High-Performing Women Perform – Always.

Read with some interest Paulette Light’s piece last week in the Atlantic.  “Why 43% of Women with Children Leave Jobs, and How to Get them Back.” Light is a good writer, and a budding entrepreneur.  She also has, as she says, “a similar background to Sandberg. With a BA from Columbia, a Masters from Harvard and an MBA from Wharton.”  She also has the benefit of a supportive, working spouse: “I know how lucky I am to have a partner who supports me in all ways, taking on more than his fair share of housework and parenting, sharing my philosophy, backing my ventures and listening to my struggles.”  Like Sandberg, Light is lucky.  For the rest of us, without those 1% head starts, it’s not so easy.  That said, I do agree with her.  And like my criticism of the Sandberg book, I hope she succeeds in getting her point into mass circulation.  This kind of thinking needs to start permeating the public consciousness in order to give women a modern-day break.  It actually will benefit me too, ultimately, but you’ll have to read to the end of this post to see that connection.

I left the workforce in 2001. First, I was laid off from a dot-com startup that went under.  The company was swept up in a tech sector that also imploded.  Shortly thereafter, 9/11 happened.  At the time, we lived in north Jersey and we were affected personally by the death of a friend.  It was at that time, I made the decision to retreat.  Quit.  Leave the workforce.  There is an image that is irrevocably etched in my brain of the footage from the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.  It is an image of hundreds of thousands of tiny pieces of paper floating to the ground.  Because most of my work life was pre-digital, all the work I had done in the sum total of my career had been done on paper.  That image signified to me, work is meaningless.  Nothing I had done professionally up to that point mattered at all in the grand scheme of things, and I felt compelled to politely bow out, and realign my priorities.

So I disengaged.  We moved into a small house that we owned at the Jersey shore, and I became a SAHM (stay-at-home-Mom).  We cut our family income by two-thirds (I was the sole supporter of the family until that point), and relied on my husband’s meager earnings in the construction industry.  I wanted to focus on my kids and my family – the only work that really mattered.

Now, unlike Ms. Light, I never struggled with “guilt, or “boredom,”  or ever struggled with “feeling overwhelmed.”  And I certainly never found myself, “many a mommygroup crying in the bathroom…”  No.  I LOVED being a SAHM.  During my 5-year tenure, along with all the home-cooked meals, gardening, doctor appointments, birthday parties, PTA meetings, etc., I was always busy.  This is just a sample of the projects I involved myself in:

  • Volunteered to be the press liaison for the local chamber of commerce.
  • Became a freelance writer for a leading NJ daily, the Asbury Park Press, covering local events
  • Helped brand and run a local township committee campaign
  • Managed my daughter’s singing career by orchestrating events and recording two demo CDs
  • Did PR and planning for a large volunteer Community-build Playground project
  • Organized a middle school Student Body President campaign for my daughter (she won)
  • Was part of a core team of volunteers to launch an annual event that celebrated our town’s heritage
  • Launched a small business for my ex-husband that generated over half a million dollars in its first year.

Had my marriage and the business worked out (very long story goes here), I would still be a SAHM.  In 2006, I had to return to the workforce as a single Mom–  financially and emotionally bankrupt, and desperate to support my children.  With a lot of hard work, I fought my way back into the professional world and was able to provide a decent quality of life for my kids with a combination of self-employment and employment.  But, I vowed upon returning to the professional world that I would not work in an office again.  There is something very stabilizing, very secure about “being here” every time my son (daughter now in college) walks in the door after school.

office

Every day my son comes home from school, he walks into my office, either plunks himself down on the rug or stands in the doorway, and tells me about his day.  We talk about his classes, how his work is progressing.  Anything that happened that day of interest.  He’s a good student. He spends most his time with his online gaming friends, but I can rest in the knowledge he is not engaged in most things that can derail a young, teenage boy (drugs, alcohol, etc.). I attribute my parenting diligence to that outcome. My middle daughter, who is a grown young woman now, will be graduating college next month at the top of her class.  I could not be more proud of all my children, including my oldest daughter who is juggling a busy schedule as a SAHM herself.  Both of my daughters are academic scholars.

Paulette Light’s main point in her piece revolves around finding a place for women who wish to return to work.  That place does not exist for most women, so we are forced to create our own businesses.  It’s not a bad option, but I assure you, especially as a single Mom, it’s a more difficult one.  Her advice is to create a mechanism for project-based work.  Interestingly enough, the business I just launched a few months ago, which is also somewhat in stealth mode, is focused on doing exactly that.  It’s not just SAHMs that want a more flexible work schedule, Dads do too.  The trending data suggests that 90 percent of firms have used contracted talent, and a recent Economist Intelligence Unit study found that 61 percent of senior executives anticipate a growing proportion of functions to be outsourced to contingent workers.

Net, net– If you want to bring talent back into to the marketplace without requiring them to “sit” there, you should invest in smart, high-performing professionals who can see this future and who care about what matters.  You can start here.

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And One More Thing… on Leaning In

I recall sitting in a Boston grille a few years ago with two men I really admire.  Now, these two men have rocked my world and changed the face of what it means to work at a large enterprise.  They bring their passion, intelligence, and finely honed skills of persuasion to work, resulting in great gains for organizations they serve.  As we were eating dinner, I told them there was something I had to share with them.  It had nothing to do with our business relationship or their career success, although that conversation could have gone well into the evening.

I told them I admired them enormously because they’re both excellent fathers.  Via Facebook and other windows into their personal lives, I can see the love and caring that goes into raising their kids and honoring their marriages.

This is the model we all need to be working toward.  I, for one, feel we should stop letting the asshats win. We are all better than this, and we owe it to our kids to show them a better way.

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A Sort-of Review of a Sort-of Feminist Manifesto

bookThe first red flag for me reading Sheryl Sandberg‘s, “Lean In,” came early in the book. It was page 6 to be exact.  She writes,

“I graduated from college in 1991…The proverbial glass ceiling had been cracked in almost every industry, and I believed that it was just a matter of time until my generaton took our fair share of the leadership roles.”

I wrote in the margin, “1991?”

On page 14, she further expands on her worldview at the time with this statement,

“When I arrived at college in the fall of 1987, my classmates of both genders seemed equally focused on academics.  I don’t remember thinking about my future career differently from the male students.  I also don’t remember conversations about someday balancing work and children.  My friends and I assumed that we would have both.”

And that’s when I knew this book was not written for me, or for many other women like me.  This is a book Sheryl wrote for her friends.

I remember 1991.  I was well into my career by then.  A business book that hit the bookshelves that year made an irrevocable impression on me as a woman, a mother, and particularly, a business professional.  The book, “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women” was written by a Wall Street Journal reporter named Susan Faludi.  The original copy of that book still sits squarely at the center of my bookcase in my office.  Faludi spelled out that year, in pain-staking detail (the reference notes alone take up 81 pages in 8-pt type), how women were losing on every front.  That this “backlash” had cropped up, a counter-reaction if you will, to feminism to “put women back in their place.”

Here is Faludi herself talking about the book in 1992.

Faludi

Sandberg hardly, I mean hardly, even mentions this book.  There’s a tacit self-shaming (and I wondered if her editor at Knopf made her add this) on page 142 where she admits,

“I would have denied being in any way, shape or form, a feminist.  None of my college friends thought of themselves as feminists either.  It saddens me to admit that we did not see the backlash against women around us.”

She gives a single footnote to Faludi with this line.  Really?  A footnote?  Now, like Sandberg, I will state for the record, as she does, “I am not a scholar, a journalist, or a sociologist.”  I’m only writing this review because I told a few people I would not pass judgment about the book until after I’d read it.

I’m not really even sure Sheryl Sandberg read Backlash.  Why would she?  She had no early indicators that life was going to be tough.  She was a good student, daughter of an Ivy League graduate mother and physician father.  In high school, between junior and senior year she worked as a page for a U.S. Senator.  Getting accepted to Harvard was just the next logical step in a trajectory laid out for her and so many like her. So, yes. The accusations are legit.  This is a book written by an elitist woman who’s enjoyed tremendous class and power privileges.

The mean girl in me thought it might be fun to make some money off the Sandberg book by marketing a drinking game you could play at middle class BBQs and backyard summer parties.  Everyone could take shots and advance around the board when the dice rolled you another privilege Sandberg racked up on her career journey.  You’d get bonus points and rounds for everyone! every time you opened the book randomly and and spotted a 1 percent keyword: Harvard, Google, Facebook, Goldman Sachs, Stanford, Treasury Department, Larry Summers, McKinsey, etc.

But, I’m really not a mean girl.  I don’t hate Sheryl Sandberg for her success, for her book, for her “movement,” …for anything.  In her world, she actually did take a brave step and one that was difficult for her considering the thwacking she’s received already.  It’s impossible to read this book as a thinking woman without filtering it through your own experience.  I know there will be a lot of women who don’t have the problems ordinary women do, who will use this book as ammunition to accelerate their careers and pursue more power.  And, if she’s right, these women once in power (although not sure I have seen any evidence whatsoever that this is true) can begin to address some of the drudgery and hardship being an ordinary working woman, wife, and mother is. Sandberg addresses this the best she can, from her own perspective. I’m rooting for her and her friends to lean in.

Me?  I’m waiting for the day I’m no longer a case study.  The day I’m no longer a data point on some Harvard student’s regression analysis that compares income with domestic violence.  I’m waiting for the day my daughters tell my story, and their daughters tell theirs.  There is a day coming where we won’t be leaning in, we will be falling over ourselves with equal pay, rights, reproductive choices, gender preferences, executive access, and celebrating our own battle-worn victories.

Sheryl is doing her part, and me and my female friends (professionals, SAHMs, gay, straight, single with kids, single/married without kids, and so on), we’re doing ours.   What we lack in marketing budget, we make up in large numbers.  And we’re not roaring anymore; we’re mostly yawning. But, we’re making that better world happen.  Every damned day.

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