Friday, October 30, 2009

Follow Valerie Jarrett's Lead This Halloween

You are meeting with your boss. Your kid’s Halloween parade starts in an hour. If you’re going to make it, it’s time to go -- now. What do you do?

Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett tells how she found the courage to say “I have to leave” -- to her then-boss Chicago Mayor Daley. (He lauded her for doing so). And today Jarrett wields more influence than most 24/7-men who’d never utter those words (the guys who set the tone at most workplaces.)

I just heard Jarrett tell this important tale at the Women’s Conference, Maria Shriver’s amazing gathering of 25,000 women. I want to remember this the next time I find myself in a similar jam. I want to recall that sometimes it takes only a little pluck to avert work/life collision, that its easy to get so fearful about how we are perceived that we don’t do the right thing -- we don’t leave, we leave late, we lie (“ah, I forgot I have another meeting!”), we feel guilty (“I’m really really sorry to run out on you…”).

To be clear, Jarrett’s story is compelling precisely because she has produced strong results for her employers -- even when interrupted by school events.

But why don’t we know hundreds of stories like Jarrett’s - of people who stand up for family and still succeed? Why don’t all bosses say “of course” (and mean it)? In this week’s Time magazine poll, three statistics in the stand out -- and beg working parents and employers to look at the facts and get a lot more candid.

76% of Americans think it’s good that women are now half the work force. Great!

84% agree that businesses have not done enough to address the needs of modern families. Now I’m glad that we’re nearing consensus on this but there’s still little talk about *why* employers are so slow. Making the workplace sensible for parents has been discussed by blue-ribbon panels for over 40 years (under Kennedy, Carter and even Reagan).

The number that explains it all to me is this:

65% of us think it’s a negative that that few kids have a stay-at-home parent today.

As we say in our book, Getting to 50/50, if parents want to stay home with kids, that’s a fine thing. But fear and misinformation should not be why so many women leave their jobs. Talking to the country’s foremost child psychologists and reading their research, we learned there is no respected evidence that having a stay-at-home parent produces better outcomes for kids. Instead, there is a wealth of data that says something very different: That we should be making it possible for both moms to work and for dads to get home for family dinner -- that kids do better with the positive engagement of two parents (for more on the research, see Mom and Dad: How Kids Can Get More from Two Working Parents).

You can’t blame employers for being under-motivated to overhaul work norms. If helping moms stay at work is bad for kids, who’d want to do that? If men never ask for flexibility, employers keep believing it’s not so important for dads so see kids (mountains of data show the opposite -- see 50/50 Facts for cites). If headlines say that women “choose” to opt out -- that women don’t really want the jobs they’re hired for -- why bother reforming anything?

Updating these entrenched ideas can be uncomfortable in daily life. I asked a lawyer to review a contract for a job I was offered. The lawyer -- a man married to a women who’d left the workforce -- said “are you sure you want a ‘real’ job? I don’t know any families with two demanding jobs and OK kids.”

I told the lawyer that I appreciated his concern but that I grew up among plenty of dual-career parents whose kids turned out great. And that I was paying him to review my contract so I could follow that model. Thank you. It’s often awkward. But I’ve come to realize that when we don’t speak up, old myths persist -- and new truths aren’t widely known. That makes life a lot harder for working parents.

A great way to “out” the conversation and frame it constructively is offered in Shriver’s report A Women’s Nation Changes Everything. Ann O’Leary, executive director at the Berkeley Center for Health, Economic & Family Security, gives the history of family-friendly reform and offers concrete recommendations. Among them: Requiring bosses to open-mindedly talk with working parents about how work is structured so that employers get good output and kids get what they need from mom and dad.

This so-called “right to request” -- the right to engage in a discussion about control of work hours without reprisals -- is now law in the UK. It allows employers to get over social and legal fears that stymie common-sense conversation. It also cuts turn-over costs and lets working parents be big contributors to their employer’s success -- so that more of us will know more stories like Valerie Jarrett’s.

By Sharon Meers

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Great Read: Kapp's Mother of All Recessions

Check out Diana Kapp's piece in San Francisco Magazine - Mother of All Recessions. Kapp poses the question: Can the financial meltdown do us all an enormous favor by forcing career women off the mommy track and back into the workforce? Read for interesting insight.

By Sharon Meers

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Give A Hoot, Dave - Don't Pollute

What’s important about last week’s David Letterman story isn’t sex -- it’s pollution.

Like many fans, I thank Letterman for making me laugh and feel his personal life is up to him. But how he - as a powerful man - behaves at work is not a private matter. Taking up with underlings is like dumping small amounts of sludge. Many people want to look the other way, like it doesn’t matter; but when the downstream impact seeps in to your own life, you have a different view.

Workplace Romeos can sometimes be funny. A law firm partner could not decide between his secretary and one of his young female associates -- so he maintained his affairs with both. “There was so much drama, I couldn’t work at that firm,” a young woman lawyer said. Plenty of office romance is the two-way, consensual, peer-to-peer kind. Sometimes it even ends in happy unions. But when senior guys find girlfriends among subordinates, they create externalities like fears of favoritism, uncomfortable colleagues and copy cats. (See Randy Cohen of the NYT for his take on this.)

OK-to-play currents at the office also mess with minds. In college, I worked for a good guy who was like my big brother -- until he decided to pin me one night with a large drunken kiss. It took me only minutes to remind him of his wife, my boyfriend, the fact that letting go of me was a really good idea. My boss apologized the next morning -- while telling me I’d made a mistake for turning him down. Decades later, when younger women tell me similar tales I remember this: That encounter left me less sure about a lot of things. Where I should work, whom I could trust, how I saw myself.

In focus groups for our book, Getting to 50/50, we heard many hopeful stories -- firms that set clear rules, male and female bosses who keep their workplace G-rated. But we’re sad to see young women, from consulting to academics to medicine to business, still coping with the toxins when polluters aren’t reined in.

An engineering student in her 20s told me how she won a spot in at a prestigious firm. But she left when a 40-something boss kept coaxing her to see his Hampton house -- while his wife was abroad. How much energy would she have to expend deflecting advances? Why was this her job? With a bad taste about big firms, this young engineer set up her own outfit where she could set the culture. Guys who confuse the office with a dating service drive out a lot of talent.

With the slow pace of change, my 5-year old daughter will still have a lot of muck to get through when she starts work. So I’ll try to give her good radar for guys with boundary problems and suggest she plant her romantic life away from the office. And I’ll be tempted to stamp her resume: “HANDS-OFF MANAGEMENT ONLY (or her mom will kick your ass)!”

And what will I say to my son? When powerful men make the office their play pen, they inspire a lot of envy. Easy access to fun sounds great. I’ve had a few guy friends fall prey to the view that workplace womanizing is a status symbol -- one they want. Like my friend Joe whose eyes would fill with glee regaling me with tales about his politico-boss and wild times with willing gals at work. Joe got elected and enjoyed the bounty, if on a more modest scale than his old boss. Until someone found out and Joe lost it all -- job, life with his family, reputation. I hope Letterman fares better.

Maybe I can just tell my kids the story of Fred, a successful man I really admire. After a lot of romantic friction in a company he owned, Fred put a new guy in charge saying: “Let’s be clear: 50 people work inside this company. Millions work outside it and many are attractive women. If you want a date - go find her out there.” A few crisp words can do lots to clean the environment.

By Sharon Meers

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Find Happiness in Strong Moments, not Balance

As an uncoordinated person, the word “balance” makes me uneasy -- I envision standing on one foot and falling over.

This week, The Huffington Post says that if we want more happiness we should stop striving for balance and seek something else instead: "Strong moments” -- those great surges of positive emotion when you hug your kid, make your spouse smile, have an epiphany, win one at work.

This is a great antidote to the unhelpful idea that more choice is making women less happy (raised most recently by Maureen Dowd). What is making women less happy is a failure to say NO to some of those choices. To say “I do not want to do that” and cross the undesirables off the schedule. See our BlogHer video for more.

We women need to grasp what men seem understand more naturally - that’s it’s really better for everyone if we are honest with ourselves. That it’s OK to say: “Of the 5 things my kids want to do, I like to do 2 -- the other 3 drive me nuts,” and then act on that realization and do the 2 you like knowing your genuine enjoyment is good for your kids. Or, “I have 6 meetings on my schedule next week. How many really make a difference? How many can I decline?”

Researching Getting to 50/50, we read fascinating research that says even today's thoroughly modern women lack the same sense of “entitlement” that men have. Women do not feel as entitled to do what we want and to say what matters (e.g. that conference/trip/fundraiser is a complete waste of time).

Carmen, a mother and doctor at a big university hospital told us how she struggled for years to find a mix of work and family that made her happy. Cutting her time at work didn’t help if it meant that Carmen’s average hour at the office was more dreary. So she negotiated with her boss and rearranged her job - to spend more time on patients who needed her skill set and less on work she felt did not matter. With more strong moments in her work day, “I’ve been so happy” Carmen told us.

Jennifer Aaker, a professor at Standford’s Graduate School of Business, is doing great work on the nature of happiness and the many ways we define it -- and can cultivate more of it. Aaker points out that how you perceive your access to free time is a big issue in whether you report feeling happy.

How to expand your free time - actual or perceived?
Believing that your spouse has your back helps a lot, sensing that if you can’t get to X or Y, you can count on your partner.

And so does what Aaker calls “filtering.” Sifting through the day and looking for “doubles, triples and home-runs” -- activities that let you simultaneously engage two or more priorities in your life: Jogging with your spouse, community work that welcomes the whole family, colleagues who do playdates.

So I’m looking for a parent-child yoga class in hopes of getting limber and engaging my daughter’s love of the tree pose -- she’s better at “balance”.

By Sharon Meers