9. A Cautionary Tale: How Businesses Can Support Women – Mogul, Mom, & Maid: The Balancing Act of the Modern Woman


A Cautionary Tale: How
Businesses Can Support Women

We can tell women to lower their standards around housework and child rearing. We can give them negotiating tools and training so that they can advocate for more support at home and higher wages at work. But unless and until organizations are willing to take a hard look at how they can embrace working women as a vital and vibrant part of the workforce, we risk losing an incredible talent base, and the brain drain Holli described will continue. And if it continues, we can expect to see the same results we’ve seen to date. As we’ve noted, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the fact that women at work, and in leadership roles, yield positive results for families, businesses, the economy, and society. We can ignore that data or we can make some significant shifts in the way we work in order to reap the benefits. But we need to move forward, not backward.

Yahoo!’s Bad Decision

One Friday afternoon in February of 2013, Marissa Mayer, Yahoo!’s CEO, had her Human Resources Department issue a memo revoking all work-from-home arrangements across the organization. The decision was a major setback for work–life advocates who have been touting the benefits of flexible arrangements. It was also a wake-up call that one woman at the top of an organization does not automatically make a company family-friendly. True work–life arrangements are a cultural shift, not a personality-driven move, or even a simple top-down mandate.

“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side by side,” Mayer’s memo read. Never mind the irony of an Internet company requiring its employees be onsite, the decree was a blow to workers who value a commute-free day, or the ability to drop their children off one day per week, or run an errand without taking paid time off. There’s an unwritten expectation in corporate America that today’s workers are always connected and responsive to e-mails, texts, and voice mails no matter what time they arrive. “The expectation that people are always available is not helping,” an attorney with two children tells me. “[There’s an] expectation that you’re on your phone checking all evening, the expectation that you’ll stay in the office all evening, that constant availability and constant contact.” If employers expect that level of accountability, then what can they give in return so that employees can fit their interwoven work and home lives into twenty-four hours?

Flex: The Difference Between Working and Engaging

We can’t know for sure whether flexibility made the difference in Juli’s career, but we should certainly consider its impact. Juli is the single mother who described her one day of working from home for a public relations firm as a “huge relief” because she didn’t have to rush in the morning. Most likely, even without the flexibility and support her boss offered following Juli’s divorce, she would have stayed in the workforce; she had to earn a paycheck to support herself and her children. But one has to wonder whether she would have stayed engaged as well. Without the ability to care for her children’s emotional, as well as financial, needs, would she have risen to the senior-level position that she loves? The risk isn’t simply that women will drop out of the workplace. There is also a risk that they will show up but check out if their needs beyond a paycheck are not met.

Juli would be a CEO today if she thought she could manage that along with caring for her children. “There is a point at which I have to say, ‘This is as much as I can do.’ I’d love to start my own agency, but I don’t think I can.”

Still, despite her career success and satisfaction, Juli believes her flexibility affected her earning potential: “You know, I do sometimes think it probably has hindered me financially. I do feel like, even though I was working my ass off, and always met my goals, I’m still working forty to sixty hours per week. I still think that when it came to raise time that because I got a lot of flex, that factored in to my compensation. And I know men doing the same thing as me—making 30 to 40 percent more. I think they think, ‘She works from home Fridays and she can’t network after work. That’s worth $10,000.’”

With more and more women providing the financial security for their families and yet still shouldering most of the responsibility for their family’s emotional and social well-being, businesses would be best served to make flexibility part of the culture, not part of the compensation.

“I don’t know how a lot of women do it if they don’t work for a flexible employer,” says one woman. “If their role is like mine, 90 percent falls on them. I’m able to work from home. My manager has said many, many times, ‘I don’t care if you’re doing it at night.’ If that’s not an option or you have a higher-level job…My husband’s former employer was extremely family-friendly. We have a serious medical crisis with our older son, and the new job is Mad Men, old-fashioned and not terribly family-friendly. He discussed it during the interview process. He said, ‘One of our sons has special needs.’ He revealed it during the interview process and they said they were fine with it, and it turns out they’re not fine with it. And that part upsets him a great deal, because he’s always been involved with it. A lot of it has to do with salary. He thinks, ‘I can’t rock the boat too much. We’d be in big trouble.’ We feel like we do need my salary—but it’s secondary.”

This woman reveals an excellent reason that flexibility, child care, paid sick leave, and parental leave should not be viewed as women’s issues. The flex options for all employees have a trickle-down effect across families. So many women I spoke with depend not only on their own employers to provide flexible options, but also on their spouses’ employers so that they can meet the needs of their families without one partner shouldering an unfair and unworkable share.

Embracing Versus Offering Flex

The last time Bess, a marketing executive who works for a health-care company, was interviewing for jobs, flexibility was a top concern for her. And because she did not want to end up like the husband in the aforementioned Mad Men scenario, with a promise of flexibility that never panned out, she probed prospective employers very carefully. And the reaction she received surprised her.

“When I was interviewing,” Bess says, “I grilled them about, here’s what I need, and the senior women were protecting me. They were saying, ‘This should be a place that works for women.’ It was like this cycle where they almost felt like, and several women at the top said, ‘I should have done that when I was interviewing.’ It’s like they were giving back for what they didn’t do.

“I said, ‘I will give you what you need from me, but you need to understand I walk out at four.’ I didn’t want it to be, ‘Oh, there’s Bess.’ I needed it to be part of the culture. And when I started we made a working mom’s group and now it’s a parents’ group. We read through all the perks of Working Women magazine. We read through each one and challenged the company to address them. I wanted the flexible feeling, not just the flexible benefits, but the feeling, which is entirely different. Now, if you’re remote or working from home, it’s entirely normal for people to call in from home. You’re not the weird one, ‘Oh, we need to figure out a phone.’ Now we have meetings to talk about how to be more friendly to remote people.”

Brava to Bess. She understood that a company that offers flexibility is not necessarily a culture that embraces it. And when she found one that did, she evolved their attitudes from supporting women to supporting parents. I could have used her guidance and support when my children were younger. Afraid to be identified as a “mom” at work, but needing to work from home when my children were sick (my husband worked outside the house for a few years when our children were young), I would worry during every conference call I made from home that my coworkers and clients would hear a baby crying and think less of me as a professional. Once, when my son was about three, he came into the room where I was working and told me he was going to be sick. I was chairing a call with seventeen participants, including clients from very large and corporate companies like Microsoft, Equifax, and Verizon. I gestured to my son to throw up on the floor and I cleaned him and the rug later, when the call ended.

Can’t the Doctor See You on Monday?

Stephanie, the client service associate, whose organization could have benefitted from one of these groups, tells me, “What I get so frustrated about is it’s still women having these focus groups. As long as this is a woman’s issue, it almost perpetuates the issue.” She tells me a story that emphasizes the difference between a company that offers flex and one that embraces it. “When my son was young, my boss said, ‘You have Mondays off. Why don’t you schedule all your appointments then?’ But certain doctors only do Wednesday and Friday appointments.”

Bess, when she negotiated her new job, had considerable career clout that allowed her to demand certain accommodations, and she had the skill set to help facilitate them. Requesting flexible work arrangements or raising the issue of fair pay can be risky business for women. Each woman has to weigh her own rewards and risks and determine whether making requests makes sense for her.

Ask Before You Quit

The doctor who owns a private practice wishes more employees would raise the issue of flexibility. “It’s been interesting being a boss,” she says, “because I’ve had a few times where I’ve had nurses who have quit before they’ve come to us saying, ‘This job, my hours, aren’t working.’ They’ll find another job before they say anything, and there are people who are so precious to us. We’ve told them, ‘You’re not allowed to leave, so tell me what can we do. We can make this work for you. Tell us what you need. I get it you’re a single mom and if you have to work every other weekend and it’s the off weekend from your ex getting your kids, you’re not seeing your kids.’” The doctor underscores the lost opportunity that takes place when women, conditioned to be “good girls” and not rock the boat, deprive their employers of the chance to retain valuable employees. “We’re in a business where we’re all about families and we’re not going to be discordant about that at all,” says the doctor.

Of course, not all industries are conducive to flexible schedules. Jan Risher is a former journalist who left her job to work in corporate communications. “When I was in full-time journalism I was exhausted; the whole ability to control my schedule [is very valuable]…I miss journalism. I really do. It’s the irony of my professional life. I had worked my way up. I was managing editor of a cool publication. I loved telling other people’s stories. But I couldn’t stay. I feel so blessed I have something I enjoy, but the fulfillment from this versus my life…I figured out early on my work did not define me.”

In her new position, Jan has found the flexibility she needs to be available to her family. “With the work I’m doing now I have a lot of flexibility. I write, primarily. The owner and CEO gets me and appreciates me. He’s okay with me staying up late and coming in late. He totally trusts me to ebb and flow as necessary.”

Ladies Only Networking

Sheila, the regional president at a development company, has raised several issues at work—more related to fairness and equity than flexibility—with mixed success. “I don’t think women do as good a job asking for their worth as they should,” says Sheila, “and I know this firsthand from my situation at work. There was sort of just a huge brouhaha going on with our CEO and my counterpart in another region and another guy, talking about a walkout. I know that, by a fairly large margin, I and the other woman—and we have a male counterpart—are underpaid.” Shelia had no interest in participating in a walkout but she did raise the issue of the pay gap with her boss. “And the CEO is like, ‘You guys have just got to stop talking about this women versus men thing,’ because I’ve brought it up many times. He’s tired of listening to it and I’m like, ‘You better not be tired of listening to it because it’s real and we know it’s real and you have to stop.’”

Sheila had no resolution on her pay, but she was successful addressing an inequity in networking events. “One thing this other woman I work with and I have done is we have a woman’s forum. We talk about the guys who are out there golfing, and it’s always about guys and their networking and it’s just easier for them to do it.

“So we have a forum three days once a year for our clients, and we bring in speakers. At first I thought, ‘Aren’t we doing the same thing the men are doing?’ They’ve accused us of that; we have to defend it every year. I say, ‘I get it. But you’re not inviting these women to go and do these same type of events, so we have to.’ We make it meaningful and we bring in speakers, and it’s a great thing.

“When we first did it, probably four years ago, we had maybe four clients. And at the last one we did there were probably forty of us there. Women love it because they have an opportunity to meet women at all levels. We have women who are younger, just at the start of their careers, connecting with women who are more mature, like myself, and some who are a little bit older than me. It’s really good networking.”

Establishing multigenerational, women-focused networks is a valuable step businesses can take to support women employees. Still, women need to carefully consider which events they attend in order to use their networking time effectively. Holli has been disappointed by her perceived return on certain types of events in comparison with the time she invested. So, she has become more choosy with her time. She says events for women that are geared toward a more senior level are more attractive to her, as are events that are likely to draw women from different fields that are compatible or related to her own. Events that draw a large population of women who are significantly junior to her, or who are in a transitional phase in their lives, are less likely to be helpful to her professionally. Even though Holli has participated in significant mentoring activities from which she derives great satisfaction, she tries to be intentional about when she is in a mentoring role and when she is networking to build her own career. She says mentoring activities and professional networking are not one and the same, and should not necessarily be done at the same time—although mentors and mentees can certainly become highly valued members of a woman’s professional network over the long term.

Finding a way to make board appointments more feasible for women who are already strapped for time and have obligations at home is also an important area for industries and trade associations to tackle. Sheila shared that many of her female colleagues avoid joining boards because these assignments, while critical for building résumés and networks, feel like another job for busy women.

Hope tells me about a board she joined and then quit. “I thought, if I’m going to be on this board, I’m going to go to every single meeting. And they asked me to be on every committee, and I was like yes, yes, yes. And then it was like, ‘What the hell am I doing? I need to see my children.’ And so I actually quit the board.”

Hope says she was attracted to the board because she wanted to do something that connected to her personal passions. “I was looking for the mission piece on top of the work piece. And it’s really ironic because, basically, they called me and said, ‘You’re up for a renewal on the board.’ And I said, ‘I can’t do it. One, the governance sucks and I’m sick of trying to fix this place, so get your act together and call me back. And two, if I’m going to go to meetings they need to be efficient. I’m taking time off work and I’m taking vacation time to do this.’ Now, do I get a lot of personal joy out of doing it? Absolutely, but I just said, ‘Something’s got to give.’ You have to pick and choose.”

If boards are going to benefit from women’s participation, they should consider holding meetings during work hours and they should be prepared to run according to established and published agendas. I have had positive board experiences. I once worked with a nonprofit that was extremely well run. I knew what would be covered in advance of a meeting. I had materials to review. I knew what would be expected of me during and after the meeting. And I could trust the meeting to start and end on time. Those seemingly minor details meant I was able to participate in mission-based work without impacting my work or family.

Google Gets It Right

Organizations can take the lead on offering valuable work–life benefits too. Google, the technology giant, recently did that. Google noticed a high attrition rate among female employees after they had babies—two times the rate for other employees—so the company rolled out twenty weeks of paid maternity leave and seven weeks of paid paternity leave for new parents. Since offering the new benefit, Google has reported attrition has decreased by 50 percent. And Yahoo!, despite its no telecommuting policy, extended its maternity and paternity leave. The company doubled its maternity leave to sixteen weeks and added eight weeks of leave for fathers.

“Would I have stayed working if there was a better maternity leave?” ponders Avital Normal Nathman, the freelance writer, “I do know if we had another child I could see myself going back to a more stable job sooner. And then again, another bonus to having a freelance career, if my child is sick I can be with him.”

“Google is a great example,” she says. “They saw they were losing women, noticed the attrition rate was not great. They said the point where we’re losing was after maternity leave. They decided that was not acceptable and examined how to hold on to women. And they lengthened the maternity leave, extended it to five full months’ pay. For an extra two months of pay, they’re gaining a whole lot more.”

And, post-baby, some progressive companies are catching on to the value of offering child-care benefits. Johnson & Johnson, for example, has onsite child-care centers so that employees can better blend parenting and work. Employers should not underestimate just how important child care is to working parents—both the peace of mind of knowing your child is well cared for and the ability to place your child in a quality center.

I Should Be June Cleaver

Monika tells me, “As of right now, I’d say I’m earning a paycheck. I’ve been at my job for a very long time, but because of where I work I get a discount on child care. For me to leave we’d have to make a change, and I’m not able to do that. I do want to work and contribute. I’m extremely career-focused.” But she says she doesn’t want to “climb the corporate ladder” due to her parenting responsibilities; she has a son with health issues. Monika says, “I feel like there is important work to be done,” but she is not entirely passionate about what she is currently doing. She’d like to pursue a different avenue of work. Without child-care benefits, however, she cannot.

“And that makes what’s going on at home harder,” says Monika. “What’s the point? Why don’t I just quit? Then I will be able to be the June Cleaver I should be for my family.”

Some innovative companies are offering a fairly new corporate perk—one that helps women like Monika be that June Cleaver housekeeper. They are offering housecleaning as a perk to employees.

Housework As a Perk

Evernote, a company that makes productivity tools for the Internet, provides its employees with a free housecleaning twice per month. Interestingly, Evernote executives did not want to be interviewed for this book, because they did not want to position the benefit as a woman-focused perk. An Evernote spokesperson did tell me, “For benefits like housekeeping…it’s about eliminating decisions. Having people over? The floor at home has been mopped, don’t worry about it. The goal really is to remove some frictions for all employees so they can be more focused and more productive while they’re here.”

The New York Times wrote about these home-focused benefits in October 2012 and said, “The goal is not just to reduce stress for employees, but for their families, too. If the companies succeed, the thinking goes, they will minimize distractions and sources of tension that can inhibit focus and creativity.”

Isn’t that just what women have been trying to tell everyone? Take housework out of the equation, and women are suddenly free for so many other high-value, fulfilling assignments.

Who Gets Out at Three?

Businesses are not the only institutions that need to shift in order to support women at work. As so many of the women I spoke with noted, the current American school system is not designed for families with dual breadwinners. Most children are released from school by three o’clock in the afternoon. But many working parents don’t get home until after five o’clock. And then working parents must find solutions, usually very expensive solutions, for vacations, nonbank holidays, and the dreaded half days.

Lisa, the nonprofit communications professional, doesn’t hold back when it comes to talking about how the school calendar impacts her career. “The school calendar, with twelve weeks off for summer, that’s just ridiculous. We can keep it together with camp. My kids don’t seem to mind. They have been in year-round stuff since they were infants. You can’t tell one general story about working families in America. You could create a class structure based on your child-care options.” Lisa references the inequities in child-care options available to parents based on income levels. Many working mothers tell me summer vacation is a challenge, not only because they need to find programs to occupy their children but because they need to pay for those programs as well.

“How does the workplace even deal with that?” Lisa says. “It’s a grind—parenthood in our disconnected, commodified society. The first thing you have to do after you pee on a stick is think about, what am I going to do with this child? It commodifies the kids. How much time am I going to spend? How much time am I going to take off? Time is money. People need to be honest that it sucks.”

Where Are the Women in Washington?

Washington, too, must take responsibility and leadership for creating, sponsoring, and passing legislation that supports working families. I always bristle when women tell me, “I’m just not into politics.” If you are raising a family, if you visit the doctor, if you work, if you pay taxes, you are political. Or at least you should be.

Working women need advocates in Washington who will champion our causes. A more diverse representation will help. Despite major gains made in the House and Senate in the last election cycle, women still make up just 20 percent of Congress. We need to elect more women at both the national and the local level, and our leaders need to support bills such as the Healthy Families Act, which would set a national paid sick days standard, and the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would strengthen existing laws designed to eliminate the wage gap. At the statewide level, we need to push for legislation that will improve maternity and paternity leave.

If we want to effect change, we need to speak up and vote.