I've been wanting to write about this for weeks now, but just haven't had the time to pay it proper attention. A friend and commenter first brought it to my attention by way of a Corporette post titled "Planning for Babies" which referenced a talk by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook (and former VP at Google, former Chief of Staff for the U.S. Dept. of Treasury, and double graduate of Harvard, first with a B.A. and "top graduating student" prize in Economics, and later with an MBA with highest honors; she's accomplished, is what I'm saying). I thought the post was interesting and bookmarked it for another time. Then, last week, I attended a Women's Initiative lunch at my firm and actually saw the video the Corporette post had been talking about.
It is not revolutionary, and it does not present an actual solution for why there are too few women leaders in business or politics, nor could it possibly do so. But it spoke to me like nothing else on this topic ever has and that I've been thinking about it ever since I watched it. I came home that day, blog posts firing away in my head, quoted it nearly verbatim to JP with increasing speed and volume, ate dinner, put my kids to bed, and then settled in to work on a motion at my kitchen table until midnight. All those beautiful posts never got written, and now you're going to have to settle for this far less eloquent version. I hate it when real work interferes with my plans to blog about working.
I should make clear at the start that I didn't nod my head to everything Ms. Sandberg said, and as always, her advice and talking points have to be tailored to each individual, their goals, and their situation, but I still think everyone should watch her talk. I felt like it was a small piece of the overall puzzle, framed in a way that really resonated with me. It's not about what businesses should do to retain women (though that's important), it's about what we as individuals can do to help the women, including ourselves, who want to stay in the workforce to actually stay there. Because quite simply nothing is going to change until more of us are in positions to make change happen. The video is 14 minutes long, but it's worth the time, and you should watch it.
I'm going to take it point by point.
(1.) Sit at the table. This probably resonated the least with me. Not because I don't think it's important, but because of either my parents, an innate confidence, or both, I grew up assuming I had both a top grade and a deserved spot at any table. (At least up until law school- one of the reasons 1L year beat the formerly self-assured crap out of me.) But what did hit me was the way men and women who are similarly successful by doing similar things are viewed so differently by others. A man is seen as successful and an all around great guy; the woman is seen as successful but a grasper, someone who's probably using people to get ahead. This makes me crazy and so often it's women who are perpetuating the problem.
Also the idea that women put their hands down hit home. I don't remember being this way before law school, but since 1L year I've pretty much stopped raising my hand with either questions or answers. With the questions, I always assume I've missed something and everyone else knows the answer, even though most of the time people ask questions I know have been answered and/or were my exact question. With the answers, I've developed a paralyzing fear of being publicly wrong. But I'm working on it. In my current phase of life, this translates most often to conference calls where people, usually partners, are asking for suggestions or thoughts and I have one I don't reveal until the call is over. I'll mention it to the senior associate whose office I'm in and she almost always exclaims, "Why didn't you speak up?!" I have a new goal to speak on every conference call and to forgive myself if I'm wrong. I know I don't think about the fact someone said something incorrect for more than two minutes after it happened, why would I presume that people would focus on my statements for any longer?
2. Make your partner a real partner. Oh yes. This is a big one. If someone asked me to list the three things that help me to be such a happy working mom it would be (1) my spouse, (2) a daycare that I love and trust, and (3) my super short commute. (Number four would be my actual job.) JP is my partner. We share equal responsibility for parenting, finances, chores, etc. Not equal work, per se, but an equal feeling of responsibility to our children and our home, and the work gets divided naturally according to each person's time and ability. Right now this means that JP does way more of the house and kid duties. When I was in law school I did more. It balances out. But even with the differing abilities, there is a deep respect and care for each other- for each other's rest, sanity, and preferences about having the kitchen counters bare and clean at the end of the day (okay, that's just my preference) that underlies it all. And that love and respect translates to doing things for the other that makes them happy (like the clean counter thing). It's also about expectations. I demand a lot from myself with regard to my role as JP's wife and Landon and Claire's mom, and I expect the same from him. I loved her stat that marriages that share equal responsibility have half the divorce rate and a lot more sex. I don't know about the former, but the latter seems pretty accurate.
I also liked her point that men's contribution to childcare need to be valued. I know women always complain that a dad is a hero at work because he leaves to make it to his kid's soccer game, but the women is looked down on or penalized for it. And this is unfair and too frequently true, but that isn't any reason to perpetuate it by knocking men's contribution to their families. I remember when I was studying for the Bar and JP was home all day, every day with Landon, and I mentioned to a colleague that I felt bad about that. She laughed and said something like, "please, you're never going to get me to feel bad for a dad." And yet I know she would have had sympathy for a wife in the exact same situation with a husband studying all day for the Bar. A little thing, but that conversation has always stood out in my mind. Taking care of children, taking care of a home- these are incredibly important things, and they should be valued, viable options for both sexes by both sexes.
3. Don't leave before you leave. This was by FAR the biggest point for me. Basically, Sheryl makes the point that women often take steps to make it easier for them to stay in the workforce after they have kids (usually many years before they even have kids), which actually end up paving the way for them to leave their jobs when they have children. So instead of looking for the promotion or raising your hand for the challenging new project, you start leaning back, working down to a less-demanding role that should be easier to balance after you've had a baby. But, since it's hard to leave a baby to go work, and it's even harder to put forth the effort to balance the two, if you don't have a job you really enjoy and find challenging, there's a much greater chance that you'll end up quitting and staying home. Which is fine for those women for whom staying home was always the goal. But for those who do want to keep their careers- and not just keep, but thrive in, excel at, and otherwise demand satisfaction from that other area of their life, then maybe if you'd pursued those challenging paths five years ago, you'd be at a place in your career post-baby, that makes you want to make it work. Because without really wanting to do it, it's way to easy to decide that you can't.
I am 100% guilty of this- and I know from talking to my law school friends, none of whom have children yet, that many of them are guilty of it too. I cannot tell you how many times I've heard about a new case and hesitated too long before asking to be staffed on it because I'm afraid of the question marks and possible time demands. This is true even when I don't have a full plate and need work, so I end up getting put on something- a something that is almost always less enjoyable or challenging. This is also why I don't volunteer for committees and shy away from clubs, bar association events, and pretty much anything having to do with business development. At nearly every opportunity, I pause, spend three days weighing whether or not I can do it, whether or not it will mess with my fiercely guarded schedule, and it expires. Later, when I see the person who seized the opportunity, I realize that it wouldn't have affected me or my time nearly so much as I let myself fear.
It is undoubtedly important to set boundaries and protect your family time, but I'm doing it at the expense of letting great opportunities pass me by -- opportunities that probably wouldn't have messed up my schedule at all. And what little amount they might have, could have lead to something even better, and perhaps more flexible down the line. If there is anything I've seen true over and over again at The Firm, it's that the women with power are the ones with clients, expertise, and/or some kind of special experience that makes them valuable. They are the ones who can institute flex-time arrangements that actually work and make partner on a part-time schedule, and it's because they jumped up, seized an opportunity, and are now reaping the benefits of it.
This probably isn't revolutionary to anyone else, but I heard this last 2 minutes of Sheryl Sandberg's talk and felt like someone had hit me. It's not the staying in the workforce that is my challenge- as I've said, I like working and have no desire to ever stay home. My struggle is putting myself out there and making the most of this time that I do spend away from my kids. I think only by doing that can I get in a position to have as many options as possible as they get older and I want more flexibility to be with them. I've seen over and over that when I do take on a big case, I can make it work, that by doing a good job and working hard, my family time is accommodated. I'm going to try to stop allowing my own fears or the opinions of others (i.e., "when does she see her kids?" I think women judge each other far harsher than we judge men or than men judge us) stop me from honestly evaluating the opportunities in front of me.
There were lots of other thoughts I had, but this is already too long and I'm trying to keep it somewhat organized. I think the working world would be better if more women were in it. I love the female partners and associates I work with and I think we bring an additional perspective and set of strengths to our client's problems. I'm sad when one leaves the firm after having children- not because I think she shouldn't stay home if she wants to, but because the ones I've spoken with usually don't. They want their careers, they just can't figure out a way to make it work and inevitably they're the ones to step back. That, I think, is a problem. I don't have answers, no one does, but I thought this talk presented a few points worth thinking about.