of time they devote to household and child chores that were one women’s exclusive domain and in many marriages it approaches parity.
  • Emotions: Women also may take success and defeat harder than men. Biologically, they may be emotionally more intense relative to men.
  • Mixed cultural messages: Our culture sends women demoralizing messages about beauty and aging that are positively anxiety inducing.
  • Choice: Overall women face an unhealthy amount of choices with the expectation that they will excel as workers, wives and moms. As Dowd puts it, ” When women stepped into male- dominated realms, they put more demands — and stress — on themselves. If they once judged themselves on looks, kids, hubbies, gardens and dinner parties, now they judge themselves on looks, kids, hubbies, gardens, dinner parties — and grad school, work, office deadlines and meshing a two-career marriage.”

That dilemma might be described as the needs of the self versus the needs of family, home and work. Or the conflict between our wants—to excel as career woman, mother and wife—and what we need to be spiritually and physically healthy. Our students and clients have diagrammed this challenge many times in our workshops . Often it looks like this. The demands of family are on one axis, the demands of work and career on the other.Family versus Career Dilemma

For all of us the archetypal individual dilemma is to balance the effort we put into meeting the needs of others with the requirement to fulfill our own needs. When we feel like we are giving at home and work, and not getting enough time for ourself, burnout and unhappiness are more likely to follow.

Archetypal Personal Dilemma

The levels of unhappiness showing up in these surveys are evidence that women in our society may face a special dilemma. Or that the choices they are making in response to the dilemma of overwhelming demands and responsibilities are inadequate.

But that is our interpretation. What matters is that you consider and wrestle with your own dilemmas. And, that you describe them in your own language. For some, the family versus career example above neatly synthesizes what they are feeling. For others, that is too simplistic, or simply wide of the mark.

Let us suggest some homework. Try to define a personal dilemma for yourself. You’ll find instructions in the next post here.

Sun Sets: Fumbling the Open Source Challenge

More than a decade after open source software began acquiring market traction, it still poses difficult questions and dilemmas for IT firms. Initially, it was scoffed at by the software industry, and companies like Sun tried to discredit Linux as unsafe and incomplete, hoping to deter further adoption and defection from their own proprietary offerings.

The recent acquisition of Sun by Oracle brings to a close a chapter of computing history. In the early ‘80s Silicon Valley was home to dozens of small Unix workstation makers. Sun was the only one to survive, growing to become the leading Unix company. Its servers were noted for reliability, and the big software makers, including Oracle, focused on writing software to run on Sun’s Solaris operating system. Ironically, Sun was an early supporter of the Internet and visionary in its approach to network computing. But the combination of the Internet and open source software, in particular, were the source of Sun’s decline.

More than a decade after open source software began acquiring market traction, it still poses difficult questions and dilemmas for IT firms. Initially, it was scoffed at by the software industry, and companies like Sun tried to discredit Linux as unsafe and incomplete, hoping to deter further adoption and defection from their own proprietary offerings. Microsoft was equally disdainful. Bill Gates was quoted in a 1998 PC Week article as saying, “Like a lot of products that are free, you get a loyal following even though it’s small. I’ve never had a customer mention Linux to me.” Within a few years, though, Microsoft heard from loads of customers about the open source threat, and was forced to open some of Windows source code to outside partners.

The early, sometimes fearful responses to Linux took an understandable but narrow and one-dimensional view of the situation, regarding it as a worrisome problem which needed to be removed. “Linux is a threat to our pricing. How can we compete with free?” or, “Linux is giving away knowledge of high economic value that industry has invested heavily in creating. This is not right or fair.”

Time proved that open source was here to stay, and arguably for the right reasons: it made superior use of networked intelligence for creating and realizing value. Companies throughout the computer industry and even some beyond it would have been better off to regard the emergence of Open Source software as a dilemma to understand and exploit rather than a problem in need of a solution. Some did. Start-ups like Red Hat prospered by creating new offerings or supplying services needed by Linux users. Resourceful software firms capitalized by building new products directly on the Linux OS. But the transition proved much more difficult for the large, established incumbents who tried desperately to hold on to or grow existing revenues, while adapting to a new model which gives away much of the product, in order to increase innovation and widen the market.

In that class of corporate titans, there were a few who adjusted their approach fast and prospered. Notable among the beneficiaries was IBM, which understood early on that the dramatically lower cost of Linux and open source applications increased demand for commodity server hardware, installation and services. The company saw Linux as an opportunity to establish new leadership and perhaps weaken competitors dependent on proprietary solutions. Sun, of course, later embraced open source, opening its OS and leading the Java community of developers, but never adequately addressed Linux’s impact on its proprietary hardware and OS business.

(For a quick economic analysis of open source as a complementary good that increased demand for IBM’s services read Joel On Software.)

IBM’s ability to adjust quickly and well to open source lies in how they framed the situation. Open source was not an annoying problem to solve or eliminate; as a legitimate challenge to the way the industry operated, it represented a dilemma that redefined roles, relationships, value creation processes and business models. By understanding the opposing forces at play and their implications, they could see the competitive landscape more clearly, and make better choices. The 2 x 2 matrix below is one plausible and constructive way to render the open source dilemma:


Mapping Profitability versus Customer Autonomy – Building a better mousetrap usually costs money and involves risk. While some innovators are motivated to share their ideas freely, businesses have a legitimate interest in protecting their ownership rights and making a profit. The tension between achieving profit and enabling the autonomy that customers want is on the surface only increased by a movement whose goal is to create openly and provide access to all. (Consider the tremendous loss of value by copyright holders in the music industry. Even today 90 percent of all downloads are illegal.)

By becoming leaders in the Open Source movement, companies like IBM and Red Hat found ways to collaborate with autonomous customers and strategic partners while still making a profit (upper right in our diagram). Their strategies and business models differ, but each has grown its business by giving customers greater direct access to the information and software they need to improve their businesses or lower costs.

On the other hand, customers are increasingly skeptical of proprietary products that lock them into technology directions that are determined by a single vendor (upper left). Proprietary software vendors have been forced by customers to make their products interoperate with open source offerings. Even Apple, a stellar example of a proprietary shop, has found its greatest success since adopting industry-standard Intel processors for its computers, and making hardware/software products such as iPods, iPhones and iTunes, which interoperate across computer platforms.

acernetbookA new challenge for proprietary operating systems may be brewing in Acer’s announcement that it will install Google’s Android, a software platform originally designed for phones, on its small netbook computers. If netbooks, which sell for around $300, become increasingly popular, it will be difficult for software firms to charge customers hundreds of dollars more for operating systems and applications. By going with an open, free OS, Acer hopes to build market share quickly, at the expense of software profits.

The tension between ownership of value and customer control is not limited to the software industry. The combination of free information, transparent source code, and a global network of voluntary contributors is upending fields from media to biotech, and lessons need to be found and shared for the interests of all parties. We’ll look for those answers in future columns.

Two-Facedbook’s Holocaust Denial Dilemma

Silicon‘s sharp-witted columnist, John Murrell deserves the credit for seizing on the “two-faced” word play in his characterization this week of Facebook’s dilemma concerning whether to allow (or not) groups that deny the Holocaust to post and set up communities on their social networking site. As he and others like Lisa Respers writing in suggest, there’s no win here for Facebook. Remove the Holocaust Deniers from the site, and you’re imposing your morals on open, free expression (what do you suppress next?); allow them to post, and you appear to be condoning or endorsing despicable hate initiatives, contributing to new recruits being drawn to the movement, possibly inciting hate-related crimes, and certainly offending people. The harder you look at the issue, the murkier it gets, with layers of repercussions emerging for taking either of the positions: remove them, and you’re on a slippery slope, opening yourself to demands to treat other ‘questionable’ postings; don’t remove them, and risk uncomplimentary comparisons to cases where you did censor, as in recently deleted photos posted by breast-feeding mothers, or ‘lactivists’. Continue reading “Two-Facedbook’s Holocaust Denial Dilemma”

Karzai’s conundrum: leading in volatile, uncertain and dangerous times

Readers around the globe have recently been presented with a harsh rebuff of Afghanistan president Hamid Karzi’s choice of Mohammed Quassim Fahim as vice-presidential running mate in the upcoming election. Fahim served in this capacity once already (2001 – 2004), and was dropped as controversial. He has a checkered past as a top commander in the militant group Jamiat-e-Islami during the 1990’s civil war, and is believed by some to have illegal, criminal involvement to this day. The group Human Rights Watch has been documenting abuses in the country for years, and is aghast at the announced alliance, saying with this choice Karzai is “insulting the country”.

In the face of such vociferous, predictable condemnation from abroad as well as within his own country, what would lead Karzai to pick Fahim? The reporting in the AP article we read doesn’t ask this question, but arguably it should and so should we all in making sense of the decision.

We all know that ruling in a country like Afganistan at a time like the present is fraught with risks and that scant rewards are available. The question the leader needs to ask is what is the core dilemma I need to address to make a difference in the situation; where do I focus my and my country’s available resources?


One dilemma that captures the moment and explains the “curious” political decision is the need to promote well-being, peace and improvements on the one hand, while on the other, growing and maintaining credibility and influence. As the matrix above depicts, inherent tensions make this a dangerous and challenging pursuit. Lean too far in one direction and you are seen as unsuitable for the mission at hand. Lean the other way and you will be mistrusted by your own people or the other countries who care about the direction of local events.

This tension between pursuing progressive change versus establishing trust and credibility is of course endemic to volatile transitional situations like we are witnessing in Afghanistan. Others that come to mind are Palestine (Abbas versus Hammas) and Sierra Leone (post- civil war “blood diamonds”).

Identifying the core dilemma does not “fix” anything, but it makes it possible to work on the right issues in the most helpful way. It brings honesty and integrity into the process. It creates a shared understanding and vocabulary for parties to dialogue and be understood.