It has been almost six weeks since we inaugurated these news briefs by checking in on the hubbub over Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In—a sorta-controversial manifesto calling on women to stop sabotaging ourselves.
Sandberg urges us to overcome our internal barriers—those “I’m not ready,” or even “I’m not worthy,” thoughts that keep women from taking risks.
The controversy over Lean in follows last summer’s furor over Anne-Marie Slaughter’s July/August 2012 Atlantic piece “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”—a highly accomplished woman’s acknowledgment that sometimes women simply must choose between their work and the demands of a growing family.
This week brought two very different, very compelling suggestions for addressing the latter challenge.
The more recent was Paulette Light’s piece in the Atlantic, aimed almost directly at Sandberg. Light is one of Sandberg’s lamented “43 percent”: “Forty-three percent of highly qualified women with children are leaving careers or off-ramping for a period of time.” When Light, a Columbia MBA–trained management consultant and mother of four, wanted to return to work a decade after leaving the workforce, she knew what she needed, and she didn’t find it in Working Mother‘s list of family-friendly employers. “I was disheartened because only one of the family friendly criteria (telecommuting) was of interest to me,” she writes. “While I have no doubt that I could use the onsite nap room that 23 percent of the best family friendly companies provide, those perks don’t meet my key family needs and I doubt they will bring the 43 percent back in.”
Chief among those “key family needs” are flexibility and the need to work concurrently with a demanding family life. “If you want high-achieving mothers back in the workforce, don’t give us an office and a work week filled with facetime, give us something to get done and tell us when you need it by. This is where Sheryl Sandberg and her colleagues are in a real position to make a tangible difference to us 43 percent. Post clear project needs in a place parents know about (onramp.me? backtowork.me?) and watch how many of us apply.” In a way, Light is acceding to the reality that so much work in the current economy is transient and project-based; she sees this as providing an opportunity for those educated, high-value women who’ve dropped away from their chosen career paths.
Light’s piece on behalf of ”those of us who left the traditional workforce to raise their kids with full intention of returning to the workplace” feels a little like a cover letter or memo to a client. She acknowledges that she writes from a position of privilege: “I know how lucky I am to have a partner who supports me in all ways.” And her proposal may be both perfect for women in her position and a boon to corporate America. What it may not do, however, is accomplish Sandberg’s explicitly stated goal of empowent for all women.
Place Sandberg’s “43% of highly qualified women with children” against another percentage dealing directly with the lives of working moms: Forty percent of children under 5 in America “spend at least part of their week in the care of somebody other than a parent,” The New Republic notes in last week’s blockbuster piece on day care in America. “American day care is a mess. . . . In the United States, despite the fact that work and family life has changed profoundly in recent decades, we lack anything resembling an actual child care system.” Talking about a child care system feels light-years from Light’s proposal, of course. “In other countries, such services are subsidized and well-regulated,” The New Republic article notes.
In this country, we had such a system during World War II, and it functioned well: ‘Rosie the Riveter’ dropped her kids off at the child care centers before going to work. That system was mostly dismantled when “the boys came home” in 1945, but it was not forgotten: As Gail Collins, author of When Everything Changed, told WVFC a few years back, the United States nearly put such a system into law more than 40 years ago. “In 1971, a bipartisan bill to guarantee affordable early childhood education in the United States was passed by both houses of Congress,” Collins said, before President Nixon vetoed it as “anti-family.” “Good Day Care Was Once a Top Feminist Priority, and It Should Be Again,” said another piece in the Atlantic’s new “The Sexes” blog last week, proposing that a revived “feminist movement for child care” could be game-changing.
I doubt that Light was planning to create such a movement with her semi-private plea for innovative scheduling. But the two paths could go be parallel, with affordable childcare for all women as a strong complement to helping companies partner with more independent working mothers. Securing both goals would require a different kind of ‘leaning in’—the multi-tasking kind in which women of all classes tend to excel.