Friday, March 15th, 2013
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Some very successful women have been saying things of late that are causing quite a stir (ahem, Marissa Mayer and the banning of remote workers at Yahoo). As a businesswoman and mother myself, I have a lot to say on all of these issues, as I am sure you do, too. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, is currently surrounded in a stir around her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. She writes: “My point is that the time for a woman to scale back is when a break is needed or a child arrives – not before, and certainly not years in advance.”
This is a fine statement in theory and I think women in the workplace should be working as hard as they can and rise through the ranks. However, this presumes that by rising through the ranks in all careers, should that even be what you want to do, you will be left with the freedom to cut back and get home in time for dinner. I have many friends who are doctors, lawyers or who work on Wall Street, and have done nothing but leaned in their entire careers. However, at the very time it makes the most biological and personal sense to start a family, they are still required to put in more hours than ever to be successful. My friend who is a surgeon simply cannot pick and choose her surgeries around dinnertime, and neither can my friend who wants to be a partner at her law firm be flexible about her hours. The fact is that the time to have children often does not coincide with the best time to do so in one’s career, and having leaned in for years doesn’t necessarily afford you the ability to have a more flexible schedule when your biological clock starts ticking.
I’ve been lucky that it does work often that way for me. I run my own business and can make my own schedule, which means most nights I am home for dinner, but I’m also working late into the night. I am sure there are many other careers that this works for as well, but to presume this is a general truth just doesn’t make sense to me overall. I wish that when these successful and inspiring women discussed these types of things, they would relate them more to their own experiences than sweeping statements for women everywhere. The issues, quite simply, are complicated.
Sandberg writes, “Stop trying to have it all…. The very concept of having it all flies in the face of the basic laws of economics and common sense. Instead of perfect we should aim for sustainable and fulfilling.” I applaud her for addressing this constant yearning for perfection and the unattainable, but I challenge her on the front that this again presumes that “having it all” means the same for everyone. By Sandberg’s definition, “having it all” is ridiculously hard, if not impossible, to achieve. I think far too often we look at others to define our sense of having it all rather than turn inwards and decide what “all” means to us. I think if we redefine what “all” really means to us individually, we might actually be able to achieve it, at least at some times in our life, rather than having to settle for a good-enough version of what we think “all” means.
What is and will increasingly become tricky is the expectation we have of leading women to make accommodating changes for women in the workplace, when in fact they may not. I think more and more it would be refreshing to see men and women as equal and those accommodations made, if in fact they make sense, applying to both. For example, we should be looking at maternity leave as well as paternity leave, men needing to be home for dinner as well as women. A world in which we are all leaning in, should that coincide with our aspirations and the day that we start talking about work-life balance and having it all for men as well as women, will be a world in which all of this will start to get less complicated and, dare I say it, more of a team effort in society and at home.
These are all complicated issues and I applaud the Sandbergs of the world for speaking out, but the fact that we are able to discuss them, that we are even having these problems, says to me that we are a lot further down the road of equality and perhaps one day being able to identify work-life balance in any career, man or woman.
For another take on Sheryl Sandberg’s book, check out what our Mom Must Read blogger Kristen Kemp has to say: “Stop Attacking Sheryl Sandberg: 10 Things I Love About ‘Lean In.’”