‘Don’t be a twit,’ says the woman who recently left a position of power. The women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed. If we truly believe in equal opportunity for all women, the narrative has to change.
Eighteen months after my promotion to Vice President, Marketing & Communications at Abuja Investments, a quasi-government dream job that traces its origins back to OBJ, Atiku, and El Rufai, I found myself in Abuja, at the United Nations’ World Economic Forum on Africa annual assemblage of every foreign minister and head of state in the world. On a Thursday evening, Former President Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan hosted a glamorous reception ‘ARIYA 2.0’ at the International Conference Center. I sipped water (bottled for the added sarcasm), greeted and networked foreign dignitaries, and mingled. But I could not stop thinking about my 2-month old preemie and my 5-year-old daughter, who had resumed first grade months after leaving school for winter break and was already resuming what had become her pattern of skipping homework, disrupting classes, daydreaming in islamic, and ruling out the importance of education.
As the evening wore on, I located an unmanned side door and exited stage right. I felt terrible being away from my children, actually missing out on our bedtime song and story made me feel like first runner up in the “Mothers who attributed to the criminal futures of the children” pageant. I called an old friend in India who held a senior position at Pfizer. Instead of dignitary tea, I unashamedly vomited my guts on that delusional cocktail mixed with ‘motherhood’ and ‘ceiling breaker’ and the unfairness of it all! In an instant, I decided to resign.
“Are you drunk?” she asked. “You, of all women blah, blah, blah (inaudible)… that African juju priest must have slipped you a mickey”. Thank God this wasn’t over FaceTime.
Close your eyes for a moment, darken your mind and try to visualize two sisters named ‘honor’ and ‘annoyance’. This is what ever mother/career woman feels when battling this age old quandary. A high-profile career woman, role model, sister girl, first daughter, etc.,— burning her cape of excellence to don an apron of servitude would be akin to emailing a dot matrix print out to younger generations of women. I didn’t need Prema to convince me otherwise, but for the remainder of my stint in Nigeria, I was increasingly aware that the feminist beliefs on which I had built at MSR were being burned on a mighty pyre currently bellowing in thick black smoke. I had always assumed that if I could leave before the next Head of State assumed office, I would stay the course as long as I had the opportunity to do work I loved. But in July 2014, when I discovered I was pregnant with my third child I decided to leave Nigeria, hurrying home to the US as fast as I could.
Shortly after delivery, the subliminal shade dropped around me. People began asking why I hadn’t returned to Nigeria, albeit the new government. I responded truthfully sighting AICL’s tenure rules, coupled with my desire to watch my little girls grow and be there for every knee scrape and bully. Also, I was fully invested into building career in yoga and my yearlong training was the only stream of focus outside of my children. The reactions I resented the most were, “Isn’t there ‘something’ a girl could do to get a more flexible work schedule?” to “Why don’t you leave the kids with your parents and go back to live your life?” and my all-time favorite “….And you left your husband over there in the hands of those man-snatching vultures?”. Sigh
I remember when I didn’t want to have children. All my life, I’d been girl who felt zero compassion for girls who became pregnant in high school and college knowing damn well they had other options. I was that friend who could break down the pro and cons of the latest birth control methods. I was the first black student president of the FMLA representing CUNY at the NY and DC mixers with the Who’s Who’s of social justice. I was ‘ayinbo’ woman at the Ideal Woman seminars in Abuja preaching to wives and single women at my lectures that you can have it all – family, career, and sex. However, after my third child, none of that hypocritical BS mattered to me.
I decided as a parting gift to my daughters I would write letters of very frank reflections of my life and lessons a la feminist style. To be the kind of parent I wanted to be, in this very turbulent time when death is uncertainty, I was dead set on leaving a private legacy that they could refer to.
I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” just like men. HOWEVER, the world’s economy and society’s archaic mindset reduces the wiggle room. My experiences on both sides of the pond allowed me to compare consistently uncomfortable facts that need to be globally addressed and rapidly evolved.
Before coming an expat, I’d spent my career in New York working as an executive assistant to some global heavy hitters, all men. Their wives were always gorgeously dress, children clean and pristine. Never looking like struggle or marital hostility. Yet I knew that I was lucky one – I didn’t have to look for a baby sitter, or have to explain the weird ass Crayola desecration falling out of my computer case during an investor meeting, or look for the lost, rotting banana secretly smushed between the seat cushions and my favorite Ray Bans, or catching that heat because I forgot to pick up the dinner order AGAIN on my way home — on her night off….Yup, not my monkey, not my circus!
After becoming a Mom of two with a third on the way, I found myself in a job that is typical for the vast majority of working women (and men), working long hours on someone else’s dime. I could no longer internally negotiate between the parent and the professional I wanted to be—. It’s only the present day that I have come to accept what should have been obvious all along: this unattainable balance, depended solely upon the next job I intended to pursue. Tah dah!
In most circles, especially societies that have progressive networks, “Leaving to spend time with your family” is a euphemism for feeling unfulfilled or even better feeling ‘washed up.’ This understanding is so ingrained that when I announced my resignation it was automatically assumed I fell out with management. It was so unthinkable that a person would actually step down from financial independence and security to spend time with his or her family without any means of survival — must be a cover for something else. How could anyone voluntarily leave the plush carpet of power for the responsibilities of parenthood?
Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s widely publicized 2011 commencement speech at Barnard, in which she lamented the dismally small number of women at the top and advised young women not to “leave before you leave.” When a woman starts thinking about having children, Sandberg said, “She doesn’t raise her hand anymore … She starts leaning back.”
My mother built a successful and rewarding career as a technician in the health industry. She and my dad worked walking distance from our home and she rarely had a night out alone. I owe my own freedoms and opportunities to the pioneering generation of women around of me—the women now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s who faced overt sexism of a kind I see only when watching Nollywood movies.
But precisely thanks to their progress, a different kind of narrative is now evident. It is time for women in all phases of her career (whether cashier at Walmart to Account Manager at DHL) to set their sights on positions that define our collective advancement and personal determination.
I am also speaking to the majority of women facing problems far greater than any discussed in this article. I am writing for my demographic—educated, independent women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place. We may not have the preference on whether to do pro bono or volunteer, as one income stream has become obsolete. But we DO have the choice on what we do and how we do it.
Millions of working women — some are single mothers; many struggle to find any job; others support husbands who cannot find jobs. Forced to cope with a work life in which acceptable childcare is either unavailable or very expensive; school calendars seemed to be designed to make you appear inconsistent and ‘distracted’ at work; whilst schools are failing to educate your children, yet expect you swallow the blame. Rather than worrying not about having it all, you struggle to hold on to what you do have.
The best hope for improving the lot of all women, and for closing what Wolfers and Stevenson call a “new gender gap”—measured by well-being rather than wages—is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders. Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone.
1. Dream Big Princess aka Ambitchon
Who’s ever used the hashtag #Goals on a post? For me it’s a daily ritual and it’s usually accompanied by the ‘two hands up in the air’ emoji. We love to celebrate each other’s personal and professional progress with a hashtag and slam our faux pas with a snarky meme. In the end, we rather get the applause so we make the sacrifices that others second guess.
For the past three years, Disney launched an empowerment campaign “Dream Big Princess” centers on encouraging girls as early as toddlers to set their sights on goals that have nothing to do with battling jealous witches or dressing up fancy to impress a handsome prince. Girls of all ages and colors are showcasing talents solely communicating their future ambitions. Disney’s ‘Dream Big Princess’ messaging has been consistent and masterfully woven into their regular programming; it even has a kick ass theme song by The Script featuring will.i.am ‘Hall of Fame’. This song is the turn up! It’s motivational, it’s inspirational and now that Disney has version sung by girls, its bout to be a true anthem and call to arms.
So I say to my daughters, Dream Big Princess…. And I say to my fellow sisters of colors, creeds, religions, and stylists we need to embrace ‘Ambitchon’. I am encouraging women, any age or economic demographic to reach beyond the stars. That is to reach for the rafters that keep the ‘ceiling’ intact. For example, you want to change the face of Education – the quality, the funding, the wages, the school calendar, the school lunch (thank you Michelle Obama)! Women need to set their gaze on the rungs of power – Secretary of Education to lowest school board member in a municipality, at each and every rung of leadership should sit a woman. Guess what, not only do those positions pay well — those coveted seats of power influence all of the above AND its stakeholders and the surrounding communities. I fondly remember my middle school principal Mrs. Anzella King-Nelms. Every day, she walked the halls, entered every class, quizzing students on practice materials from the state mandated CTBS exam. That year, Camden Middle students blew away state officials expectations as the school came under threat of closure. Soon afterwards, the Newark Board of Education snatched Mrs. Nelms and crowned her Deputy Superintendent, Newark Board of Education. She went on to become Superintendent, influencing legislation, funding and leadership for Newark public schools. In the book, ‘Putting the Children First: The Changing Face of Newark’s Public Schools’ by Jonathan G. Silin and Carol Lippmana, Nelms served under another notable woman Marion Bolden which made public education for kids like me growing up in the 80s worth the fight. I may not have liked losing Mrs. Nelms as a principal, but she was destined for greatness and her greatness had altruistic implications.
To change the system, be the system…. Ambitchon
2. The man that you date and the man that you marry will never be the same person
Marriage is overrated. You can tell by the fake smiles in most wedding pictures. It’s ok to laugh, I won’t judge you.
Most people marry for the wrong reasons. Some women spend more time mulling over the wedding dress and color scheme than picking out a suitable husband/father for their children. Some men feel bullied into marriage by a myriad of external factors and find themselves years later rationalizing infidelity.
Sandberg’s second message in her Barnard commencement address was: “The most important career decision you’re going to make is whether or not you have a life partner and who that partner is.”
I haven’t met a lesbian couple that didn’t encourage career independence. I know hundreds of men that support feminist views-raised money and voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Presidential election. I don’t “feel” that those same men truly envision the world safe if every leader were a woman. Further, there will always be a ‘defendable’ reason to have a ‘male in the most sensitive areas of power’ just because. If I became aware that my career would be threaten by husband, he wouldn’t be my husband for long, if ever.
Men usually marry women after they toddled the career path. So finding a supportive wife that willingly takes on the role of mother and father usually works out just dandy. A woman desirous of pursuing an education or a career finds it difficult voicing, albeit pursuing those dreams to her husband. “Those wishes ‘should have considered before she met me and agreed to marry” stated a friend’s husband, narrowly avoiding my open hand slap while looking down at the steak prepared by his ‘wifey extraordinaire”. Their marriage didn’t last more than 9 months after that comment.
Still, the proposition that women can have high-powered careers as long as their husbands or partners are willing to share the parenting load equally (or disproportionately) assumes that most women will feel as comfortable as men do about being away from their children, as long as their partner is home with them. In my experience, that is simply not the case. Nor, is it fair that the only instance women are encourage to ‘go forth and prosper’ is for the survival of the family, when the main breadwinner’s yeast no longer rises.
I’ve come to believe that men and women respond quite differently when problems at home force them to recognize that their absence is hurting a child, or at least that their presence would likely help. I do not believe fathers love their children any less than mothers do, but men do seem more likely to choose their job at a cost to their family, while women seem more likely to choose their family at a cost to their job.
Considered it the maternal imperative felt so deeply by many women, real estate brokers and strippers alike.
To many men, however, the choice to spend more time with their children, instead of working long hours on issues that affect many lives, seems selfish. Male leaders are routinely praised for having sacrificed their personal life on the altar of public or corporate service. That sacrifice, of course, typically involves their family. Yet their children, too, are trained to value public service over private responsibility. At the diplomat Richard Holbrooke’s memorial service, one of his sons told the audience that when he was a child, his father was often gone, not around to teach him to throw a ball or to watch his games. But as he grew older, he said, he realized that Holbrooke’s absence was the price of saving people around the world—a price worth paying.
Does this ethical framework make sense for society? Why should we encourage leaders who fall short on personal responsibilities? Logically, leaders who invest time in their own families should be more receptive to the effect of their public choices. Workers who put their careers first are typically rewarded; workers who choose their families are overlooked, disbelieved, or accused of unprofessionalism.
In sum, having a supportive mate is key. The great thing about men — if they trust you, they’ll raise you. If they believe in you, they’ll invest in your cause. Before Zahra Buhari-Indimi married her husband Ahmed, she received gifts from men, professing their undying love for her and allegiance to her father, the current President of Nigeria, Gen. Muhammdu Buhari. However, Zahra picked the man that not only swept her off her feet — he invested millions into her various NGO projects that focuses on capacity building, economic empowerment and affordable healthcare. Ahmed, an intelligent young entrepreneur, took a note from his father Mohammed Indimi, who champions the status of women in his family by funding their education and promoting female leadership in his daughters. Even a president’s daughter has a #goal.
3. Time heals all things
Remember when I mentioned earlier about feeling disappointment towards women that had children early? A child born when his mother is 25 will finish high school when his mother is 43, an age at which, with full-time immersion in a career, she still has plenty of time and energy for advancement. Yet, here I am at 41 and my kids haven’t even scratched elementary school.
Many women of my generation have found themselves, in the prime of their careers, saying no to opportunities they once would have jumped at and hoping those chances come around again later. Many others who have decided to step back for a while, taking on consultant positions or part-time work that lets them spend more time with their children (or aging parents), are worrying about how long they can “stay out” before they lose the competitive edge they worked so hard to acquire.
Given the way our work culture is oriented today, I recommend establishing yourself in your career first but still trying to have kids before you are 35—or else freeze your eggs, whether you are married or not. You may well be a more mature and less frustrated parent in your 30s or 40s; you are also more likely to have found a lasting life partner. But the truth is, neither sequence is optimal, and both involve trade-offs that men do not have to make.
4. Skype and its weird twin brother FaceTime
Burning the midnight oil really does make the difference between success and failure. But sometimes we were just defaulting to certain behaviors that overload staff without improving results much, if at all. I have worked very long hours and pulled plenty of all-nighters myself over the course of my career, including a few nights on my laptop during my pregnancies. Being willing to put the time in when the job simply has to get done is rightfully a hallmark of a successful professional. But looking back, I have to admit that my assumption that I would stay late made me much less efficient over the course of the day, and certainly less so than some of my colleagues, who managed to get the same amount of work done and go home at a decent hour.
Long hours are one thing, and realistically, they are often unavoidable. But do they really need to be spent at the office? To be sure, being in the office some of the time is beneficial. In-person meetings can be far more efficient than phone or e-mail tag; trust and collegiality are much more easily built up around the same physical table; and spontaneous conversations often generate good ideas and lasting relationships. Still, armed with e-mail, instant messaging, phones, and videoconferencing technology, we should be able to move to a culture where the office is a base of operations and nothing more.
Being able to work from home—in the evening after children are put to bed, or during their sick days or snow days, and at least some of the time on weekends—can be the key, for mothers versus letting a team down at crucial moments. State-of-the-art videoconferencing facilities can dramatically reduce the need for long business trips. These technologies are making inroads, and allowing easier integration of work and family life. According to the Women’s Business Center, 61 percent of women business owners use technology to “integrate the responsibilities of work and home”; 44 percent use technology to allow employees “to work off-site or to have flexible work schedules.” Yet our work culture still remains more office-centered than it needs to be, especially in light of technological advances.
One way to promote it is by changing the “default rules” that govern office work—the baseline expectations about when, where, and how work will be done. As behavioral economists well know, these baselines can make an enormous difference in the way people act. It is one thing, for instance, for an organization to allow phone-ins to a meeting on an ad hoc basis, when parenting and work schedules collide—a system that’s better than nothing, but likely to engender guilt among those calling in, and possibly resentment among those in the room. It is quite another for that organization to declare that its policy will be to schedule in-person meetings, whenever possible, during the hours of the school day—a system that might normalize call-ins for those (rarer) meetings still held in the late afternoon.
One real-world example comes from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, a place most people are more likely to associate with distinguished gentlemen in pinstripes than with progressive thinking about work-family balance. Like so many other places, however, the FCO worries about losing talented members of two-career couples around the world, particularly women. So it recently changed its basic policy from a default rule that jobs have to be done on-site to one that assumes that some jobs might be done remotely, and invites workers to make the case for remote work.
Changes in default office rules should not advantage parents over other workers; indeed, done right, they can improve relations among co-workers by raising their awareness of each other’s circumstances and instilling a sense of fairness. Two years ago, the ACLU Foundation of Massachusetts decided to replace its “parental leave” policy with a “family leave” policy that provides for as much as 12 weeks of leave not only for new parents, but also for employees who need to care for a spouse, child, or parent with a serious health condition. The policy was shaped by the belief that giving women “special treatment” can “backfire if the broader norms shaping the behavior of all employees do not change.”
None of these changes will happen by themselves, and reasons to avoid them will seldom be hard to find. But obstacles and inertia are usually surmountable if leaders are open to changing their assumptions about the workplace. The use of technology in many high-level government jobs, for instance, is complicated by the need to have access to classified information. But in 2009, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, who shares the parenting of his two young daughters equally with his wife, made getting such access at home an immediate priority so that he could leave the office at a reasonable hour and participate in important meetings via videoconferencing if necessary. I wonder how many women in similar positions would be afraid to ask, lest they be seen as insufficiently committed to their jobs?
5. Evaluate the Invaluable
Consider the following proposition: An employer has two equally talented and productive employees. One trains for and runs marathons when he is not working. The other takes care of two children. What assumptions is the employer likely to make about the marathon runner? That he gets up in the dark every day and logs an hour or two running before even coming into the office, or drives himself there after a long day. That he is ferociously disciplined and willing to push himself through distraction, exhaustion, and days when nothing seems to go right in the service of a goal far in the distance. That he must manage his time exceptionally well to squeeze all of that in.
Be honest: Do you think the employer makes those same assumptions about the parent? Even though she likely rises in the dark hours before she needs to be at work, organizes her children’s day, makes breakfast, packs lunch, gets them off to school, figures out shopping and other errands even if she is lucky enough to have domestic help. Louise Richardson, now the vice chancellor of the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, combined an assistant professorship in government at Harvard with mothering three young children. She organized her time so ruthlessly that she always keyed in 1:11 or 2:22 or 3:33 on the microwave rather than 1:00, 2:00, or 3:00, because hitting the same number three times literally took less time.
Elizabeth Warren, a US Senator from Massachusetts, has a similar story. When she had two young children and a part-time law practice, she struggled to find enough time to write the papers and articles that would help get her an academic position. In her words: “I needed a plan. I figured out that writing time was when Alex was asleep. So the minute I put him down for a nap or he fell asleep in the baby swing, I went to my desk and started working on something—footnotes, reading, outlining, writing … I learned to do everything else with a baby on my hip.”
The discipline, organization, and sheer endurance it takes to succeed at top levels with young children at home is easily comparable to running 20 to 40 miles a week. But that’s rarely how employers see things, not only when making allowances, but when making promotions. Perhaps because people choose to have children? People also choose to run marathons.
Our assumptions are just that: things we believe that are not necessarily so. Yet what we assume has an enormous impact on our perceptions and responses. Fortunately, changing our assumptions is up to us.
6. Redefining the Foundation of a Successful Career
The American definition of a successful professional is someone who can climb the ladder the furthest in the shortest time, generally peaking between ages 45 and 55. It is a definition well suited to the mid-20th century, an era when people had kids in their 20s, stayed in one job, retired at 67, and were dead, on average, by age 71.
It makes far less sense today. Average life expectancy for people in their 20s has increased to 80; men and women in good health can easily work until they are 75. They can expect to have multiple jobs and even multiple careers throughout their working life. Couples marry later, have kids later, and can expect to live on two incomes. They may well retire earlier—the average retirement age has gone down from 67 to 63—but that is commonly “retirement” only in the sense of collecting retirement benefits. Many people go on to “encore” careers.
Assuming the priceless gifts of good health and good fortune, a professional woman can thus expect her working life to stretch some 50 years, from her early or mid-20s to her mid-70s. It is reasonable to assume that she will build her credentials and establish herself, at least in her first career, between 22 and 35; she will have children, if she wants them, sometime between 25 and 45; she’ll want maximum flexibility and control over her time in the 10 years that her children are 8 to 18; and she should plan to take positions of maximum authority and demands on her time after her children are out of the house. Women who have children in their late 20s can expect to immerse themselves completely in their careers in their late 40s, with plenty of time still to rise to the top in their late 50s and early 60s. Women who make partner, managing director, or senior vice president; get tenure; or establish a medical practice before having children in their late 30s should be coming back on line for the most demanding jobs at almost exactly the same age.
Along the way, women should think about the climb to leadership not in terms of a straight upward slope, but as irregular stair steps, with periodic plateaus (and even dips) when they turn down promotions to remain in a job that works for their family situation; when they leave high-powered jobs and spend a year or two at home on a reduced schedule; or when they step off a conventional professional track to take a consulting position or project-based work for a number of years. I think of these plateaus as “investment intervals.”
Peaking in your late 50s and early 60s rather than your late 40s and early 50s makes particular sense for women, who live longer than men. And many of the stereotypes about older workers simply do not hold. A 2006 survey of human-resources professionals shows that only 23 percent think older workers are less flexible than younger workers; only 11 percent think older workers require more training than younger workers; and only 7 percent think older workers have less drive than younger workers.
One of the best ways to move social norms in this direction is to choose and celebrate different role models. If we are looking for high-profile female role models, we might begin with Michelle Obama. She started out with the same résumé as her husband, but has repeatedly made career decisions designed to let her do work she cared about and also be the kind of parent she wanted to be. She moved from a high-powered law firm first to Chicago City government and then to the University of Chicago shortly before her daughters were born, a move that let her work only 10 minutes away from home. She has spoken publicly and often about her initial concerns that her husband’s entry into politics would be bad for their family life, and about her determination to limit her participation in the presidential election campaign to have more time at home. Even as First Lady, she was adamant that she be able to balance her official duties with family time. We should see her as a full-time career woman, but one who took a very visible investment interval. We should celebrate her not only as a wife, mother, and champion of healthy eating, but also as a woman who has had the courage and judgment to invest in her daughters when they need her most. And we should expect an even more stellar legacy from her — post White House and her daughters leaving for college.
7. Chasing Happiness
One of the most complicated parts of my journey was saying aloud what I really wanted. I had an opportunity to stay on, and I could have tried to work out an arrangement allowing me to spend more time in the US before returning. I might have been able to get classified technology installed at my house; I might have been able to commute only four days a week instead of five. (While this last change would have still left me very little time at home, given the intensity of my job, it might have made the job doable for another year or two.) But I realized that I didn’t just need to stay home. Deep down, I wanted “out”. I wanted to be able to spend time with my children in these very vulnerable, crucial years of their development.
If I didn’t start to learn how to integrate my personal, social, and professional lives, I was about five months away from morphing into the angry black woman on the other side of a mahogany desk who questions her staff’s work ethic after standard 12-hour workdays, before heading home to sleeping children that avoided doing homework for the umpteenth time.
It seems odd to me to list degrees, awards, positions, and interests and not include the dimension of my life that is most important to me—and takes an enormous amount of my time.
Seeking out a more balanced life is not a women’s issue; balance would be better for us all.
8. Innovation Nation
I’m not insensitive. Most women cannot demand these things, particularly in a bad economy, and their employers have little incentive to grant them voluntarily. Indeed, the most frequent reaction I get in putting forth these ideas is that when the choice is whether to hire a man who will work whenever and wherever needed, or a woman who needs more flexibility, choosing the man will add more value to the company.
At the core of all this is self-interest. Losing smart and motivated women not only diminishes a company’s talent pool; it also reduces the return on its investment in training and mentoring. In trying to address these issues, some firms are finding out that female work ethic may just be better ways of working, for employees and clients alike.
Experts on creativity and innovation emphasize the value of encouraging nonlinear thinking and cultivating randomness by taking long walks or looking at your environment from unusual angles. In their new book, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, the innovation gurus John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas write, “We believe that connecting play and imagination may be the single most important step in unleashing the new culture of learning.”
No parent would mistake child care for childhood. Still, seeing the world anew through a child’s eyes can be a powerful source of stimulation. When the Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling wrote The Strategy of Conflict, a classic text applying game theory to conflicts among nations, he frequently drew on child-rearing for examples of when deterrence might succeed or fail. “It may be easier to articulate the peculiar difficulty of constraining [a ruler] by the use of threats,” he wrote, “when one is fresh from a vain attempt at using threats to keep a small child from hurting a dog or a small dog from hurting a child.”
The books I’ve read with my children, the silly movies I’ve watched, the games I’ve played, questions I’ve answered, and people I’ve met while parenting have broadened my world. Giving workers the platform to integrate their non-work lives with their work—whether they spend that time mothering or marathoning—will open the door to a much wider range of influences and ideas.
9. Hallelujah, it’s Raining Men
Perhaps the most encouraging news of all for achieving balance is that men are joining the cause. In commenting on a draft of this article, Martha Minow, the dean of the Harvard Law School, wrote me that one change she has observed during 30 years of teaching law at Harvard is that today many young men are asking questions about how they can manage a work-life balance. And more systematic research on Generation Y confirms that many more men than in the past are asking questions about how they are going to integrate active parenthood with their professional lives.
Abstract aspirations are easier than concrete trade-offs, of course. These young men have not yet faced the question of whether they are prepared to give up that more prestigious clerkship or fellowship, decline a promotion, or delay their professional goals to spend more time with their children and to support their partner’s career. Yet once work practices and work culture begin to evolve, those changes are likely to carry their own momentum.
Men have, of course, become much more involved parents over the past couple of decades, and that, too, suggests broad support for big changes in the way we balance work and family. It is noteworthy that both James Steinberg, deputy secretary of state, and William Lynn, deputy secretary of defense, stepped down two years into the Obama administration so that they could spend more time with their children (for real).
Going forward, women would do well to frame work-family balance in terms of the broader social and economic issues that affect both women and men. After all, we have a new generation of young men who have been raised by full-time working mothers. Let us presume, as I do with my sons, that they will understand “supporting their families” to mean more than earning money.
I have been blessed to work with and be mentored by some extraordinary women. Watching Mrs. Nelms in action makes me incredibly proud—of her intelligence, expertise, professionalism, charisma, and command of any audience. I get a similar rush remembering my former boss Leslie Benning, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Benning International in New York and Switzerland. Leslie has more than 30 years consulting and line management experience in developing customer market insights.
These women are extraordinary role models. To be a ‘strong’ woman, you don’t have to give up on the things that define you as a woman. That means respecting, enabling, and indeed celebrating the full range of choices women make. Empowering yourself doesn’t mean rejecting motherhood, or eliminating the nurturing or feminine aspects of who you are.
Many of us look back on that earlier era as a time when it was fine to joke that women went to college to get an “M.R.S.” I prayed we’d never return to the world of segregated sexes and rampant discrimination. Yet we find ourselves revisiting the assumption that women must keep to the kitchen and the “other room” for fear of getting their “p$ssy” grabbed by a president(s).
If women are ever to achieve real equality as leaders, then we have to stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal. We must insist on changing social policies and bending career tracks to accommodate our choices. We have the power to do it if we decide to, and we have many men standing beside us.
We’ll create better societies in the process, for all women. We don’t need to put a woman in the White House before we are able to change the conditions of the women working at Walmart. We need to flood every industry and every branch of government with women leading the charge. Then we will stop talking about whether women can have it all. We will properly focus on how we can help all human beings live healthy, happy, productive lives, valuing the people they love as much as the success they seek.