Not a Mommy War – This is About Our Unsustainable Workaholic Culture

Don’t make this about working mothers – we need a workplace change for everyone.

When Anne-Marie Slaughter’s The Atlantic cover story appeared, it sparked a firestorm of criticism ranging from accusations of setting women in business back by telling her story of leaving her dream job in the high ranks of government to step back in her career to be there for her children; to stomping on feminism; to boohooing about her elitist stature and the choices she’s made when many women have none. Although it’s not surprising that her story caused so much backlash, thankfully it has also generated great discussion around some important issues. And, despite the furor, they aren’t just about working mothers, or even just women – but the need for our work culture to change for everyone.

The story, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” is poorly titled, but still spoke to many who appreciated that Slaughter had the courage to tell her story of stepping back and wanting to be home for her children. Many women are used to feeling inadequate after reading stories of other women who made it to the top of their demanding professions, raised exceptional children and saved the world.

A Focus on Women
I first saw Sheryl Sandberg speak at the 2011 Women in the World Summit and she wowed the audience. We are contemporaries, and she is clearly a superwoman. Afterward I followed many of her talks and speeches and while I admired her mission to motivate and support women in business in their quest to be leaders, she also made me feel a bit resentful (something Slaughter alludes to in her article). As she motivates, she also expresses disappointment in our (hers and mine) generation in our failure to become leaders and places the blame squarely on our shoulders.

I was not alone in wishing she also championed the large number of women who occupy the middle ground – who don’t necessarily want to lead multinational corporations but want to sit at the table, who want to be heard, be recognized, and be equally compensated, but who still think it’s important to spend a significant amount of time with their families or pursue interests outside the office. These are the women, and a growing number of men, who are leaning back or on the fence about opting out of the workforce or into another career (if they have that choice) because that situation is so hard to find.

Does much of the blame falls on our American work culture? To hear Slaughter put exactly those feelings into words is tremendously satisfying. Can women be both leaders and great moms? Absolutely, but as Sandberg points out, you don’t see many of them, and it’s not completely due to a lack of ambition, but some very real workplace barriers.

Since Slaughter’s article came out, a large body of work has sprung up debating the issues that she raised. You might say that she isn’t covering any new ground as a “we all need balance” piece, but she has started an important discussion. Framing her argument around working mothers got many people’s backs up, but once you step back from that (as she does late in the article and in subsequent discussions), her argument and proposed changes should apply to everyone – meaning fathers, single parents and childfree women and men.

Toxic environment
It’s no secret that our work culture is, frankly, unsustainable and unhealthy. The U.S. has been a workaholic society for years, but the recession has exacerbated the weaknesses in our work culture. CNN calls the U.S. the no-vacation nation, highlighting the fact that most companies give employees only a few weeks off a year, and most expect employees to keep in touch with the office while on vacation. The U.S. lags far behind many European nations that employ liberal vacation policies and encourage their employees to use their time off.

Mother Jones reported that many businesses are posting double-digit profit growth while continuing the current employee workload and declining to hire more workers. “Americans now put in an average of 122 more hours per year than Brits, and 378 hours (nearly 10 weeks!) more than Germans.”

A full-time job used to require around 50 hours a week (allowing for lunch and a moderate commute). Now, for most, that number is low since we put more hours in at the office and can, and do, remain connected to the office nearly every waking moment with mobile technology. As our work culture continues to wring more and more work out of us, is there really time for much else?

In Glass Ceilings and 100 Hour Couples – What the Opt-Out Phenomenon Can Teach Us About Work and Family, authors Karine Moe and Dianna Shandy dissect the growing trend of highly educated women who are turning their backs on leadership and leaving the workplace – the same trend that Sandberg is lobbying against. Moe and Shandy report that dual-income families (the 100+ hour couples), show the most stress and damage from our current work climate. They conclude that an ideal arrangement involves one parent working part-time, yet meaningful part-time work is extremely hard to find.

However, concessions just for working parents can breed resentment in childfree women and men who might have their own, less recognized commitments outside of work like elder care, volunteering, hobbies or a sick spouse. That’s why change should apply to all employees, beginning with a fundamental shift in our work culture veering away from constant work obsession.

Flexibility Plays a Role
Slaughter admits that her regular full-time job as a professor is flexible and it was a shock when she entered government service to have to be on someone else’s timetable. This is where many who have spent their entire professional lives at someone else’s beck and call booed and hissed at her “complaining” which really came off more like a realization of what other professionals deal with. She quotes Mary Matalin, who spent two years as an assistant to Bush and the counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney before stepping down to spend more time with her daughters, as saying, “Having control over your schedule is the only way that women who want to have a career and a family can make it work.” I would amend that to say that flexibility is the only way to accommodate the myriad of personal situations people have outside of work, and children is just one of them.

Slaughter talks about being open about being a parent and having to tend to parental duties outside of work – not to bore her co-workers, but to set the tone of her work environment as family-flexible. Many women know this to be a potential minefield. When I worked in corporate America, I saw family commitments and subsequent time away from work used as a club in both salary raise negotiations and promotion discussions for several coworkers. Supervisors couched it as the employee being “not available” and “missing meetings,” and so on. It’s easy to point to other employees who have not missed work for these reasons as examples of promotion, so there is a reason many parents feel penalized when trying to balance both. It’s also something Sandberg fails to realize when telling women it’s entirely within their control to become leaders, despite having children.

What About the Men?
Slaughter writes, “Men are still socialized to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the breadwinner; women, to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the caregiver.” Men believe they have to be the primary breadwinner, because most workplaces refuse to see them as anything else. When men leave work or miss a meeting to tend to one of their children, more often than not, they feel the need to offer up an explanation, because the underlying thought is, “Why doesn’t their mother go?” (This is not necessarily true for single dads, of course.)

In this work climate, job stability often hinges on a worker appearing to be constantly available for every meeting and task. Where women bend or step back in their careers to care for children, men become more rigid to ensure their job security. I know a man who lost his job of seven years last week, one where he worked partly at home and commuted a long distance to work since his wife worked in another town, because the company terminated all flexible work arrangements. Other employees had asked to also have flex arrangements, and rather than accommodate them, they told all current flex workers they had to be in the office daily or find another job.

All Talk and No Change?
Now that a high-profile figure has raised the issue in such a public forum and it has clearly struck a chord – will anything change? Immediately and on a large scale, probably not. But companies that are ripe to consider flexible work arrangements might be persuaded by this discussion, and those that already offer it can see how important it is for employee attraction, retention and overall happiness. And, as long as we keep the discussion open, we might make progress not just for parents, but for everyone.

Images: Victor1558, Victor1558Ed Yourdon, Mirimcfly

Andrea Newell

Andrea Newell is a Michigan-based writer specializing in corporate social responsibility, women’s issues, and the environment.