Thursday, December 10, 2009

Santa Claus is Not a Woman

“What about the holidays?” a women in her 20s asked me, “You see all these capable women running around stores, decorating homes, cooking big meals -- how much does the girl/boy labor gap widen in December?”

A lot it seems.

While the average hours men spend with children are up big in our generation, holiday planning does not seem to have attracted a similar surge of male interest. So this time of year offers an interesting lens on why it’s often hard for men and women to co-pilot family life together -- and why it can be so liberating.

I speak as someone who has all but given up holiday planning for our family of four -- every year I hope I’ll figure it out but that hasn’t happened yet. I have spent many Decembers making lists, going store to store buying carefully considered presents, writing cards explaining why I though each particular family member might enjoy the thing I specifically selected for them -- and spending a large fraction of December 24 wrestling with wrapping paper and scotch tape.

And while my husband Steve once participated in my holiday obsession, he’s now become a conscientious objector. Which has led me to this question: If Santa Claus is not a women -- and indeed I am a woman -- why do I feel the need to be Santa Claus when my husband is not attracted to this decidedly male role?

To help myself worry less about delivering the perfect Christmas (and to do my share closing the holiday gender gap), here’s what I’m telling myself:

1. Be a Man About It. When I met Steve, he had a large stack of silver frames in his closet -- the standard-issue wedding present for all his friends who were getting married. At first I thought this was impersonal: the same frame for everyone. But they were perfectly nice frames and I’d have been happy to get one. Steve has now taken his streamlined approach to the holidays - there’s a list of people who get a box of chocolates, some who get mall gift cards and yet others who get credits on Amazon.

While I haven’t fully stopped fussing over our gift list, a very large subset of family members are now getting copies of my favorite books (last year’s: Mindset, The Jungle Effect) or some Kinko’s-enabled promotion of my children’s artwork (coffee mugs, calendars). And a few years ago, Steve suggested a novel idea: “How about if Christmas is just about the kids? Can we skip getting presents for each other and save that for anniversaries and birthdays?” After tamping down, my “but it’s the holidays!” response, I decided this was another really good idea.

2. My Mother, My Icon (not Myself). I remember the holidays as this wonderful time when my mother would become a magician. Out of nothing, my mom would transform our plain old house into a glittering wonderland of creches and wise men and holly and tinsel. And we’d get a 30 day reprieve from health food and make huge pots of fudge and toffee and caramel -- supposedly for other people. And then dive into what seemed a mountain of thoughtfully-selected presents that my mother wrapped with double-sided tape -- and the multiple multi-course home-cooked meals on Christmas day.

As a working mom, I quickly realized that the only way our family would have an equivalent Christmas was to fly across the country to my mom’s house. And when that became logistically tough, I’ve simply had to say that I can appreciate the beauty of my mother’s holiday masterpieces without feeling guilt that I am wholly unable to produce them myself.

3. Smile - He Did It Without You. Last year, Steve came home with a bag of Christmas gifts -- instead of guessing what our daughter would like, he took our 4-year-old to comb the aisles Target and acquired an arm-full of plastic Barbie items (Barbie Cash Register, Barbie Princess Shoes, Barbie tiaras. etc.). It required all of my self-control not to say that indulging a 4-year-old’s impulse buying was different from getting her presents that were “good for her” -- though our daughter seemed delighted to have end-run more educational toys from mom.

Since we were traveling for Christmas, I decided we should do something special at our house before we left -- so I left my husband and son at home while I headed out to get all the fancy items I needed (but had forgotten to purchase) to turn the turkey in our fridge into the perfect holiday dinner. When I returned with my bags of groceries three hours later, my nose sensed a lovely smell, aroma of roast bird wafting across the kitchen. It was only 5PM but my husband didn’t want to eat late so he and our son had dressed our dinner with the help of instructions on the plastic bag around the turkey -- and without my newly-purchased fixings. Again, not done my way -- but DONE. We ate promptly at 6.

By Sharon Meers

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Father Absence Crisis and Why Men Matter

It’s almost unanimous: 93% of moms say there’s a “father absence” crisis according to a great new report by The National Fatherhood Initiative released yesterday.

Interestingly, very few of us moms (15%) think we have much to do with the problem. Aren’t we the ones providing our husbands all those lists and useful suggestions?

As we’ve learned from our book talks and psychology experts, that motherly impulse to “help” men parent has gotta change.

Clearly there are many layers to father absence - some that moms can’t influence at all. But I’m often amazed how easy it is to overlook the power we women have to let go.

My first inkling of this came a few months after I became a mother -- and interrupted my husband Steve who was diapering our son. I wanted to share the finer points of managing diaper rash (which I’d so carefully researched and discussed with the mommy brain trust). And I began inumerating the steps Steve should take to ensure our son’s behind was well-cared for.

I had only gotten several sentences into it when, Steve -- an ex-high-school football player -- turned on me and looked like he might tackle. Glowering, he said. “If you are going to tell me how to do this job, you can change the diaper yourself -- and all the other ones for the next three years.”

“OK then!” I smiled and quickly retreated to another room. My husband’s point: He loved our son as much as I did and had an equal ability to get information -- what he needed from me was not pointers but space to try being a parent in his own way.

A lot of guys express the same thing more softly -- which sometime means they’re not heard. Many dads tell us how surprised their wives are that they can -- thank you -- manage the kids on their own.

Psychology research says that when mom’s get out of the way - when we are really willing to let dads act as equals -- dads get to school pretty much as often as moms do and get far higher marks from their wives as highly involved parents.

There’s also a workplace angle to this. As fatherhood advocate Jim Levine said in the New York Times, “Working parents assume that employers won’t allow men the same leeway as women. But they rarely ask. Men don’t ask their bosses; women don’t ask their husbands.” So as long as women assume that men *can’t* be equal parents, we create a cycle where men rarely stand up for family at work. And so-called family-friendliness remains treated as a “soft” women’s issue instead of what it really is: a core management challenge that touches 80% of employees sometime in their lives.

The new report raises good questions about how to fix this problem and empower men to understand their unique value to children -- that is well documented in the research. One idea: Let’s help men educate themselves -- and support guys when they come up with innovative ways to do this.

A Stanford student recently made the case for a “male community center” -- so that his peer group would have a place to talk about how men define themselves in the fast-shifting landscape.

If giving men free-reign to parent sounds like a bad idea to moms, we women-folk might consider getting more broad-minded. To that end, I’ll share my kid's new favorite YouTube -- about a guy caring for his infant with his electric guitar (and hopefully ear-plugs for the baby).

By Sharon Meers

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Turkey Day Vow: Interrupt the Interruptions

I had just interviewed a fascinating consultant, Dr. Jeannie Kahwajy, who runs Effective Interactions helping management teams communicate more productively. She points out how much more effective we all are at work if we invite the contribution of everyone in the room -- even those who have a hard time being heard. She talks about how a guy in her MBA class kept getting run over by louder men in her section. So one day, after the guy got interrupted again, Jeannie smiled at him and said “I would really like to hear what you have to say--will you please continue?"

Jeannie says that what’s often seen as a woman’s failure to speak up is really a failure to keep talking -- when cut off by someone else in the room. And that everyone benefits when we intercept those interruptions.

“If I let a man interrupt another woman, I reinforce the view that ‘women are supposed to be interrupted,’ ” says Kahwajy. “All it takes is one supporter to stop an interruption. And it’s easier for me to support you than myself—with a positive tone and an open and receptive mind. Every time I do that, I protect my own values.”

So there I was sitting at the dinner table with my family, enjoying the holiday and listening to my mother tell us about a book she’d just read. She was giving us lot of details -- a custom among my kin, men and women alike though I may be the worst offender.

“So what I think is really important,” broke in one of my male relatives (no name, he’s really a nice guy). “Hmm,” I thought while picking up my spoon and wrapping it against a wine glass. “Hey, I would like to hear mom out -- will you hang in there?” I told him. He looked a bit surprised but settled back in his chair. My mom looked even more surprised -- and then happily resumed her story.

I was thrilled - Jeannie was right -- it’s not so hard to protect your values. On a roll, a few months later, some friends invited us for dinner and it seemed to me that every time the wife started to hold forth on something, her husband became impatient and re-directed the conversation. She seemed to accept this and would then remain quiet for a while.

“Wow, it’s like my mom!” I thought. So when it happened again, at the risk of offending Miss Manners (and our host), I clinked my glass, smiled sweetly at him, and said, “you know I’m really interested in what Ann has to say.” Ann’s husband shrugged (he’s also a nice guy). And my husband, to his credit, laughed. Steve always knows what I’m up to and generally has a fine sense of humor about my crusades ... though slightly less when I observe that he’s the one who is interrupting me.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. If you feel inspired to try out Jeannie’s advice, please let us know on our blog how this “tradition” worked for you.

By Sharon Meers

Friday, November 20, 2009

Men and women at work: Can We Talk? (Fortune)

Check out my guest posting in Fortune this week.
Blue shirt photo low resolution

Photo courtesy of Vince Tarry

Do men resent powerful women?

One of the most intriguing statistics in “A Woman’s Nation,” the recently released survey by Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress, is this: 69% of women think men resent women who have more power than they do. Only 49% of men agree.

Who knows who’s right. What we know for sure is that men and women can’t agree about power–and aren’t very comfortable talking candidly about it.

To research Getting to 50/50, the book I wrote with Joanna Strober, we found that fear of candid talk is the biggest logjam blocking the progress of women in the workplace. For one thing, men shy away from giving women honest feedback. One male CEO of a tech start-up told us: “Every senior male executive I know has been threatened with discrimination charges regardless of the goodness of their track record.” He added, “I’ve seen it make cynics out of a lot of men who started out very differently.”

All of us–men and women alike–contribute to this problem. In our politically correct workplaces, discussing male/female differences has become so taboo that the topic is broached only in heated moments, when colleagues let loose their true opinions about gender and power.

It’s a messy management issue. HR lawyers say that employers ask how to avoid suits when their priority should be retaining and promoting women, with the help of honest dialogue about everything from performance issues to maternity leaves.

But too often, men cower at giving feedback to female subordinates. That CEO of the tech start-up confessed that when he was at a big media company, his peers advised him to leave his office door open during reviews of female employees–and best to stay within earshot of his assistant so he’d have a witness if the employee made a complaint. “How much candor can you offer with your door open?” he asked me rhetorically, with understandable exasperation.

Moreover, lots of line managers keep women out of their networks (and even avoid going out to lunch with them) because it just doesn’t feel comfortable. Many managers steer clear of difficult conversations. Don’t be too hard on the guys: They’ve never been told how to engage the right way.

Rod Kramer, a professor and management expert at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, believes that men’s discomfort relates to a common insecurity: “Men often seem to think (heroically) that they should be masters at the conversation–that they should know the ‘right’ things to say.” His advice to men and women: “Be more curious about each other and their experiences. Just ask good leading questions–and invite questions in return.”

Meanwhile, women’s tendency to be super-serious (as men perceive them, at least) compounds the workplace dysfunction. “Women can make anything a chore,” a former Microsoft (MSFT) executive told me. “They’re too serious and don’t seem to understand that work is a game.”

What should women do? One of our interviewees, Larry, a partner in a national architecture firm, told us about a woman who blew up over her male colleagues’ risqué pin-ups and jocular behavior; she complained to HR and quit. Larry wishes that she had confronted the guys who offended her: “Tell guys to their face,” he says, advising women in general. “Say, ‘Hey, what’s that?’ And be funny about it. You have to do it in a way so that guys don’t feel threatened, but you are making your point.”

In the stories we heard, “right” and “wrong” were rarely obvious. But the need for a male/female lingua franca was clear.

Some wise employers are getting a jump on inventing this new language.

Deloitte, for one, has moved aggressively to bring male and female executives together to discuss questions like “Would you want your daughter to work for a company that has lower expectations for women?” Open dialogue and better insight into what women need to be successful has helped Deloitte command a lead among professional services firms in utilizing female talent.

The University of Michigan has also made strides. With backing from the National Science Foundation, the University enlisted male professors to comb research on implicit gender attitudes. For example, most people will select a resume with a male name over one with a female name, even when the resumes are identical. Professors turned their survey into a workshop and shared their insights with the University’s hiring committees. Female science hires have since risen dramatically.

It may be a long while ’til we reach 50/50. But understanding the issues and learning to understand each other is a good start.

Sharon Meers is the co-author of Getting to 50/50 and a former Managing Director at Goldman Sachs (GS).

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Free Speech: Trade Venus/Mars for Common Ground

I bike downhill with my brakes on. Early in my career, my firm hosted a day at a formula car racing school. Starting #2 in the line up, I was soon so far behind I found myself alone -- until, in my rearview mirror, I saw all the other cars coming up behind to lap me (turns out I was supposed to accelerate beyond 80 mph).

While embarrassed for myself, I was thrilled that the only other woman at the race track (a fifty-something working-mom lawyer) made a fine show of female machismo -- she was one of the first to pass me. I fit the stereotype of the cautious female but I have plenty of women friends who jump out of planes and hang from cliffs. I’ve attributed my own whimpiness to environment (growing up in an uncoordinated body with protective parents). So I’ve never bought in to the idea that my physical risk-aversion is a function of my sex.

But this week, I was reminded how it often looks like women are too cautious in areas that are far more important. And that we need to push ourselves to look for environmental factors that can free women to take the risks they need to.

Speaking up in class gets you better grades - but there’s still a view that women don’t say as much as their male peers, even in competitive business schools. “How can this still be?” we asked a group of female students. They offered a thought-provoking reply: The real problem is male B.S. - guys who are happy to take up air time without much basis for their point of view.

I was talking to a political consultant who told me a variant of the same thing. That editorial editors around the country complain that if they ask a female expert to write about breaking news, they often get this response: “Well, I’m not sure how much I know about that, I’ll need a week to get the facts together.” Call a man with the same expertise and you get an op-ed on your desk in the AM.

Journalist Katie Orenstein discovered that women send in only10% of the opinion pieces submitted to newspapers. She founded the Op-Ed Project -- to help more women feel entitled to speak out and engage in the public debate. A big part of her magic is helping women see that we are expert enough (by male standards) to say a lot more than we are saying. Her training sessions around the country attract female academics and executives alike and have generated hundreds more female op-eds.

How much precision is good? We have a problem because social norm encourage men and women to do different things. In rough terms, we ask men to “be a man about it” and step into the fray. We raise women to be “good girls” and have all the details pinned down. I once worked with a guy who was happy to walk into meetings unable to account for hundreds of millions of dollars -- since we were talking about billions, he’d say his numbers were “directionally correct” and was quite comfortable with that. I’ve also worked with clever women who dutifully read out every statistic to the 2nd decimal place. As we discussed in Getting to 5050, we have problem communicating a single boy/girl standard of what’s OK.

At a recent dinner, a self-impressed man (we’ll call him Hank) was holding forth, peppering his assertions with numbers. A few people questioned Hank’s argument and were brushed aside with more “facts”. Smelling a rat, another man asked, “Hank, did you know that 73.64% of statistics are made up?”

If we can stop over-focusing on gender difference, if we can drop the boy-versus-girl superiority contests, we’ll better see what really matters: That we can change environmental factors that cause both sexes to underperform. By getting on the same page, men and women can do a lot to help talented voices to speak up -- and blowhards to pipe down.

By Sharon Meers

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Free Yourself from 24/7 - Harvard Business Review Shows the Way

My husband escaped the cult of 24/7 early -- the night he saw his boss tip-toe out of the office (afraid he’d be seen as a slacker for leaving early on his kid’s birthday.)

Good process, investing each minute well. Those things create more value than dutifully staying late, my husband explained years later. He had little patience for my more standard view -- that working long hours and being on-call were just part of having a good job.

The latest Harvard Business Review says I was wrong and my husband is right -- that normal “always on” work culture produces inferior results.

Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow ran experiments at Boston Consulting Group over four years showing this: Teams that got predictable time off produced more value for clients compared to standard teams who were “always on.”

BCG - the management consulting giant - ran these time-use tests on real-time assignments to see if there was a way to maintain excellence while giving employees predictable and required time off every week. In one experiment, a BCG team mandated that each consultant (on an important project with a new client) work only 4 days a week -- each teammate sat out one standard workday while the project proceeded smoothly without him/her. In others, consultants were required to unplug and abstain from work (no email, no cell phone) after 6pm one evening per week.

Clients were happy with results and scores of employee development, communication, job satisfaction -- and, oh, work/life balance - all jumped in a statistically significant way.

How could this be?

It turns out that if you know you’re required to switch off at 6 on Tuesday, you’ll think much harder about a lot of things. Like how to do what’s essential before that time, how to triage things that are less important, how to communicate to your colleagues what they need to know so you can hand off when you switch off.

Teamwork -- sharing and passing information -- also improves by necessity. Forced to communicate about what they were doing and how they were doing it, the consultants found process improvements, anticipated problems, and produced better results for clients.

The article, “Making Time Off Predictable--and Required”, is $6.50 on the HBR website and is sure to create lively conversation at the office. And for more on what we can each do in our own lives, check out our BusinessWeek piece "How to Excel at Your Job and Be Home for Dinner".

By Sharon Meers

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

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sex, Love and Labor Statistics

On NPR this week, I was asked if there’s any good in the new statistics showing that women now outnumber men in the work force. Maybe. If it lets us embrace women as breadwinners, I said, that would be healthy. Even healthier: If men do their part at home and free women to keep the kinds of jobs that pay well. Listen

But, like many things, this all comes down to love and sex. Some people get uneasy when women make more money and men do more childcare. Why is that? I’m guessing it’s the same reason that, until we wrote our book, I’d never heard these two facts:

1) Growing your earnings power helps you get -- and stay -- married if you are a woman.

2) When husbands do more at home, couples have more sex.

(For details on point #2, see

Let’s shake off our male-female identity angst so we weather the downturn more happily and set up for a better future.

Two career bets are safer than one. Dual-career men and women can each be more agile, less vulnerable members of the labor force. A wife who can keep the family afloat gives a downsized husband better options – to find the right next job, change careers, start his own business.

And when a man values his wife's career, he’s more willing to step up and do his part at ho, me. When a mom values her husband as an equally qualified parent, she’s more likely to step aside and let him do things his own way (and dad’s more apt to enjoy parenting).

We need to move from women having more jobs to women having better jobs – because female earnings matter to families not just in a recession but in the recovery too.

We’re fooling ourselves if we think we have free labor markets when “girl-jobs” (less pay, some time for kids) and “boy jobs” (more pay, no time for kids) persist. We’ll all enjoy more prosperity when the best person for the job can both win the post and keep it -- whether man or woman, dad or mom.

By Sharon Meers

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Can Open Minds Be Contagious?

This weekend’s New York Times Magazine echoed a theme of a great new book: Is happiness - or it’s opposite - catching?

In the Times, researchers say that the company we keep matters a lot -- it drives our health habits and our moods. And in Hell is Other Parents, Deborah Copaken Kogan shares engaging and often hilarious tales that show the same is true of parenting.

From labor and delivery in urban hospitals to the micro-politics of playgrounds, Kogan explores the transmission of parental anxiety. The sugar-phobic mom covering her kid’s ears lest existence of cookies be revealed. The dad who is so eager to make a point he’s happy to insult your child’s hero to do it. Parents who see every test of grade school as a verdict on their own worth.

As a mother of young kids, reining in my own child-rearing neuroses is a 24/7 job -- at which I frequently fail. But Hell is Other Parents reminds me to keep trying. The best thing we can do for our kids is to build a positive culture around them. The Times talks about playing up-beat music on the way home for family dinner -- to get our own contagious moods in the right place. Quarantining our parental angst can help a lot too. Letting go of our personal dogmas makes room for a healthier habit: Opening our minds.

At our Getting to 50/50 book talks, we get two reactions about men and women re-negotiating the work/life split. When we say men can be equally good parents (and that women’s jobs are equally important), we hear either “that’s obvious” or “no way.” We think it’s neither - not a snap nor impossible. In our own lives, it takes daily re-examination of how we do things. But that’s the fun of it.

“”I will not be domesticated,’ my husband actually said that to me early in our marriage” a mother of young kids told me today. But with an open mind, this working mom evolved her approach (less particular, more encouraging), saw her spouse would willingly do domestic stuff if free to use his own style - and bit by bit her welcoming approach paid off in a husband who supports her career and happily does his part with their children.

Maybe we parents will have less hell and more haven this way: Drop our judgments and certainties (with our spouse/siblings/friends) and make broadmindedness among parents a viral virtue.

By Sharon Meers

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Obama-like Hope

"Bring back the hope." A fellow working mom gave us that charge as we embarked on writing our book Getting to 50/50 a few years ago.

So we were duly flattered when The Huffington Post recently called Getting to 50/50 "Obama-like" saying that we'd taken a "clear-eyed" look at the research and laid out a game plan that was "refreshingly upbeat" for working parents who want to change both their own lives and the places they work.

But no one can succeed in bringing more hope to working parents until we re-think the very way we talk about this topic. Let's start with what we put in headlines.

This week, David Leonhardt of The New York Times wrote a great piece about both the promise of change and the cost when we don't make change happen fast enough.

Citing new research by Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, the piece points out that when women set the standards in a profession, innovation occurs in how people work. Goldin points out how much obstetrics -- a 24/7 job if there ever was one -- has evolved as women have become a large part of the leadership in that field. Group practices are now the norm and the sharing of work allows OBs to address two kinds of needs: both those of their patients and those of their own families.

But this useful news -- that changing your workplace is possible -- is in the last half of the article. It is buried behind a lot of discouraging data on how much your income will suffer if you don't change the way you work and feel compelled to quit your job for a while. And the headline? Financial Careers Come at a Cost to Family, implying that people who want families should avoid finance and other un-reformed fields - rather than sticking with them, leading change and altering the way demanding work gets done.

In Chapters 4-6 of our book, Getting to 50/50, we profile many forward-thinking parents and employers who've re-engineered work to produce both top-quality results and time for family. On our book tour, we've talked to over 2,000 men and women at companies and campuses across the country. We see lots of evidence that jobs can be made family-friendly enough so that men can be full parents and women can have full careers. Let's focus our eyes -- and our headlines -- on that.

By Sharon Meers

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Work and home angst in a difficult economy

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a pretty staunch advocate of my working. When the kids were little many of my friends would feel guilty for missing out on circle time at nursery school or not going to gymnastics class with the kids. I (almost) always felt like going to work was the right thing for me and my family, and as long as I did not miss out of the BIG IMPORTANT kid things, then it was ok that I work. I do sometimes feel badly that I don't often see my friends and my husband and I rarely have quality time together, but I have not felt like the kids, or I, was missing out. This was in part because my job generally gives me enough flexibilty that I don't have to miss the BIG IMPORTANT things.

But now work is getting harder. And more stressful. And the stakes seem higher when everyone in our community is losing their jobs. Last week I had a real working mom conflict moment. My daughter won a big award at school and the ceremony was at 9am. Both my husband and I planned to be there. But at 8am I got a call that I had to be at work for a 9am meeting. Now, in a better economy, perhaps I would have said that I was unavailable. But in this environment, telling them I was going to miss a pretty important meeting did not seem like a good idea. First, I cried in private. Then, I very sadly told my daughter that I could not attend the ceremony. I explained that I really needed to go to work, that I want to keep my job, that the family is dependent on my job, and that I was very proud of her and that her dad would share the pictures of the ceremony with me.

I expected some tears. In the past when I have missed certain events, she definitely let me know that she was angry and that it was unfair that I wasn't available. Sometimes she would tell me that she wished I didn't work or that it was unfair that all the other moms were at school but me. But, amazingly, this time she understood. And while I felt badly for not being there, I was extremely proud of her for giving me a hug and telling me that it was ok, dad would be there, and she knew I had to go to work. And I again felt good about working, and having her understand that hard choices have to be made, and that those choices did not mean that I loved her any less, or was any less proud of her. We had two things to celebrate at dinner: her school award, and her growing emotional maturity. To me they were equally important.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Our Louse-y Holiday

Last week, my husband and I passed our first test in nit-picking. Not the metaphorical kind, the real McCoy. What you do so your kids can get an "all clear" from the school nurse and go back to class.

On December 25, while many parents were pulling presents from under the tree, my husband and I were pulling lice from our 4-year-old's hair. With no nuke-the-critters shampoo on hand, we were left to douse our daughter in conditioner and go follicle-to-follicle, hunting down each louse.

Our biggest challenge: convincing a pre-schooler to sit for hours so we could comb through every inch of her scalp. "So what mommy? I like bugs." A Cinderella DVD was the required bribe for stillness, high-pitched mouse songs oddly appropriate to the task at hand.

Hunched over ringlets, with crooks in our necks and tired eyes, my husband and I found ourselves smiling. "How primal is this!" Like cave-dwellers before us, we scouted out 40 little grey beasts (though we flushed our lice down the toilet, didn't eat them : -)). My ability to see the humor dimmed slightly on learning that my daughter's lice had colonized my head too.

I recall a day 30+ years ago when my little brother came home with lice. A mood of shame descended on our home as my fastidious mother faced down the army of icky little fellows and we all felt there had been some failure in cleanliness. There didn't seem anything fun about it.

While I can't say I'm hoping for more lice, it hasn't been all bad. After weeks of checks, rechecks and yanking suspicious items from each other's scalps, my husband, son, daughter and I have a new perspective on each other. And I having my husband patiently comb through my hair felt strangely calming - a kind of bonding we just don't do in modern life.

Maybe it helps to know that lice are not a report card ("They prefer clean, dry hair," a louse expert told me, "can't attach well to oily hair. Not much you can do except tell your kid not to share clothes or hug their friends - good luck until she's 12!") In this time of unexpected challenges, I'm going to thank our louse-y friends for reminding me that adversity is more fun when you face it as a group sport.


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Thoughts on Michelle Obama and 50/50

In Getting to 50/50, we talk a lot about the benefits to men of their wives working and earning money so that men can take risks and pursue their dreams. It seems to me that the Obamas are actually the best poster children for our 50/50 dream. They have both pursued careers, but often it was Michelle Obama making the bulk of the income for their family, while Barack was a community organizer, professor and public servant. Would he have felt more pressure to make money to support their family rather than follow these passions without a wife who participated in the breadwinning? I actually imagine that a key to his success was that she took care of the basics so that he didn't have to and could concentrate where his talents were best public service.

I actually know quite a few folks who would make fabulous public servants if they didn't have to maintain private industry jobs to support their families. Many lawyer friends would love to run for public office, work for the U.S. Attorney or join the Obama administration, but they have mortgages to pay that makes these changes very difficult. It would be great if working for the government paid more so this would be less of an issue. However, in the meantime, we can think about Michelle as the earliest investor in the Obama presidency. Clearly marrying Michelle was Barack's smartest career decision to date.