About a year ago, Anne-Marie Slaughter left her high powered job as Head Policy Planning at the US State Department and wrote what is probably one of her most successful articles: Why women still can’t have it all. She returned to her previous and equally successful job at Princeton so that she could have a better work-life balance and spend time with her family. While working for the government, she had to commute to Washington every Monday at dawn and return home on Friday night to spend the weekend with her family. Just imagine when she had to go to these big networking get-together with Very Important People on a weekend! Slaughter would have not been able to see her children for twelve days in a row.
This weekend the German Marshall Fund welcomed many Very Important People at their annual get-together: the Brussels Forum. I imagine that, as usual, the GMF will be satisfied of the turnout and the debates. I imagine that many Very Important People managed to mingle, network and perhaps even reach Very Important Deals. But one does wonder two things: why do Very Important Deals have to be made outside working hours? I have tried and tested it and it is true: I have made important deals at the Brussels Forum and at regularly at evening dinners. And, secondly, are Very Important People really so busy that they cannot mingle, network and reach deals during the working week?
I suppose there is an economic argument in favour of weekend get-togethers. Many of the people who participate (the VIPs, those who like to think they are VIPs because they are at the get-together, the staff of the VIPs who would probably prefer to be at home, and the many people organising the get-together) have to make special arrangements to look after their children, buy expensive presents to ask forgiveness from the loved ones they are not taking care of, and all this creates jobs and boosts the economy.
But no, this argument is not very persuasive. The most convincing one is that it makes the VIPs feel even more important if they cannot possibly do the networking, mingling and so on during the working week. These get-togethers were probably invented a long time ago by men who did not have to worry about child care arrangements because they had someone else looking after these mundane matters. The old smoking room was where Very Important Things were discussed while the ladies played bridge. And the directors at GMF – some of whom are friends who should take this as an exhortation rather than a criticism – and who, incidentally, happen to be men, probably think that if they did not organise the Brussels Forum over a weekend, the VIPs would not go.
Well, this weekend I decided to do a little protest on Twitter. It was not very successful though. #notatthebrusselsforum wondered why these events have to suck in the little time we already have to rest, play, take care of our loved ones, or do whatever we like to do with our spare time. My little protest meant nothing. What would really be meaningful would be a Very Important Person setting the example. It is depressing to find that women enjoy the game invented by men of making Very Important Decisions during weekend retreats or evening dinners. They have sneaked into the smoking room and quite like it there. It is also depressing that if one wanted to become a VIP one would have to follow these rules instead of trying to abolish the smoking room. So, why doesn’t GMF start by leading by example? The next Brussels Forum could start on Thursday evening and finish on Saturday at lunch time. Would that be a good compromise? The Very Important People who cannot possibly come on Friday during working hours because they are too busy making important decisions would still have the options of night owl, early bird and Saturday sessions to make sure they still feel Very Important. And this plan would also enable the less important people who want to have a better balance between work and life to choose.
By the way, one consequence of my little protest is that GMF is following me on Twitter
I would like to suggest that not only GMF lead by example but that women and men that do have a life beyond work (hopefully there are plenty, i pity those who don’t…) start assertively replying to WE work invitations ‘no thank you, this is my family, hobby, TV, reading, praying, socialising, chatting, bar-visiting, culture…time’. I am amongst the culprits that do work at week end (I inevitablly pay for it with huge protests at home and from friends that i don’t have the time to listen to, care for, invite..) but I do, sometimes, say ‘no thank you, this is my family time. I’ll be back on Monday’. Whilst we all envy our Nordic partners for staunchly defending the time required for life to be lived after work, we can be braver in imitating their model. Let’s set a trend! Marta (who has been exchanging with Rosa on #notatbrusselsforum at @marta2twitt and enjoying the week end!)
Dr Marta Martinelli
Senior Policy Analyst, EU External Relations, Africa, Gender, Democracy