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I was born in the US to Spanish parents and educated between the US and Europe. I’ve worked on both the East and West Coasts in the US, in Paris, and now in the UK, just outside London. Each of these work experiences have been challenging, fun and incredibly rewarding; but I’ve found them to be very different.
The American business culture is almost punishingly egalitarian. Male or female, it demands undying commitment and is unforgiving to those who do not fully invest in it. These are the widely accepted rules of success, which women must follow as well as men, regardless of their circumstance. You can’t very well say, “well, I’m a woman and I’ve got kids”. It is a binary system: you’re either in or you’re out.
In my experience, US bosses can take a sadomasochistic pleasure in sending out emails at very unpleasant hours, as proof that they’re working harder than anyone else. Holiday is still a four letter word in America. Rather than the British fortnight, people will take long weekends so the boss doesn’t see an empty desk. A full week off at one time is your maximum and this doesn’t really change throughout your business life.
For parents, it’s a tremendous burden: most schools in the United States break up for three whole months over the summer. If you don’t have some sort of childcare arrangement, you have to have them in camp for the entire summer. Interestingly, in France, it’s the other end of the spectrum. I’ve been in French companies where offices are more or less empty from the end of July to the beginning of September. It’s very normal to be out for four or five weeks at a time.
When it comes to achieving results, discussing business issues or even sending emails, people cut to the chase a lot quicker in the States; it can be very combative. Every once in a while since moving to the UK, I’ve found myself being too blunt and I’ve had to tone it down. As a result of this combative nature, people in the US are used to fighting their corner earlier and as the default position needed in order to be successful. Company evaluations are a fabulous example of the one-upmanship that is more blatant in the US: US colleagues tend to score themselves a lot higher than they do over in the UK. Everyone – male or female – is conditioned at an early age to toot their horn in order to appear stronger or better than their competition.
Maternity leave is a maximum of six weeks in most states in the US. This is how much importance the workplace puts on you having a child, and it feels like they’re saying “your kids are your problem”. Nobody says “Oh, you’re having a baby!”. Everyone says “Woah you’re having a baby, it’s really going to change your life”. All those hours that you were able to devote to American industry because you didn’t have any strings attached will now become very difficult.
The flexible options that we see a lot of in the UK simply don’t exist. Here, you can hold a successful senior position and still have a more flexible work style like four day workweeks or work from home days. I don’t know anyone in the US doing that. Having kids in the States means either opting out entirely or changing careers; working for a charity, or at the school the kids go to. Sometimes women go freelance, and there is a trend amongst the luckier few who start their own company and become their own flexible CEO.
That’s not to say there aren’t barriers to senior positions in Europe too, but they are cultural rather than practical. A lot of companies now will, even for the sake of being in vogue, say to recruiters: “we want a woman in that position.” Then they start looking at the CVs and because women tend to not be as linear in their career path, sooner or later those who might have been considered don’t even make it to the first interview.
America is the undisputed land of opportunity and success – for both women and men – but it comes at a price. It forces you to make a choice. Except for one, all of my girlfriends who were here in their 20s are all back in the States because the corporate potential there is much greater. If I wanted to be rich, if all that mattered to me was money, living Stateside would be the logical choice. I can confidently say that people work as hard in Europe, but we work differently here. We’ve adapted our models to suit life, rather than moulding our lives to accommodate work. It’s output based, not face-time based.
European culture certainly doesn’t let women have it all (can anyone, really?) but it certainly lays the foundation for a healthier balance. I’ll go home after a full workday, catch up with my kids for a few hours, read them a bedtime story and then I’m back on the computer. I haven’t sacrificed my entire family life in order to have a good career – or vice versa.