We are gradually starting to awaken to the idea that the pursuit of work-life flexibility is a gender neutral issue, thanks in part to some high profile politicians and male CEOs who have stepped down in recent years citing their desire to be more involved in family life. But there is still an assumption that much of the inflexible status quo is held in place by men – men who consciously or subconsciously subscribe to ideologies that harken back to the June Cleaver era. This is certainly true to a great extent. But as we continue to chip away at the rigid, outdated workplace policies and attitudes that constrain us, we often overlook how women stand in the way of other women in opening up the workplace to more flexible, family-supportive arrangements. Yes, ladies I’m calling you out. We are all in this together – yet, sometimes we are not.
Halfway into my maternity leave, I proposed to my boss that I return on a part time basis, even offering to take a different position, knowing that it would be difficult to manage a full time team on a part time basis. My request was denied. There was no explicit reason given – only that they could not see a way to make it work and there were concerns about setting a precedent in the department. The implication was that if my request was granted, others would expect the same degree of flexibility for themselves. Was that a valid concern? Sure. But why not offer employees work schedules that make them happy, loyal and productive? Research has shown offering flexible work arrangements increases productivity and employee satisfaction. Apparently, to my employer, it was not worth the perceived risk and required shift in culture.
Was the response I received simply reflective of an outdated, traditional work culture? Or did it have something to do with the makeup of my department being 90% women in their prime childbearing years? I believe it was a combination of both. So, what did I do? I gave my notice and quit. The company lost a top performer. So much for a simple employee retention strategy…but I digress.
Was my boss a middle-aged man with a stay-at-home wife? No, my boss was a woman – a mother – with two elementary school children who herself had taken a multi-year career break post-kids and entered the company as a part time contract employee before moving in to her full time leadership role. You would think that she, of all people, would understand and empathize with my postpartum, work-life struggle. And the truth is she did. How do I know? Because she told me that what I was asking for is what she herself and plenty of others want – implying that if it was possible, she would already be doing it. So was the denial of my request merely the unfortunate outcome of a rigid company culture despite my boss’ best efforts at advocating on my behalf? I believe this is most likely the case. I knew the culture well and that what I was asking for was a long shot. But I still wonder whether on some level it could also have meant “if I can’t have it, then neither can you.”
In her book “Lean In,” Sheryl Sandberg points out how the “there can only be one” attitude still lingers today and that gender bias is perpetrated by women as well as men. Sometimes called the “queen bee syndrome” it refers to female superiors in competitive work environments blocking promotional opportunities for other women presumably to maintain their own authority within male-dominated cultures. As Sandberg puts it, “often without realizing it, women internalize disparaging cultural attitudes and then echo them back.” These attitudes do everyone a disservice. Recognizing that we are all in this together and opening up a flexible path for one woman will ultimately create a ripple effect and open up more options for everyone (women and men).
So women, I’m calling on you to set the precedent. Trust that if you support flexibility for other women, then you will someday benefit from it too, if you should ever need it. Maybe not overnight, but gradually removing barriers will open up possibilities for new ways of working, creating, and living. By pulling out one brick at a time, eventually the rigid, 9-5 wall will crumble. Please don’t be one of the bricks standing in the way, because not only will you be standing in your own way, but you will be blocking the paths of your sons and daughters who will be standing in our shoes before you know it. What choices do you want them to have? Step aside now so there will be a well-traveled, flexible path available to them when they get here.