A number of issues have surfaced in the news over the past week suggesting that many women have more pressing concerns than breaking through the glass ceiling. A big one was the announcement that Yahoo was abolishing its work-at-home policy and ordering everyone to work in the office. This policy change has brought forth strong criticism from advocates of workplace flexibility to whom it seems a step backwards for those who care for young children or aging parents outside of work.
The hope had been that Marissa Mayer, who became chief executive of Yahoo while pregnant with her first child, would make the business world more parent friendly. But even before her recent policy change, Ms Mayer did not seem a likely model for most mothers. Apparently, she took only two weeks maternity leave and then built a nursery next to her office in order to make work and child care feasible.
In the business world there are conflicting opinions about whether face-to-face interaction among employees makes for greater innovation. But this is the basis on which the policy change was made. A N.Y. Times article says that Ms. Mayer wants to change the culture of the company so that life will revolve around the physical plant of the company and employees will spend a larger chunk of their time at work.
The same article quotes a University of California professor of women’s history saying, “The irony is that she has broken the glass ceiling, but seems unwilling for other women to lead a balanced life in which they care for their families and still concentrate on developing their skills and career.” At the same time, the fact is that nearly as many men as women have taken advantage of workplace flexibility policies.
The problem is that when a conflict exists between the corporate bottom line and the needs of families, it is the needs of family life, including childcare, that are expected to give way. This was brought home in still another article about the fact that the U.S. trails most of the globe in paid family leave. “While the United States takes great pride in its family values, it is the only high-income country that does not offer a paid leave program.” The article reports that Google increased its paid leave for new mothers to five months after the company realized that women were leaving the company at twice the rate of men. After the change their drop-out rate was cut in half.
Even the policies at some of the most generous American companies don’t compare with the 31 countries that provide a year or more of paid maternity leave. This focus on the corporate bottom line may be short sighted. Not only is longer maternity leave associated with lower infant mortality, but also with economic gains in terms of reduced health care costs, reduced recruitment and retraining, and improved long term earning for women.
The realities of life for many parents is also brought home forcefully in a N.Y.Times story relating parents’ experience trying to enroll their children in programs they want for them. The story describes parents lining up at 4 a.m. on a Sunday in below freezing weather in order to ensure a spot for their children in activities such as science camps, sports teams, or pre-k programs. Apparently, there are certain geographic areas with a higher distribution of children. A mother is quoted as saying, “There are too many kids”, and too few spaces for them.
Parents want their children to have every advantage. This leads to the search for activities that not only will benefit their children, but also will provide constructive time spent while parents are at work. The reality is that with so many dual worker families, there is greater concern that children not be deprived of the kind of input parents might provide if they were home. When there is little flexibility at work, parents are stressed in many ways. They are not only concerned about the physical care of their children, but also by other efforts to ensure that their children not be disadvantaged by their absence.
The clarity of reality for most working parents makes stories about Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer and the effort to break the glass ceiling, seem out of focus. Looking into themselves is not what will enable women to function well in the work world. Equality depends on meeting needs that once only the province of women now apply to increasing numbers of men as well.
The pressure to “lean in”, without corresponding external supports, may result in more women opting out. Be careful what you wish for.