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On Productivity & Generativity

In the last three decades, women in the United States have equaled and surpassed men in rates of education. Yet wage and leadership gaps do not reflect women’s achievement; what these gaps do reflect is a failure to embrace the full hybridity and competing commitments of women’s lives. Women lag behind not because they lack aptitude or capability, but because systems biased to consider only some work “productive” do not fully value women’s aptitudes and abilities and, therefore, will not reward women’s achievement.

The accepted definition of “productivity” fails to encompass some of society’s most important work, especially procreative, generative, and relational work: work that falls disproportionately to women. (In fact, the International Labour Organization's most recent analysis demonstrates that it will take 209 years to close the caregiving gap.)

Programs designed for women’s advancement falsely dichotomize women’s lives forcing a choice between personal growth and professional advancement. Though women have entered the workforce in large numbers and have exceeded men in numerous areas of educational attainment, women still lag behind in every critical measure of productivity and leadership.

Organizations are not set up to hear women’s voices nor capitalize on women’s strengths nor incorporate relational obligations. Opportunities for success at the highest levels prove elusive, at best. At worst, women are still forced to choose between work and family or to seek, endlessly, the chimera that is “work/life balance.”

We assert that for women to be wholly successful, our whole lives must be part of the conversation. True human flourishing depends on the thriving of all people, not just some, and as we build new systems, we must foreground this principle so that we are not forced to choose between one sphere or another, one conversation or another, one way of being or another.

A new definition of productivity - one that encompasses and highlights the essential nature of generative tasks - will help to break down the barriers between work and family. The aim is a system that rewards all work as productive by supporting those who bear and raise children, provide care for the aged, offer support to their friends and neighbors as strongly as those who work for wages - while providing ample space, opportunity, support for those who seek to do both.

Systems change requires more than shifting definitions. Adjustments will need to come from all sectors - government, private industry, and individuals - to make headway that benefits women, men, families, and our communities.

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