Watching for months, threatening to become years, professional women debate equality of opportunity vs. equality has culminated in a rather obvious point. In America professionals cannot trust anyone else to give them balance. Professionals have to make hard choices. How you make those choices dictate in large measure your wealth or your willingness to live without it, therefore your flexibility in child-rearing and career.
I thought that was the whole point? Men and society would no longer make decisions for women. Women, individually, would be free to chose their own paths in life.
But instead an element of the conversation really seems to be less equality of opportunity, but equality in the French sense. The idea that society’s collective sense of equality (fraternity) outweighs individual equality of opportunity. It is as if one sliver of professional women are asking for égalité expressed in various forms of government policy imposing mandatory change and another is making the traditional American point that you are better to seize control of your life and live it your way.
What I was struck by in Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic piece was how uncomfortable she was with her decision to leave the White House.
My family moved with me to the DC area. They hated it. From that move huge opportunity arose that made my career. Now we have balance in our lives.
It was only after that I realized I did not want a grinding career marked by 10, 20, or even 30 year stints in an organization. I realized that by year three I was bored even in the most dynamic of environments. It was not so much the constant pounding of 80 hour work weeks, but the prospect of only doing that.
In other words, why not make public policy on my life experience versus Anne-Marie Slaughter’s, or anyone of the other three hundred million Americans regardless of gender?
At its core I think Sheryl Sandberg’s approach focusing on empowerment of women to succeed in the world matches my experience. It is only when you succeed in your career that you can extract balance from it. Waiting on the government to pass the right mix of subsidies and laws to empower your success is riskier than striking out.
And Sandberg is completely right about having to reach out for the baton. I am a turnaround guy. Nobody takes care of you, but you.
Now this can come across as critical of Anne-Marie Slaughter and traditional policy solutions such as flexible hours and workspace. I believe in all of those tools. It makes good business sense in productivity, efficiency, and cost structure.
It is also a great way as a manager to motivate not just female employees, but any employee with a challenge. A few hundred dollars of technology can enable any employee to work more hours from more places. You have to manage employees to data driven metrics, but flexible work hours breed incredibly loyal, grateful, and hard working employees.
But there is no one size fits all. Yahoo’s CEO, Marissa Mayer, has gone just the other way in banning telecommuting in some circumstances. Remember she is in a long-shot turnaround at Yahoo that most likely will fail. If you have worked in a desperate turnaround where the customer rejects your product, the workforce is wracked with the results of multiple RIFs (reductions in force), your biggest daily challenge is shocking the culture. It is literally a defibrillator to a prostrate body on the way to being a carcass.
It has nothing to do with égalité vs. equality of opportunity. It has to do with a turnaround. Gender has nothing to do with it.
We should do everything possible to encourage young women to succeed on their terms. We should pursue public policy, continuing to focus on all forms of discrimination, that emulates that cultural encouragement. But in the end not every man or woman wants the same thing, will sacrifice the same, and the society is too complex to relegate women’s future to a binary “balance” discussion.
You can have it all, or part of it, or none it. It comes with degrees of cost. The choice is what makes us American.