There are a lot of people talking about the "cannots" and "do nots" of women in the workplace. Many say that balancing work and family is impossible—why so much negativity?
The Economist recently purported to explain why more women don't rise to the top of companies. A few months ago, AnnMarie Slaughter at The Atlantic broke records with her popular article entitled, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All."
Both contribute to an important public conversation about women balancing work and family today. But for me, there's altogether too many "cannots" in this conversation.
The Economist's article "The mommy track" paints an unapologetically dismal picture of the situation for women (especially mothers) in the workplace:
Several factors hold women back at work. Too few study science, engineering, computing, or maths. Too few push hard for promotion. Some oldfashioned sexism persists, even in hip, liberal industries. But the biggest obstacle (at least in most rich countries) is children.
The article references research findings that show that the few women who do make it to the executive level are disproportionately childless and/or unmarried. The author points to new Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer as the one bright spot for working women today, concluding that "if she can turn around the Internet's biggest basket case while dandling a newborn on her knee it will be the greatest triumph for working women since winning the right to wear trousers to the office . . . ."
I'm eagerly cheering for Marissa Mayer, but she's just one woman trying to make life work. It's not fair or accurate to paint her as the only hope for an entire generation of women who are looking to gracefully strike some balance between career ambition and family life.
Do we have an ideal situation for working women today? Maybe not. But it's not hopeless either. We don't have to be mere victims of some set-in-stone corporate culture, waiting for the Marissa Mayers of the world to set us free. We can spend our time lamenting the challenges we face, or we can take charge and start making changes.
Let's begins with the very basics: Where do you choose to work? As much as you can, choose a company with a more progressive, family-friendly corporate culture. Employers who find themselves losing out on the talent found in women with families will eventually be forced to reassess what they're offering.
Instead of looking at obstacles, choose to look for opportunities. In many cases, what's good for women is good for the company too. Due in part to the down economy, many companies today are discouraging travel and are investing in telepresence technologies like video conferencing,. Where you can, advocate for such changes to continue, pointing to legitimate costs savings and doing your part to show that video conferencing works.
Show your peers and supervisors that nontraditional work arrangements can be a win win for companies and employees. Companies are exploring part-time schedules or work-from-home arrangements. If such offerings are right for you, don't hesitate to take advantage of them and take the opportunity to excel. At least one recent study concluded that employees who work from home may be more productive than those in the office.
Your opportunities to advocate for change don't have to depend solely on your company's policies. Do you play a supervisory role at work? Make a point to deemphasize "face time" in your department, especially when you're filling out employee reviews.
Let's recognize that big or small, progress is progress. Corporate policy and culture are not going to change overnight. Meaningful change is built on gradual and incremental shifts in the right direction. Knowing this, celebrate even the smallest victories and look for opportunities to continue making progress. Not only is a positive approach more productive for women overall, it will benefit you individually, as your attitude will affect the way you approach every aspect of your job. And in my experience, those who strive to advance their company and its culture tend to be rewarded more often than those who don't.
I'm not saying that all of this is easy. It's not. Change is slow, and it's hard, and there will be ups and downs. But as women trying to balance work and family, we need to encourage and support each other instead of focusing on the negatives.
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