STRADDLING THE FENCE


I realized this morning that it has been weeks and weeks since I last wrote a blog post.  Blogging has become such a way of life for me but, apparently, my life has been getting in the way of my way of life.  My life has not slowed down and there certainly has been plenty to write about – I still suffer through my daily struggles of trying to continue my healthy journey, I have the normal ups and downs in my relationships and I glean new insights from my work – every.single.day.  Yet, with all that is happening, I have not been able to find the time to slow myself down to catch my breath and check in, even if just for myself.

Several weeks ago I had some travel away from home and was gone for 10 days.  It was officially the longest I had ever been away from my husband and kids in one stretch and I knew it would take its toll.  I was pretty excited about my travel, though, because it started with a quick weekend away with an old friend and was immediately followed up with an intense week of work with my business partners in the midwest.  I knew these days were going to be transformational for me in many ways so I had great anticipation for what my journeys might bring.

My girls’ weekend ended up taking the shape of a bit of a midlife crisis weekend (or, at least, that is what I dubbed it).  I got my first tattoo and my first massage (and shame on me for waiting until midlife for the massage!).  The tattoo was meaningful in that it symbolized a change in myself that I was extremely proud of and marked a new phase of my life.  The massage, aside from being extremely relaxing and therapeutic, also marked some symbolism in my life because it represented a sense of indulgence and release that I had not before permitted myself to experience.  Instead of buying myself a convertible or running off to Jamaica with a younger man, I decided to indulge in myself and nurture the parts of me that needed to be tended to.  I also tried to stare down the realities that I am probably a bit further than midlife at this point and that, while my best years may still lie ahead, there are likely to be far fewer of them than what had already passed.  That is a pretty sobering thought.

When I continued on with my journey to my work meetings, I managed to catapult myself from my midlife crisis focus to building my future.  It was a great week of meetings, inspiration, collaboration and a few personal breakthroughs for me that I will forever remember and be grateful for.  As I returned home from the 10-day tour of duty, I felt disconnected and disjointed, not sure where I belonged.  I love my family and my heart broke every time my 8 year-old son texted me “I love you more than life” and, yet, I felt like a stranger intruding into someone else’s life when I got back.  Of course their lives had gone on while I was away.  Both my boys looked like they each grew a foot while I was gone and my tween son was that much more bottled up and unwilling to even hug me when I came in the door.  He could never admit he missed me.  My husband was suffering the pains of having to hold down the household for nearly 2 weeks without the support and assistance of a partner.  He was battle weary.  I was lost, trying to transition from my friends and work back into my family and responsibilities.  I was straddling two different worlds, not sure which one I best belonged in.

It is not uncommon for many of us, particularly parents, to be challenged by the disruption caused by immersing oneself into work and then trying to emerge and return to “normal” life.  Those of us who travel a lot for work or who have particularly intense jobs often live in a suspended state where we love everything in our lives but sometimes wish we were at work when we are at home with our families and desperately miss our families when we are away at work.  It’s a classic Catch 22 scenario.  Layer on top of that the guilt associated with feeling like you are not completely present in either (frankly, in my case, I feel like I am always more present at work and tend to be less present when it comes to my family and, for this, I am not proud).  I feel like I spend so much of my time lamenting about what I am not doing that I find it difficult to simply enjoy wherever it is that I am.  After all, both sides of my life are very appealing.  I love my work and my business partner is my best friend so, when we get to be together working, it is a double pleasure.  We have a magical quality to our work and our relationship that makes work feel more like play and who wouldn’t want more of that.  On the other hand, my family is my heart.  They are what makes me tick.  My children bring joy to my life in unexplainable and unimaginable ways.  My husband is the only constant in my life for the past two decades.  He is my support system and my rock.  My friends in my community are an extension of my family and make me feel connected in the world.  Who would ever want to leave that behind?

It’s an amazing conundrum that challenges me on many fronts.  I feel like I have to work that much harder to maintain all my relationships because sometimes I only have small chunks of time to work with to make my impact.  I have to be very conscious about being present and not distracting myself with my work when I am spending time having lunch or coffee with a friend.  I have to be much more deliberate about focusing when I am doing activities with my kids and husband because it is easy for me to pull out the phone, check my email or let my mind wander to the many details of my business.  I need to release myself from the guilt I feel when I am away from kids, trusting that they will not be blogging 20 years from now to try to overcome the pain they endured by having a sometimes-absentee mom.  It’s a lot to manage.  But, in the end, I suppose this would be what they refer to as a “first world problem.”  I am so fortunate to be able to get to run my own business, travel, luxuriate in collaboration and imagination.  And, I am even more fortunate to have love everywhere I turn.  I am blessed with children who, while growing by leaps and bounds every time I turn my back, give me the grounding I need to find my footing when I seem to be a little off balance.

I know I am not alone in this.  I know, even in my intimate circle of friends, there are many of us who struggle in a similar way.  Nonetheless, sometimes it feels really lonely and isolating and sometimes getting lost in my thoughts about this takes me away from some pretty important stuff – like remembering to blog…

WOMEN’S ADVANCEMENT??


“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels.
Life’s a bitch.  You’ve got to go out and kick ass.” – Maya Angelou

Here’s the deal. I am getting more and more frustrated when it comes to talking about equity for women in the workplace.  The statistics are not improving, women are opting out more than ever before and I have to wonder if there is a real solution to the increasing challenges women face in terms in having equity in the workplace.

For years I have been studying this topic.  Back in the early 2000s when I worked at Working Mother Media, we looked at the topic from the lens of working mothers and struggled with the notion of workplace flexibility.  It’s disappointing and scary that nearly 10 years later we are having the very same conversations and nothing has improved.  I have to ask the question of why.

Yesterday, as I was partaking in my daily ritual of tweeting and catching up on all the current news I can absorb in 140 characters or less, I came across the youtube video of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s 2010 TED talk on why we have so few women leaders in the world.  Coincidentally, on this same day, I came across on Facebook, courtesy of my friends at Flexpaths, a story from CNN about Sandberg admitting that she leaves work at 5:30pm.  Why is this news?  In my opinion, if it was about a male Fortune 500 CEO confessing that he slips out of the office early to spend time with his kids or attend their soccer games, that would be groundbreaking and would set a different tone, certainly in his workplace.  In reality, however, Sandberg telling her story is the equivalent of preaching to the choir.  Despite the fact that she is a powerful and busy COO, she is still a woman and it is expected that she would figure out a way to try to balance work and family.

Sandberg had some very clear views about what is holding women back and cited some interesting facts in her talk:

  • Out of 190 heads of state in the world, only 9 are women
  • Of all the Parliament members in the world, only 13% are women
  • Women represent only 20% of the leaders of nonprofit organizations (bucking the theory that nonprofits are a place where women can excel into leadership roles)

I’ll add to this my own stats:  Less than 3% of the Fortune 500 CEO’s are women.  (Although, curiously, of the 100 most successful companies in the world, 6% are run by women which makes me wonder if they are more successful because of the greater presence of women leaders….).  Women represent only 16% of equity partners in law firms and 16% of the seats in Congress.  16% has long been this magical number for women.  We seem to hover right there in terms of significant representation.  When we look at Board seats, the answer is 16% representation by women.  Let’s face it, this is all terrible news.  In the 10 years since I started tracking this data at Working Mother, nothing has changed.  Nothing at all.  Well, nothing except that the problem is getting worse because we are not making any headway.

Sandberg suggests that there are several critical issues that need to be addressed in order to change the reality for women in leadership.  First of all, we need to keep women in the workforce to ensure that they ultimately gain access to the high income jobs.  We know that women are opting out of the traditional workforce at higher rates than ever before.  Whether it be to stay at home and raise a family or to start their own businesses, women are not willing to play the game.  This exodus from corporate jobs creates a void of potential women leaders.  Of course, we should celebrate the fact that women feel empowered to change their career paths, take risks and become entrepreneurs but this fact is hurting our economy because there is no doubt that women leaders yield strong business results.  Without a rich talent pool to draw from, businesses suffer and lose the opportunity to both increase gender equity in the senior ranks as well as benefit from the strengths that women uniquely bring to the table.

Another challenge Sandberg identified as an obstacle for women is that they underestimate their own abilities.  This is one I can certainly relate to on a personal level as I am sure many women can.  It is very hard for women to promote themselves in the same way that men do.  Sandberg cited research that suggested that while men will frequently take credit for their own successes, women often attribute it to other influences or the fact that they got lucky.  In addition, women are less likely to negotiate for themselves when it comes to compensation which directly results in the gender disparity in pay.  It has been reported that 57% of men negotiated their first salaries compared to only 7% of women.  (I shared this stat with a group of women this morning and, after shaking their heads they agreed that this is very accurate.)  Sandberg attributes a lot of this to social influences because, as a society, there is certainly more pressure and expectation put on mean to succeed.  Stay-at-home dads are not always celebrated and working moms are often criticized.

Women are challenged with the likability factor, which is a key obstacle as well.  Success and likability are positively correlated for men while it is negatively correlated for women.  In other words, the more successful a women, the less likable we perceive her to be.  Sandberg cited one study that illustrates this phenomenon perfectly. In it, Columbia Biz School prof Frank Flynn and colleague Cameron Anderson at NYU offered their students a case study of a successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist named Heidi Roizen. But she was only called Heidi in the case study given to half their students; in the other, Heidi became Howard.

And guess what happened?

While the students rated Heidi and Howard equally competent, they liked Howard–but not Heidi. In fact, according to a synopsis of the study, students felt Heidi was significantly less likable and worthy of being hired than Howard. Why? Students saw Heidi as more “selfish” than Howard.

Is it any wonder we don’t want anyone calling us ambitious?

The final factor that Sandberg cited was that women often leave before they leave.  Ironically, the actions women take to try to stay in the workforce ultimately lead to them leaving.  For instance, if a woman is thinking about starting a family or is recently pregnant, she is likely to pass up opportunities for stretch assignments or promotions.  Recognizing that she will have to step aside for a period of time after the birth of the child, a woman tends to feel morally obligated to say no rather than take on the assignment or new role and deal with it when the baby is born.  As a result, between pregnancy, maternity leave and the ramp-up period after returning to work, women are often losing close to 2 years of opportunity for engagement and advancement in their careers as a result of building their families.  We are doing this to ourselves because we tend to lean back even when we are thinking about having a baby.  These rules need to change.

Overall, the most concerning part of Sandberg’s talk, for me, was her realization that this generation will never see equity in the workplace.  The divide is still so great and we simply do not have the time or the numbers to make up the difference.  It is up to the young women – and men- who are just now entering the workforce to change the game.  And it is up to today’s leaders to be open to look at the problem differently.  Women are always going to have babies and, even though we know that only 1/3 of executive women have children compared to 2/3 of executive men, that is not going to change.  In fact, we know that millennials are even more interested in having families and want to do so at a younger age. They reject the idea that women need to establish themselves before they can start a family.  Perhaps the corporate culture will change their thinking about that but I hope the millennial women – a sizable force to be reckoned with – will buck the system and prove that career and family are not mutually exclusive for women or men.

And, most importantly, it is time for the guys to have a voice in this revolution.  The men are still in charge and have the power.  By becoming role models for how we look at work and making sure to support women as they climb the corporate ladder and navigate the challenging terrain of carrying on the human race while also helping to keep the economy afloat, men are perhaps the secret sauce.  We often keep them out of this conversation as if they are our mortal enemies but, perhaps, they are the allies we have forgotten to embrace.

I am going to keep pining over this issue and will keep getting on my soapbox about it and, hopefully before my voice gets too old, I will see some real movement in these numbers.  In the meantime, we will continue to develop programs to support women and the men that can change their fate.  Stay tuned for some cool new programs coming from Ingenium Strategies to help build our future women leaders!