What's Holding Women Back from Having it All

women having it all I have FINALLY gotten around to reading Why Women Can't Have It All, the July/August 2012 cover story from the Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter (Hey, the thing is six pages on the Internet. That's a lot!). It stirred tons of controversy when it first came out, and I do agree with many of the points she made. Things do need to change, and those that have been able to accomplish it have been incredibly blessed. I also think that Slaughter left out some major points also, a few other things that need changing as well. In order for women to have it all, it's not that women who need to change, or that they need to do better in navigating the rules of society. It's that the rules need to change, plain and simple, and it really comes down to changing workplace policy and perceptions about workplace policy.

Employers Shouldn't Discriminate Against Pregnancy

I remember one evening, a couple of years ago, when two young professionals were talking near the bus stop as I was waiting for the bus. One of them had just gotten a new job (at a law firm, if memory serves me correctly) and just discovered that she was pregnant. She worried that she would lose her new job because of it, and that her new employer might suspect she lied or covered it up just to get the position. What baffled me about this was the this woman didn't realize that it's illegal for her to fire here for being pregnant, that it's illegal for her employer to disqualify her from the position for being pregnant, and that it would have been illegal for her employer to ask about pregnancy or family planning during the interview.

I don't think it's unreasonable for her to be scared about her job, especially since employers still show disregard for the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act. It's also hard for women to have it all, and to go for having it all, when there is very real and legitimate fear that our own employers will prevent us from doing it. However, I do think more women need to realize that this law exists and to enforce it, like in the case of the young professional I overheard. If she did end up getting fired, then she would have had a legitimate case on her hands and could have held her lawyer accountable.

We Need Mandatory Maternity Leave in this Country

The United States is one of only four countries in the world—along with Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Papua New Guinea—where workers do not have the right to paid maternity leave. No wonder women can't have it all! Once we have children, many are forced to make a choice between career or family. Without maternity leave, these women must either spend time with the children and earn no income, or earn the income and have to balance childcare expenses, breastfeeding, sleepless nights, and everything else that comes with parenting.

It's tough to have it all when you might not be guaranteed a position if you take time off, or don't take the time off and sacrifice parental involvement. It's tough when that balancing act could jeopardize your job performance, and then you're fired or passed up for that promotion. When women have access to paid leave after the birth of a new child, they are more likely to return to work than women who do not have access to paid leave. Even if these women do eventually return to work, they don't exactly pick up right where they left off professionally. Mandatory paid maternity, and paternity, leave would make is so much easier for women to have it all because having it all wouldn't be about doing things in the right order or making the right choices. It would be about working with life, and the fact that family and children are a big part of many people's lives.

Workplace Flexibility isn't Tough to Accommodate Anymore

Not every position can be done remotely, but many more can be done remotely than 20 years ago, maybe even 10 or five years ago. The rise of virtual offices, coworking spaces, and technology make it much easier than ever for people to stay in touch with their employers and coworkers, to get work done on their terms, and to get work done where they want to get done. With workplace flexibility, those without children can work at night because they are night owls. They can work through a cold without spreading it around the office. They can work in St. Louis for an employer in Chicago or New York without any difference in productivity or workflow. They can save their companies money because their employers don't have to pay for the utilities and office space to house them, they don't have to lose valuable time to commutes, traffic, and travel, and they don't have to worry about hiring and retention because people are leaving companies for competitor that offer workplace flexibility.

Is it really so farfetched a notion to offer workplace flexibility to someone who wants to be a better parent and spend more time with their family? Women, who may be incredible talent and great employees, also get pregnant. It shouldn't be such a baffling idea to do what it takes to keep them on the team and accommodate them. Not doing so could inadvertently help your competitors, who are always on the lookout for incredible talent and great employees.

In Conclusion

Digiday put it best when it ran an article about dads in the advertising industry:

When I asked Perello if he ever worried about the impact that having kids would have on his career, he responded, “I’m guessing that question goes through the minds of moms today — I can say from my point of view that, no, that has never crossed my mind, and that’s an interesting commentary on life today that I have never thought about that.”

It's certainly interesting when it seems like men can have it all, and that men don't even consider the possibility that children could negatively impact their career. No one ever thinks that a man won't be as good at his job because he is a new father or an expecting father, but many employers (and maybe even co-workers) are quick to perceive a pregnant woman or a new mom as someone who won't be as productive or who won't be able to get things done. It's certainly tougher to have it all when those around you too easily say that you can't have it all, that kids just get in the way.