Ah, women and ambition. If I could untie this knot, I’d be on national tour with my bestselling self-help book.
Elissa, in this Sisterhood post, is right, of course, that the issues brought up by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg in her recent speeches, as vital as they ar, (and as much as I felt personally touched and invigorated by them), are missing a piece — that is, social and political will to improve women’s lives by making paid maternity leave mandatory, by passing anti-discrimination and sick leave measures that would allow women to charge ahead while also caring for kids, aging relatives, and ourselves without getting penalized. Added to this, of course, are the unspoken social rules which affect women’s psyches and the perception of our behavior — rules about when it’s acceptable to look out for oneself first, when it’s acceptable to value advancement over loyalty, when it’s acceptable to demand more of your family, your friends, your boss.
And the missing piece that I’m referring to is the same piece that’s been long absent in media coverage of women’s advancement in the workplace and the never-ending “mommy wars.”
I’m sure in their heart of hearts, women who work wish they had more time at home or could afford to take off more time, and women at home wish they could maintain at least a part-time career in a job that allowed them to pay for decent, worry-free childcare. The reason any women at all are forced to make an either-or-choice is because of the very same lack of family-friendly policies that Elissa describes — and the same goes for men, who in a fairer world would receive paternity leave.
And that leads us to our culture at large, our emphasis on “productivity” and work ethic above all. Does it follow that to be ambitious, we must throw all personal time, all peace of mind to the wind? In many of our current workplaces, it may.
In a must-read article about “the great speedup,” Mother Jones writers Monika Bauerlain and Clara Jeffrey investigate why Americans are so jazzed up, jumpy, overstressed and overworked. They write:
SOUND FAMILIAR: Mind racing at 4 a.m.? Guiltily realizing you’ve been only half-listening to your child for the past hour? Checking work email at a stoplight, at the dinner table, in bed? Dreading once-pleasant diversions, like dinner with friends, as just one more thing on your to-do list? Guess what: It’s not you. These might seem like personal problems—and certainly, the pharmaceutical industry is happy to perpetuate that notion—but they’re really economic problems. Just counting work that’s on the books (never mind those 11 p.m. emails), Americans now put in an average of 122 more hours per year than Brits, and 378 hours (nearly 10 weeks!) more than Germans. The differential isn’t solely accounted for by longer hours, of course—worldwide, almost everyone except us has, at least on paper, a right to weekends off, paid vacation time, and paid maternity leave.
The article continues on to discuss the economic, business and social changes that have led us here, to paraphrase one of the people in the story, to a place where we only think our work is valuable if we’re on the cusp of losing our grip because of it.
Do we really want to simply buy into this system as women, or should some of our energy be spent trying to humanize the working landscape, to bring it towards an ideal that is better for all of us? I’m with Elissa in saying that this process absolutely must be a two-way street.