Let’s Talk About Lack of Choice in the Workplace

 

computer-nostalgia

This past week Brenda Barnes died. She was 64 years old.

You may not know much about Brenda Barnes, but she is an interesting role model for women looking at work choices. Brenda was the first CEO of PepsiCo. She broke the proverbial glass ceiling, but for her it wasn’t enough. After working as CEO for one year, she quit her job. Her reason? So she could spend more time with her family. Her decision made national headlines and anyone and everyone felt they had a right to comment on that decision.

On one side she was seen as a traitor of sorts — how dare she quit! Didn’t she realize that she owed it to all business women everywhere to stay in the job and do well?

On another side she was hailed as a hero — look at her! She gave it all up for the kids.

But this post isn’t about Brenda Barnes. This is about the lack of choice in the workplace in the United States of America.

Let me tell you why I think I have a right to talk about this: I have worked full time for the past 14 years while raising five children. Prior to that, I worked part time for 9 years (24 to 32 hours a week) so that we could put food on the table and gas in the car. Before that, I was a stay-at-home mom living overseas and navigating life in another culture. I’ve been in a place where I honestly didn’t know if we would have the money to make rent and fix our car to a place where I occasionally have extra and can help others. I’ve seen and done it all.

It is the year 2017, and I see just as much rigidity and lack of work-life balance as I did fourteen years ago. Maybe more so. Why are employers so non family friendly? Why do we have such poor working options for parents? Why is maternity leave a paltry three months if you’re lucky, leaving women crying in bathrooms as they attempt to pump breast milk for their three-month-old? Why do employers think more work can be completed in a cubicle, then in a home office? These are just a few of the many questions I ask all the time.

And so I pose a question: In the year 2017, why is it that the two most flexible jobs for women are as nurses and as teachers? This is assanine. Female engineers, chefs, software developers, public health professionals, and doctors (to name just a few) are married to rigid schedules and employers. Pitiful earned time policies and lack of options for women who want to work part time all add up and take their toll on families. In the eyes of employers, our children do not exist. They are neither seen nor heard.

If a woman does take time off to care for her children, it is extremely difficult for her to enter the workforce. The unsaid question is “What did you do all those years that was significant?”

Well, let me tell you what she did:

  • She managed a household and kept a budget, ensuring that her family did not go into debt.
  • She chaperoned hundreds of little kids on field trips, showing her amazing ability to organize.
  • She kept up with children’s extracurricular activities, hustling them back and forth from home to soccer to music to church and then back home.
  • She went to parent teacher organizations and organized plays and dinners for fund raisers.
  • She made sure that immunizations were up to date and kids had braces.
  • She answered to a world that asked her “what she did all day?”.

She could run an entire company single handedly, yet the interview team has the audacity to ask her what she did that was “significant”.

I’m telling you, when it comes to the lack of family friendly workplaces, we need a revolution. It is ridiculous.

So, what are my solutions?  I don’t have solutions, but I do have thoughts.

  • First of all, for god’s sake don’t condemn a woman for her work or home choices. I know how hard it is to make choices on work and home. Every April, I went into a panic thinking about the summer and what I would do in the summer. I got criticism from stay-at-home moms when I went back to work; and I got criticism from working moms when I stayed home. This is what fellow women do to each other and we can’t blame anyone but ourselves — we criticize each other. Remember the mean girls from high school? Well they never really go away. They just have different names and different clothes. They also get a lot meaner.
  • Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ask a stay-at-home mom what she does all day. I repeat: Never.
  • If you are an employer or manager, please consider offering flexibility. Offer compressed work weeks; offer part time positions; offer job sharing; offer work from home. We are 2017! These should be no brainers.
  • Today’s working women: Fight for better maternity leave. Fight for better time off. Fight for more flexibility.
  • Figure out what works for you and guard your choice. If you choose to work, don’t assume that stay-at-home moms will always be there to help you. If you choose to stay at home or work part time, don’t whine about not going out to dinner as much as you want.

Lastly, always ask yourself the question “Who do I want to like me when I am 80?” I guarantee the answer will not be your employer. I look back all the time and think “I was so often in a hurry, rushing to get kids here or there. What did all that rushing get me?” A sore hip – that’s what it got me.

Brenda Barnes left an interesting and important legacy, one that I wish was talked about more frequently. Her daughter, Erin, was interviewed this past week by NPR and in the interview, she talked about being influenced by her mom to change her own profession. What did she pick? Nursing.

At Brenda’s funeral, her daughter thanked people for coming, saying “My mom would want me to tell you, ‘Don’t work too hard.'”*  Indeed. 

*https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/24/opinion/brenda-barness-wisdom-and-our-anti-parent-workplace.html?_r=0

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Third Culture Kid - Grew up in Pakistan, lived and worked in Pakistan and Egypt as an adult. Moved to the United States and learning to live away from curry, Urdu, Arabic and the Pyramids.

4 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Lack of Choice in the Workplace

  1. I am hoping that the new healthcare program will allow for more flexibility for employers, so that they will be okay with allowing employees more choices. There are jobs that don’t have the luxury of work from home. I am a librarian, and right now, I DO get to work from home, by God’s grace. But when I worked in the public library, I had few options. We had a minimal staff to begin with, because public libraries run on tax funds, and we had to have a librarian on duty and at least 2 desk assistants to handle the crowds. When someone had to be out for pregnancy or surgery or any reason, the load was such that usually several other staff would get sick from exhaustion. I remember going in and working with bronchitis because we were so shorthanded at that busy library. I was too sick to walk around, but I wasn’t contagious, and I could sit in a chair at a computer and check books out for people, which freed the other librarian to answer the phone and take people to shelves to find books, and the desk assistant to take fines and also check in returned books. It wasn’t that the director didn’t want to give us more options, but the type of service we offered with the budget we had to operate on simply didn’t allow for any.
    I agree with your main message here, just wanted to point out that some work places would have to raise our taxes to offer such flexibility to employees. I worked very hard for public libraries for 10 years, but it was my choice.

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  2. Thanks for sharing on this important topic! If I only had a dollar for the times I was asked what do you do? or why do you have a degree and not use it? I use it everyday with my children and the people I serve. It may not bring the big paycheck but that’s not what I’m measuring success on. Important discussion and great well thought out solutions. Hope to see you soon in person :)

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