Naturally, The Wall Street Journal’s special section on “Women in the Workplace” grabbed my attention. I read it eagerly from cover to cover hoping to see all the good news about growing flexible work trends. What I found instead was the same lament that not enough women get to the top.
Whenever this topic arises, I always say that any woman who wants to get to the top should have all the support she needs. Of course, I hope that there will be a woman in the Oval Office soon, I’m encouraged that so many women are now in Congress and I think that the executive suite should not be filled with men in pin-striped suits. But I think we have to be more transparent about a big reason why more women are not at the pinnacle of their professions…it’s simply not a realistic goal as they also care for children and aging parents. As a career coach I know that more women will pursue senior management positions when they can take advantage of, and not be ashamed to admit they prefer, a flexible work structure.
After reading about the gender gap, the pay gap, finding mentors, the lack of women at the top, the cost of childcare (with no mention of the cost of staying home) and why men but not women can make mistakes on the job—and finding nothing new—I decided to write this Letter to the Editor that was published on Election Day:
“Solving the workplace problems that have plagued women for decades is not just a matter of finding mentors, equalizing pay or making sure that women have as many opportunities as men. Real progress will be made when employers realize they need to talk about issues of ‘Women at Home’ alongside issues of ‘Women in the Workplace’. As a career coach I’m privy to the practical reasons there is a gender gap at the top: a large percentage of even the most highly educated, talented and driven women eventually reach a point when they can’t easily blend an all-consuming job with three other huge jobs—caring for children, aging parents and themselves. This is not a reality women openly discuss with their managers or in corporate leadership programs focused only on rising to the top. Women fear the ‘lightweight’ label and feel guilty about letting down the power sisterhood. When the workforce recognizes many definitions of ambition and success—and encourages women to grow in place during heavy caregiving periods—many more women will find sanity and satisfaction and keep on track for the ultimate brass ring—long-term financial security from work that fits and funds life.”
After my letter was published I received this email from a VP of an engineering firm in Indiana:
“I have read and re-read 10 times your letter to the editor which appeared in today’s Wall Street Journal. I have a role in my company as an informal mentor to a number of highly skilled engineers and managers, many of whom are women, and your summary resonated with me. You gave me some language which will help me deepen conversations with them about their careers and concerns. Thank you very much for articulating such a crucial issue.”
My guess is that none of the women in his company have ever sat down with him—individually or as a group—and suggested, in a thorough, professional pitch, productive ways to change the structure of their workday. It’s likely that they’ve suffered in silence—afraid to make it seem that they’re too weak or disorganized to handle both life and work—and too worried that any desire to work in a more flexible way is a sign of halfhearted commitment. The email that I received is one powerful sign that there are a lot of reasonable managers who need some prodding to open their eyes. When their eyes are open, changes will continue to happen…so don’t hesitate to speak up.
How to make a professional pitch for flexibility—and get it—is a big topic in my book, Ambition Redefined: Why the Corner Office Doesn’t Work for Every Woman & What to Do Instead.