Half-Truths Women Hold Dear
Three of the most common half-truths about women are:
- “You can have it all if you are just committed enough to your career.”
- “You can have it all if you marry the right person.”
- “You can have it all if you sequence it right.”
These are not lies. They are true in part, but they are not the whole truth. They offer the comforting illusion that having a career and a family depends on choices you make. In fact, though your choices are certainly important, life has a funny way of intervening. Look back ten years. Has your life gone exactly according to plan over the past decade? You also have a funny way of changing
These mantras are not enough. It is important to encourage younger women, but it’s equally important to acknowledge the reality that many women have lived. To be honest about all the couples who assumed when they started out that both partners would have equal opportunities both to parent and to pursue their professional aspirations but then discovered that two full-time careers and two or more children, often together with responsibilities for older relatives, simply did not work.
NOW LET’S LOOK AT SOME WHOLE TRUTHS.
You can have it all if you are committed enough to your career . . . and you are lucky enough never to hit a point where your carefully constructed balance between work and family topples over.
You can have it all if you marry the right person . . . who is willing to defer his or her career to yours; you stay married; and your own preferences regarding how much time you are willing to spend at work remain unchanged after you have children or find yourself caring for aging parents.
You can have it all as long as you sequence it right . . . as long as you succeed in having children when you planned to; you have an employer who both permits you to work part-time or on a flexible work schedule and still sees you as leadership material; or you take time out and then find a good job on a leadership track once you decide to get back in, regardless of your age.
On a personal level, the trick is to balance encouragement with expectation. To be clear—to ourselves, our families, and our employers—that putting yourself forward is important at the right moment, but so is pushing back against rules, structures, attitudes, and assumptions that still support a straight-on career path and stigmatize any worker who deviates from it, deferring promotions and bigger jobs to be able to spend time with loved ones. To see the whole picture, not just the shining role models at the top, but the employees, every bit as talented and motivated, who were pushed or shut out of leadership opportunities as their lives took unexpected detours.
Telling whole truths and seeing the whole picture is the right place to start. But we can’t do this alone. The men have their own mantras, serving up their own preferred version of the truth or simply the truths they grew up with. They too need to ask some hard questions.
Half-Truths About Men
MEN CAN’T HAVE IT ALL EITHER
In the last few years, many people have criticized the entire idea of “having it all.” Some criticism came from feminists who argued that Madison Avenue had created the construct of women having it all as a way of selling stressed-out working mothers a bill of goods—literally. Rebecca Traister at Salon proposed that we do away entirely with the phrase “having it all,” pointing out that it is a frame that inevitably makes women seem selfish and piggish, no matter how much we try to explain that all we are asking for is a career and a family too, just like men have. It is also a phrase that strikes an ugly, unfeeling note at a time when millions of people are struggling to have enough to make ends meet.
To complicate matters further, many men are quick to claim that they don’t have it all either. The most common point made is that while women who have careers and families can’t pursue their careers as fully as they would like, men who have careers and families can’t spend as much time with their families as they would like. That is a trade-off that many men feel they have no choice but to accept.
Competition and Care
The easiest way to measure the value we place on care is to see how little we are willing to pay for it. Caregivers are among the lowest-paid American workers. Moreover, “low-income African American and immigrant women are heavily overrepresented in the most poorly paid care jobs.” That’s the trifecta of low value: woman, color, and care.
A remarkable young Chinese American woman named Ai-jen Poo has fought an important and courageous campaign to improve the incomes and living conditions of paid careworkers. She has been organizing immigrant women workers for almost two decades; her work led to the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in New York, which gives nannies and housekeepers the right to overtime pay, a day of rest for every seven days worked, three paid days off each year, and explicit protection under New York State human rights laws. Writing about that campaign in her book The Age of Dignity, she describes a “winning coalition that crossed lines of race, class, gender, and age”: union members, farmworkers, “racial justice groups, immigrant groups, women’s organizations, faith-based groups, students, celebrities.” She also links the importance of the work these women do to the “elder boom” in America, which is already upon us as the baby boomers age, pointing out that in care work, the boss cannot be the enemy. The employers of home-care workers are often the very people they care for, or those people’s parents or children.
The point here is that the economic, social, and human dimensions of care intersect so many lives in ways that cannot be captured by traditional economic, social, and political divides. Atul Gawande, a surgeon and a writer who describes his experiences with elder patients and his own father in his book Being Mortal, reminds us that even if we are not giving care ourselves now, we cannot avoid needing it later. “Your chances of avoiding the nursing home,” he writes, “are directly related to the number of children you have, and, according to what little research has been done, having at least one daughter seems to be crucial to the amount of help you will receive.” All of us, then, have a stake in ensuring that when we get to that stage of life, our children or other younger relatives have the ability to help care for us. Valuing care now is in our own self-interest.
The Next Phase of the Women’s Movement Is a Men’s Movement
So far, so good. nothing particularly jaw-dropping about the idea that fathers who are equal caregivers with mothers should have the same options as those mothers and should merit an equal presumption of competence. But dads are only the beginning. Men—all men—need and deserve the same revolution in their lives and circumstances that the majority of women in the United States and many other parts of the world have experienced since the late 1950s.
Here again, it is not hard to find signs of change. Writer and co-founder of the Fatherhood Institute Jack O’Sullivan wrote in 2013 that though the debate about men is oftentimes “overwhelmingly negative,” men are actually on the brink of an “extraordinary transformation.” Like women, men “are belatedly escaping what we now recognise to be the confines of our gender. Many of us are enjoying a massively increased engagement with children. . . . We are changing our relationships with women and with each other.” Organizations like the Good Men Project, a media company and social platform that describes itself as “a glimpse of what enlightened masculinity might look like in the 21st century,” are encouraging a new conversation.
The most poetic description of the changing definition of manhood I have seen comes from a Dartmouth alumna, Betsy Bury ’87, who canvassed her classmates and wrote up her impressions for their twenty-fifth reunion book. Dartmouth men, she wrote, are “starting to feel this pull of multiple directions; quietly they have started being promised more too. Came a little later for them maybe, but it is no longer just whispers that they do not need to feel consigned exclusively to grey flannel suits, the emotional range of John Wayne or parenthood dominated by only a few tossed balls or late arrivals at school plays.”
Let It Go
English professor Abigail Rine wrote a wonderful post on her blog, Mama Unabridged, in which she described her bearded, tattooed husband as “a cloth-diapering wizard, an amazing cook, a master gardener” and explained that he has established a “seamless rhythm” with their son “that is simply beautiful to witness.” Rine realized that if her son wore mismatched socks or pajamas all day, that didn’t mean her husband wasn’t doing a bang-up job of childcare. She points out that the real revolution for this century “would be to stop seeing the home as a gendered space” but rather as both a male and female domain, just as we now see the workplace.
Close your eyes and just imagine letting it all go—the expectations you imagine others have of you and that you have of yourself, your mate, and your house. Imagine that if your children call for your husband or partner or any other loving adult in their lives, then you have the security of knowing that many different people can be there for them. Imagine that your mate takes charge of an equal set of domestic responsibilities and tells you what to do to help out and fill in.
If we can let go of the mountain of assumptions, biases, expectations, double standards, and doubts that so many of us carry around, then a new world of possibilities awaits. We may lose our status as superwomen, but we have everything to gain.
The Perfect Workplace
Believing that care is just as valuable and formative an experience as competition means making paternity leave mandatory, or at least the default option, so that new fathers would have to opt out of taking it rather than opting in. It also means welcoming whatever arrangements allow workers who are also caregivers not only to stay on the job, but also to stay on a leadership track, even though their rise will likely be slower and more irregular than workers who are not caregivers.
Even more important, managers must recognize the enormous talent pool of women in their late forties and fifties who have taken time out for caregiving. The McKinsey Global Institute predicts that by 2020 the world will face a “skills gap” of nearly 40 million people, meaning that employers will need that many workers with a college degree or higher than the global labor force can supply. In their words, “Businesses operating in this skills-scarce world must know how to find talent pools with the skills they need and to build strategies for hiring, retaining, and training the workers who will give them competitive advantage.” Part of the answer is right in front of them. All those women currently missing from the ranks of top management—the ones who keep disappearing between entry level and the C-suite—are actually still there. You just have to have eyes to see them and the foresight and wisdom to give them a real chance and hire them again.
So take some risks and invest in caregivers. Even more broadly, invest in care itself: in the many ways that our caring sides and our competitive sides can come together brilliantly and productively. Take your cue from Bill Gates, who amassed one of the world’s biggest fortunes before being influenced by his wife, Melinda, to give most of it away. He gave at the World Economic Forum in 2008, where he identified self-interest and caring for others as the twin forces of human nature. He sees those same forces as the drivers of what he calls “creative capitalism,” the harnessing of market forces to lift billions of people out of poverty. Figure out how to mesh competition and care in your own business, and create the perfect workplace of your own.