12 March 2013

Life-Friendly Workplace

TIME magazine ran an article about Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and her new book, loosely about feminism in the workplace, titled Lean In.  While I have mixed feelings about Ms. Sandberg’s message, and look forward to reading the book, she made two statements in the article that really resonated.  

The first interesting point, that seems obvious when said out loud, is that the American work-day is designed with the notion that workers have someone else handling all the “other stuff.”  The only way a person can meet the traditional constraints of the nearly mythical 40 hour week, let alone the 50-60 hour weeks that are the norm, is to somehow outsource cooking, cleaning, laundry, appointments, yard work and childcare.  Be it via a partner or family member  who doesn’t “work”/works at home/has more flexible hours or hiring it done,  someone has to do all this stuff and being at work from 8-4/9-5 plus commute doesn’t leave much time for such piffle.  Even if good childcare is readily available, at least one parent must limit their work hours, travel time and sick days so as to accommodate the structure of the childcare center.  Having children means someone will have to sacrifice hours and that may also mean sacrificing chances for promotion, bonuses, lucrative accounts etc.   Regardless of gender, the American working environment is pretty much the opposite of family friendly.  

As a corollary to the fact that one must outsource domestic duties in order to keep pace in many fields, Sandberg alludes to a much larger cultural issue when asked if she had any domestic help.  She declines to answer that question stating that “it is not a question you would ask a man.”   Exactly.  Having children may mean making changes in your career goals, but only women seem to be expected to make said sacrifices.  It is generally understood that women, even in households where both partners work full time outside the home, shoulder the greater burden of childcare and housework.  Additionally, only women have their dedication to parenting called into question when they chose to utilize childcare, housekeepers and other support staff to ensure a rewarding work-life.   She is correct; this would not be asked of a man for we would assume that his choice to have children is an entire separate entity from his choice to pursue a certain career track.  Additionally, if he were to prioritize that career over being home to help with homework and give baths, he would be heralded as a paragon of modern work-ethics.  Were a woman to make the same choices and dare to have someone else fill that role, she would be accused of having other people raise her children, or not being maternal enough, or lacking a proper bond with her children…the list goes on and on.  And woe unto the poor men who do chose to make the career changes necessary to be home more, or even (gasp) to be home full-time. The abuse and cultural shaming they endure is equally offensive.

The real issues may not even be feminist issues.  They are humanist issues.  They are issues of how we as a nation treat the idea of family and parenting.  They are issues of how we have structured our work force and how we plan to keep parents* in the workplace even as the workplace consistently fails to meet their needs for work-home balance.  If someone as smart and driven as Sandberg finds herself up against it, what hope do the rest of mere mortals even have?

I think Sandberg makes some really good, if not original, points about how women operate within the work force.  The TIME article alludes to her having some worthy ideas on how to instigate the needed changes.  Having somewhat painted myself into a corner with my own career (more on that dilemma later) I am excited to read the book and see what new insights this smart, successful and highly motivated woman can bring to the table.   Even if everyone can’t 100% agree on what feminism is, or what changes need to happen to further feminism, I think we can all agree that all the voices are important.  Building the canon is a vital part of any social movement.   

*While specifically keeping those who have chosen to have children in the workplace probably seems a little insensitive, many people don’t have kids, we do have to acknowledge that the childbearing years for our species heavily overlaps the years in which you are most valuable to your employer.  That is a fact that we can’t ignore when we fight for all jobs to treat all of us like humans who have families and lives outside of our jobs.  Unless you are a SAHP then your life is your job and that is kind of uncool too, honestly there may be no "winning" here…but I do digress.