In her widely debated new book Lean In, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg called it “the ultimate chicken and egg situation.” She is talking about the endless back and forth about what is holding women back from Having It All, whether the system needs to change in order for women to get ahead or whether women need to get ahead to change the system.
There are several problems to this discussion. The notion of whether or not women can have it all is not the point. Since the early days of the women’s movement, the impossibility of that achievement has been trumped up to discredit the notion that women should have equal access to it all.
Secondly, having women at the top is no guarantee of women-friendly policies. Recently Yahoo boss Melissa Meyer rescinded all work-from-home relationships in order to create what she believed would be an in-office hot bed of ideas. Claiming in an interview for the recent PBS Makers documentary that she is not a feminist (because she is not “angry”) may explain why she didn’t bother to offer childcare or other concessions to those whose lives were upended by her dictum.
The reality is that these systemic problems can’t be fixed by one company, even the most forward-looking, at a time or by one employee at a time. And most certainly not one woman at a time.
Almost 15 years ago, I wrote a book I called Father Courage: What Happens When Men Put Family First, in which I explored the stress upon men who were also trying to balance family and work. I found that most felt they lost the respect of their male colleagues for their wimpy preoccupations and got almost as much scorn from their wives at their clumsy attempts to get childcare right. One father told me about the time he took his infant daughter to the playground on a weekday, the mothers who were there with their kids called the cops because the sight of a man with a little girl was so unusual that they feared he was a pedophile.
Since then, fathers with kids have emerged as a common sight, even on weekdays, wiping runny noses, carrying Snoopy backpacks, and pushing double strollers side by side. Yet, while the family scene has opened up dramatically, the workplace is still inhospitable to the efforts of parents.
In the same way as some politicians claim “we have the best health care in the world,” when the World Health Organization rates us 37th, we believe that we are a family-oriented society. Even though we are the only industrialized country that doesn’t have national childcare or paid family leave or widespread offering of flextime and working from home options.
This is not a niche issue. Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute cites a study that found 87 percent of men and women consider flexibility important in considering a new job. In response to Meyer’s decision, she predicts that Yahoo will find “that telecommunicating is not the problem — it is a solution.” Richard Branson, the wild-card business man, points out that in a global economy everyone is telecommunicating and going into an office is downright old-fashioned.
Not only is the problem not a woman issue but it is not a young parents issue either. Along with parents, there is another group that has an interest in changing all that: Boomers. A high proportion of us are remaining in the workforce because we must or because we want to; many (a Met Life/Encore study estimates 31 million) seek work that offers, as Encore.org, the pioneering organization for this movement, puts it “passion, purpose, and a paycheck.” We are less ambitious for success, but more motivated to mentor the next generation; we are ready to venture outside the box, taking risks as entrepreneurs or students (Hey, we’ve got nothing to lose).
We have care-giving demands too. As the Sandwich generation most people over 50 are contributing financially and in terms of time to both struggling children and ailing parents. In addition we are addressing what I call care-getting needs – taking care of ourselves physically and spiritually as we age. Along with meaningful work, we want to make the most of the opportunities for living that the post-career years bring. For us the issue is a work/life balance.
A truly humane and supportive workplace would make a work/life balance possible for citizens of all ages. When we add men and people over 50 to the women who have long been struggling to make work work, we have an impressive critical mass that could be harnessed for change, if we could break free of the every man (sic) for himself mindset that produces guilt but not solutions.
It is a matter of recognizing that Americans have common cause in remodeling the workplace, reimagining work, and reconsidering the workforce itself. Recently when, with the encouragement of Encore.org, the Teach for America program began to recruit older people as well as recent college graduates, the response was impressive. It seems like a no-brainer now, but it took a surge of people with experience, commitment, and the desire to give something to society to change the expectations of recruiters. Every social movement is about changing minds. Including our own. Women, parents, Boomers, even single people (who are entitled to “get a life” too) have a vested interest in changing the way America works.
Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, is available to purchase here.
Image: Wikipedia. A portion of the original poster created in 1942 by J.Howard Miller, an artist at Westinghouse. The poster was used by the War Production Co-coordinating Committee.