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Women In the Workplace: A Call For Change

by Heather Rogers, published

The July/August issue of Atlantic Magazine presented an op-ed by former State Department Director of Policy Planning, Anne-Marie Slaughter, entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”. The op-ed quickly went viral, provoking a variety of responses. If the piece sounds a like an affront to some traditional feminist ideals, that is because it is. Slaughter draws from her own experience, explaining the mere impossibility of sustaining both her responsibilities as a mother with two teenage sons and a woman with a high profile government position.

But what now? Whether you side with those who believe one can "have it all" or whether you believe "having it all" is a naive wish, what action should take place to make the workplace more equitable?

Most women, will likely at some point in their lives, desire to have a child. Privileged women in executive leadership roles however, may have difficult priorities to choose from when contemplating children and striving to reach elite professional success. Traditionally, their male counterparts rarely faced the same problem but in our modern times, even that may be changing.

It strikes many as an unfair choice for a woman to face: forgo the joys of raising children in order to maintain professional status. Slaughter argues that women will be able to “have it all” when the culture of the modern professional workplace changes to accommodate family balance and greater respect for working mothers and parents in general. Slaughter, and various other writers in many different responses to the piece, call for changes to the workplace to address the new social and professional realities of the 21st century.

The following lays out key problems Slaughter claims must be addressed in order to promote greater female participation in federal and executive careers. She charges the educated and ambitious women to work toward those changes saying, “We have choices about the type and tempo of the work we do. We are the women who could be leading, and who should be equally represented in the leadership ranks.”

Increasing the number of women in high demand executive positions:

“Losing smart and motivated women not only diminishes a company’s talent pool; it also reduces the return on its investment in training and mentoring.”

Out of the 535 seats in the House of Representatives, there are currently only 72 filled by women. Likewise, only 17 out of the 100 senators are women. These already dismal numbers are declining further. In the 2010 election cycle, the number of women elected decreased for the first time in 30 years. According to The 2012 Project, a non-partisan campaign aiming to increase the number of women in Congress, the United States "ranks 78th in the world, behind 95 other countries, for percentage of women in office.”

More women are being pushed out of executive high-demand positions due to realities in the current working environment which leaving little room for raising a family simultaneously. Additional economic strain makes it a necessity for both parents in modern families to work. Legislative action could help address and change these issues, but the power and political will is lacking. Slaughter explains that the working environment within the federal government is structured in such a way that the employee cannot feasibly work and maintain status as primary family caregiver. Slaughter states, “We were sure then that by now, we would be living in a 50-50 world. Something derailed that dream.” What derailed the dream is that nothing changed in order to allow women the flexibility they need in order to have both family and career.

No maternity leave for women in the federal government:

The United States is far behind most other industrialized nations in providing government mandated family leave for new parents. Only eligible workers can take advantage of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which guarantees employees at companies with more than 50 employees 12 weeks of unpaid, job-guaranteed leave for the birth of a child. While some private companies provide reasonable maternity leave, the federal government forces female employees to dip into sick leave after giving birth.

In comparison to the United States, Australia provides 18 weeks paid parental leave at the national minimum wage. In Germany, women receive 14 fully paid weeks of maternity leave, and in the Netherlands, women receive 16 weeks mandatory maternity leave with full pay.

Senior Foreign Service member at the U.S. State Department, Dana Shell Smith, stated in an op-ed in response to Slaughter’s article,

“I am still in disbelief that there is no such thing as maternity leave in government, when it's government that should be setting the example. Instead, an employee takes sick leave. So non-parents can get seriously ill and have sick leave available, but not parents?”

According to Bloomberg News, “the U.S. is one of three nations of 181 studied by Harvard and McGill universities that don’t guarantee working mothers leave with compensation.” The other two countries are Papua New Guinea and Swaziland.

Healthy work/life balance:

“Space for play and imagination is exactly what emerges when rigid work schedules and hierarchies loosen up.”

Google is a prime example of a large corporation that has experimented with creative ways to promote inspiration amongst its employees. Executives at Google have taken it upon themselves to create an environment where workers can freely share ideas and be comfortable asking questions and conversing freely with fellow co-workers. The working environment at Google is described as, “designed to encourage interactions between Googlers within and across teams, and to spark conversation about work as well as play.” Google flagship offices around the world contain everything from game rooms to bowling alleys. In this way, Google is a unique representation of a company that encourages workers to participate in unstructured activities as a useful component of the work day.

In describing the company’s culture, the Google website explains, “We put great stock in our employees–energetic, passionate people from diverse backgrounds with creative approaches to work, play and life.” Google celebrates the need for balance at and outside of work. The company’s success seems to point to the conclusion that their philosophy is working well.

Will more women in elected positions help promote the establishment and success of American enterprises promoting similar principles to Google? Many workers, both male and female, now work well over a traditional 40 hour work week schedule. Slaughter herself proposes working on weekends and evenings from home. While this will be unattractive to some, remote work has been growing in the United States as technological advancements and high speed internet become common fixtures in American homes. It's small, but it makes a big difference in being able to balance work and life commitments.

Perception in the workplace:

“Many people in positions of power seem to place a low value on child care in comparison with other outside activities.”

Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook admitted to lying for years about the times she attended parent teacher meetings or took her children doctor appointments, simply out of fear that admitting to such activities would make her look undedicated to her work. Many women have experienced the same challenge while they are no less dedicated than their male coworkers.

In her piece, Slaughter makes a hypothetical comparison of perceptions between a marathon runner and working mother in the workplace. While parents spend inordinate amounts of time caring for their children before and after work, a typical employer is less likely to consider a parent as ambitious or motivated as a person who trains for marathons after work. According to Slaughter, “the decision to step down from a position of power—to value family over professional advancement, even for a time—is directly at odds with the prevailing social pressures on career professionals in the United States.” Working mothers need to be respected for the fact that they have more responsibility than the average working professional.

Slaughter explains that with today’s technological capabilities there is no reason for women to not be encouraged to practice less rigidity as working professionals. She states, “the pool of female candidates for any top job is small, and will only grow smaller if the women who come after us decide to take time out, or drop out of professional competition altogether, to raise children.” It should not be a choice, between the two options, but all working women must be given the opportunity to have both family and professions if they wish. Now is the time for action, what policy changes can be made to bring the workplace into the 21st century?

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