'The Current Structure Calls For An Odd Life Balance With Values That Don’t Always Resonate With Many Women'

We spoke with Laura Freebairn-Smith about women and leadership


Ahead of her presentation at the Women in Strategy Summit in New York, February 27 & 28, we sat down with Laura Freebairn-Smith to talk about being a female leader in 2018.

Laura Freebairn-Smith has been a consultant for such distinguished companies as the New York Times and People’s Bank. Her specialty is assisting leaders in realizing the full potential of their organizations through humanistic and analytical practices, while offering guidance in infrastructure redesign, strategic planning, and organizational development.

In addition to being a partner at Organizational Performance Group, Laura currently teaches leadership, diversity, and team building at Yale’s Drama School. Prior to that, she served as Director of Yale’s Organizational Development and Learning Center.

Laura’s credentials include a BA from UC Berkeley, an MBA from the Yale School of Management, and a doctorate in Organizational Systems from Saybrook University. Laura founded Good Work Associates and served as Managing Director for the Gesell Institute of Human Development, as Chief Operating Officer for Jobs for the Future, and as Education Coordinator for the International Rescue Committee on the Thai/Cambodian border.

How did you get started in your career?

I think all of our careers start long before we go to work. Our homes, our teachers, our mentors, our early experiences, all begin forming our world view, direct us toward what interests us, and deter or encourage us. With that said, my career began in my childhood home – a delightful nexus of radical activists, artists, musicians, intellectuals, and world change agents.

The other significant moment that set me on the course I have been on happened in my early 20s. I worked in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border for four years. There is not enough space in this interview to convey the full impact of such work other than to say it re-oriented my cellular structure and all my assumptions and paradigms. It dramatically increased my gratitude

What do you think is behind the lack of women in senior positions? What do you think companies can do to address any imbalance?

Free market capitalism is an inherently flawed economic, social, and political model. It does not allow people, communities, and countries to work together to create meaningful lives based on values other than the purchase of goods or owning resources. Although a simplified view of capitalism, buying things is one of its primary manifestations.

Until the world as a whole, as some countries have already done, moves away from capitalism as the underlying model, with the pursuit of wealth and owning things as primary goals, women will find it hard to gain and stay in senior positions because the current structure calls for an odd life balance with values that don’t always resonate with many women who are interested in community, equity, ecology, and justice. I’m not sure we’ve developed the best economic and political model yet but, for me, a combination of socialism and controlled capitalism seems appealing, practical, and possible.

What can companies do? Recognize that they are a political, economic, and human force, not just a profit-making machine. Companies can embody values and make decisions about how they (companies) exist and behave in the world so that both women and men can have balanced lives and lead.

Progress has been slow for gender parity in many industries, particularly STEM. Do you see improvements coming anytime soon, or is it likely to be a long journey? Do you think company-wide pay transparency has the potential to help address the issue of gender pay inequality?

I would refer to my answer to question 2. We must question the fundamental system first. We continue to slap band-aids on a system that has a flawed core paradigm.

On a more micro-note, I’m not a fan of total radical transparency in any setting – organizations, families, relationships. It’s not always beneficial and often becomes self-serving. I am a fan of measured transparency in structured conversations. But, with that said, I’m not sure that pay transparency will solve the problems of gender equity in any field. It’s important to remember that gender equity is problematic in almost all fields dominated by men. In the “demeaned” (read: undervalued and underpaid, mostly female) functions such as teaching and eldercare, there might be gender income parity within the field, but the fields as a whole are underpaid, if you weigh positive social impact against salaries. Teachers versus sports stars?

How important is diversity for innovation? How can female leaders drive innovation forward?

I think these are two separate questions. As to the first, diversity of different types impacts innovation differently in different contexts so there is no single answer. Theory shows that sometimes diversity of thought is critical to innovation, but not always (as Richard Hackman used to say, “you never saw a team write a symphony.”) A sophisticated and nuanced use of diversity of thought seems to be the order of the day, a use that does not involving pandering.

As to demographic diversity, that’s a no-brainer; just ‘yes.’

What will you be discussing in your presentation? Is there anyone else you are particularly looking forward to hearing from?

I will be talking about what we measure and how we measure it in organizations, and how measuring anything is an act of power. 

See Laura Freebairn-Smith speak at the Women in Strategy Summit in New York, February 27 & 28

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