It is here! D-Day…or perhaps W-Day (Women’s Day). You may have heard the hype about Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In,” that was released today. Sandberg’s book has both sides (feminist and non-feminist) buzzing.
I’ve got to admit, when I heard about the book, I was a bit of a skeptic. From what I had been hearing in the media, Sandberg was making an argument that the only barrier to women’s success was their own “internal barriers”. After an initial read, I can say that this is not the case, and many of the arguments that Sandberg makes are true. Sandberg does call out women’s own internal battles, but the ultimate argument that she makes is that if we had more women in positions of power, we would have more understanding in the workplace and opportunity for advancement. This is evidenced in the introduction of her book when she talks about walking into the office at Google one day and declaring the need for maternity parking. Sandberg, herself, admits that she had never thought about the need until she experienced the swollen feet of pregnancy for herself. She goes on to make several more very valid observations. As I read on, I thought about my own experiences, and I doubt that I’m alone.
My Own Experience
About a week ago when I heard that Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer, was pulling back on telework I rolled my eyes, emitted a heavy sigh, and mumbled “oh here we go”. My fears were confirmed when I heard from a friend, a new mother, that the dreaded “Yahoo reference” was brought up in recent budgeting meetings at her workplace. The argument to eliminate telework, and even limit the workplace flexibility, was being made by gasp…a fellow woman. Strangely enough, my friend’s workplace was one that had positions mostly filled by women (though most were older and not in the prime child bearing years). Yet, I listened as my friend expressed her fears to me. What would she do with a new baby at home? Faced with having to commute five days a week, daycare, and the reality that flexibility was about to be taken away my friend began to weigh her options to stay or go.
I sympathized with my friend. As a single mother, this is something that I struggled with every day. As I thought about it, I admittedly have made career decisions over the past 7 years (since I’ve had my son), that were based primarily on…well…being a mother first.
I had a great job that I loved, but after a year of being away from my son in order to take the position, I chose to telework 100% of the time so that I could be at home with my son. This was as much a financial decision for me as it was a personal decision. It resulted in what Sandberg refers to as “the chicken and the egg problem”. I wanted more responsibility at work. This was the only way to make more money that I desperately needed to pay my student loans and support my family. However, I couldn’t afford a full time nanny on the salary I was being paid, and I didn’t have a husband at home to share the responsibility of raising a child or helping with the bills, so I chose to telework. Removing myself from the office full time, in order to raise my child and eliminate the cost of childcare, eventually resulted in me leaving the company. Not being present made the company reluctant to promote me and thus the vicious cycle of wanting responsibility for money, yet not being present to earn the trust of the company for such responsibility continued. Which brings me back to the point that Sandberg makes, “[i]ntegrating professional and personal aspirations proves to be far more challenging than we could have imagined. During the same years that our careers demand maximum time investment, our biology demands that we have children. Our partners do not share the housework and child rearing, so we find ourselves with two full-time jobs. The workplaces have not evolved to give us the flexibility we need to fulfill our responsibilities at home. We anticipated none of this. We are caught by surprise”.
When I left this aforementioned company, I chose to “lean in” again. I leaned in harder than I have ever leaned in before. I had tried teleworking and that didn’t work, so I believed that I needed to swing the pendulum in the other direction. Sure I had finished a Masters degree after having my son, I had traveled the world, I had launched a successful international project, but it didn’t seem to be enough. This time I took a job on the other side of the country where I managed $1.7 billion dollars of spend, progress, and health and safety data for a large EPC firm. I put on my hard hat and steel toed boots. I was one of only two women in the entire office and was working in a male dominated industry. I worked seventy plus hours a week and I left my son back on the other side of the country with his grandmother. Every day I came to work and sat in front of male executives who made it very clear to me that my education and past accomplishments meant nothing. I was automatically dubbed as “not capable” simply because I was a woman. I was there to fill a diversity statistic, not because anybody believed that I was fully capable of contributing to the work that was being done. These were not just my thoughts…these were stark realities that were communicated to me as soon as I was hired. I spent every day trying to not only do my job, but fighting against every senior executive who tried to make me their glorified administrative assistant. Numerous times I was asked to operate the copy machine, take meeting notes, or fetch water while I was in the midst of analyzing millions of dollars, meeting deadlines, and preparing numerous reports. Sure, the money was great, but I was miserable.
I was kept up at night wondering if I had made the right decision. My work felt meaningless and I missed my son. Fortunately and unfortunately, I wouldn’t have to make the decision to stay or go. A few weeks after joining the company, our entire division was laid off. I returned to the East Coast, a bit of a wounded warrior and reflected on the past few months. Now what?
Do I search for a job with more flexibility or more money? Does it have to be a choice? I believe in most situations today, it does. As Sandberg argues “the vast majority of women are struggling to make ends meet and take care of their families”. Sandberg also argues that if you’re lucky enough to marry, it is perhaps the biggest career decision of your life. If you chose to marry and you want both a career and a family, then it is best to choose a partner who will truly be a partner. However, if you’re not married, and happen to already have children, you may be faced with this same perplexing question.
Which brings me to the next interesting point that Sandberg makes, and one that I am very guilty of. Sandberg says of women, “we continue to compromise our career goals to make room for partners and children who may not even exist yet”. How many other women have done this or are doing this? I know I have. Being in my er uh…late 20’s… I have recently been making arguments in my head around this central idea. I was recently offered a one year contract in Korea. It is my dream job. It is exactly what I went to school for and it certainly provides enough compensation for me to take my son with me and afford the best international schools. But I started thinking…do I want to go now…if I go now will I ever get married…if I get married and I’m working in a job like this, how will I have time for another child…and on and on and on. When I read this statement by Sandberg, I was convinced that she does understand. She is a high paid executive who has worked hard, had a bit of luck, and who has become very successful; but this doesn’t mean that she is any different than other women who has had these thoughts every single day when making career/ family decisions.
The End Solution
The only clear solution to this issue is to attack the problem from both sides. Women need to “lean in”, but we must be met equally by our companies and our male counterparts. We not only need to remove our internal barriers, that produce that reluctance to take the job that requires more attention than our family; but companies need to understand the need for occasionally flexibility as well. If a woman needs a few weeks of maternity leave to physically recover or a day of telework to take care of a sick child, then she should be able to take it without fear of being viewed as weak. I can speak from experience and tell you that having worked in both extremes neither is ideal. There has to be a balance and an understanding from both sides. Sandberg gets it. She is the 21st century working woman and she has hit the nail on the head with this book.
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