December 16, 2013
"As women we get so much career advice about what to do in the office, but one of our biggest career obstacles happens at home, before we even walk out the door in the morning." - Liz O'Donnell
"What I see with my friends in Europe, male and female, is that we all work 90%. We never quite do the extra hour...because you have to take the kids to school or get the kids from school." - Simon Kuper
In this show I talk to Liz O'Donnell of the blog Hello Ladies. She's written a book called Mogul, Mom & Maid about how tough life still is for women who work a fairly serious job and have a family. A lot of women will relate to the stories her interviewees tell about their messy, exhausting lives. Liz, the sole breadwinner in her family, has long given up on most housework (her husband is rather selective in his choice of tasks). But she's quite unusual. She points out that American women are caught between high expectations at work and traditional social norms at home - not to mention a school system that thinks we're still in the '50s.
I knew I wanted a male perspective on some of the things Liz and I discussed. Financial Times journalist Simon Kuper came to mind right away. He's based in Paris, and three years ago he wrote this column in the FT about the many hours he was devoting to childcare, and how much of a shock to his system that was proving. He talks about the work-and-family culture in Europe, where men willingly take paternity leave, and where the work ethic is less relentless (and we're not just talking about France). He says men want what women want. Attention Sheryl Sandberg.
Please go to Mule Radio's homepage and fill out their five-minute survey - doing this means you give me a greater chance of getting sponsors for this show.
SHOW TRANSCRIPT (but it's much more fun to listen to the podcast):
Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.
This time we look at the idea that part of the reason women aren’t further ahead at work is because they’re still doing so much at home…
“As women we get so much career advice about what to do in the office but one of our biggest career obstacles happens at home before we even walk out the back door in the morning, we already have a hurdle to overcome.”
And we hear a male view on domestic arrangements and career inhibitions…
(:09) “I would like to be the most successful journalist in the world but I have to you know, at seven in the morning I have to spend the whole weekend in playgrounds shouting at people.”
Coming up on The Broad Experience.
Liz O’Donnell is the sole wage earner in her family of four. She works in marketing in Boston. Her husband stays at home in the suburbs to run the house and look after their two kids when they get back from school. On top of her job, Liz runs the blog Hello Ladies, and she’s the author of a new book called Mogul, Mom, and Maid. She doesn’t spend much time slaving over a hot stove, let alone a vacuum cleaner. But she realized a lot of working women she knew were. One the one hand, they had their jobs in the hard-charging, high expectations American workplace. On the other, they had to deal with everyone’s expectations of what a woman’s role is outside the office. Take the school gates…
“The schools absolutely still default to the mother. At the beginning of the year we have to fill out so much paperwork about emergency contacts, medical records, etc. and regardless of the fact my husband and I always write down that he’s at home and I’m in the city at work…if my child is sick, the school calls me.”
School drives her crazy in other ways, too.
“I don’t have working mother guilt, as the breadwinner I will never feel guilty about earning a living for my family, I’m fairly organized, I can get it all done, but the times you’ll find me in tears about being a working mother, it’s usually related to the schools – it’s related to the lack of communication or yet another opportunity to have to tell my children no. “
No, because yet again she’s been told about some school event at short notice and it’s too late to cancel a client meeting and get there. She tells the story of one of the professional women she talked to for the book and how that woman has her child in a school that has half days one day each week. As if arranging pickup and childcare around that half-day weren’t hard enough, the woman noticed that during one particular week the school had moved the half-day from its regular slot. Liz says this kind of last minute logistical hurdle is the kind of thing women juggle in their heads every day…
“The thought process and the thinking that goes into it and how much planning she has to do just for that one change, it was incredible, and these are the things I call the invisible tasks.”
You’ve brought me very neatly to my next question. Initially a reader might think, well what does all this have to do with the workplace? But actually the fact it’s usually the woman who’s thinking and planning and has all this on her plate on top of work…it takes up an enormous amount of head space.”
“It takes up an enormous amount of head space, that’s it. It doesn’t necessarily take up an enormous amount of space on your to-do list. It may feel like in your home things are split fairly equitably: I fluff, you fold, I wash, you dry…but this thinking, this constantly thinking through all of the moving parts…where you need to be, where your child needs to be, when the school is open, when the forms are due, when to buy the uniform, practice has changed - it’s mental energy.”
One of the things you pick up on in the book is that few women felt their husbands did enough at home. The husbands, though, felt they did quite a bit – and most did a lot more than their own fathers. According to the Pew Research Center, the amount of time American fathers spend with their kids has almost tripled since 1965.
Both halves of these couple worked, but the women told stories of the guy heading straight to his tool shed at the end of the day instead of picking up the baby, or not cleaning up after dinner even though that was his regular chore. Still…
“Another thing that jumped out at me from the women you interviewed was the extent to which…a lot of them actually felt that – almost that it really was their role to do this or their husbands couldn’t do it the way they could, or this idea of he doesn’t notice if it’s dirty…he doesn’t even see it, so I just do it because it would never get done, and I would be driven crazy by it, that kind of thing, and I think that’s so interesting because it brings up the question of how much of it is coming from us, and how much is coming from the outside.”
“Yeah, and I hesitate around this discussion because I don’t want to put it all on the woman. I mean clearly men need to step up their role at home – you look at their statistics, you look at the women in the book, there’s more men could be doing. At the same time there is a level of maternal gatekeeping that we back ourselves into these roles at home. And again I think it has to do again with how we were raised what we saw our mothers do, what we hold as the image of a perfect mother, there are so many factors. But if women can learn to let go…I go out and speak to groups of women now the book is published and one of the things I say is put down the mop. Whatever the mop is for you…if it’s making a perfect hospital bed when you make the beds in the morning or whether your child’s clothes are pressed, whatever it is, try it for one week, just one week, no one will get hurt. And you’ll see you can free up some more mental time and physical time…and, you know, start to let go of your standards.
There was a woman in the book who I thought said something rather interesting. She said you know when my husband sends the kids to school and forgets a snack he says, ‘Oh, I forgot the snack today.’ But if I send my kids to school without a snack I think, ‘I am the worst mother ever.’ So it’s perspective.”
“Right. It’s the societal pressure on women to be perfect and of course to be perfect mothers because that’s the role we were born to play…and you also talk about the occasion where Michelle Obama described herself as mom-in-chief and all the writing and blogging that took place after that…and that really struck me as well because I think very much that at the end of the day society still thinks that is what women should be above all else and that is our most important job, in quotes…”
“That phrase crops up in the media every three months, right? That motherhood is the most important job. And you even have the president saying it. And I don’t buy it – I don’t buy it for a number of reasons. One is that we have to shift to think if that’s the most important job, it has to be parenting is the most important job.
“The other thing I think is interesting about this pressure we feel is that it used to be pre social media that you’d feel this pressure by looking at celebrity moms…somebody would have a baby and they’d lose the weight and be out and about and then back to work on a film…You’d say, why can’t I be like that? But intellectually you knew that actress was paid to be that thin and perfect – and had a whole army of people helping her. Now, we do that to ourselves by posting our most perfect moment on Facebook, so now I go on Facebook and see the woman down the street having a wonderful family night, or going on a fabulous vacation, or celebrating a great career success. So now it’s harder I think to not compare to what we think other women are living - you know, these perfect lives they might be living.”
And again, that kind of endless comparison eats your mental energy – not to mention your self-esteem. In short, stay off Facebook. Talking of comparisons, a lot of women Liz spoke to felt there were double standards when it came to how parents are perceived at work.
“You see the man who’s leaving early to coach his kid’s sports team being lauded as a great father and a good guy, and someone we should promote. And you see the woman who’s leaving early to catch the bus, as oh, not so committed to work, she’s a mom. I think the real change will happen when these men start to find a way to say hey, I want what she has. I think more and more men – and you see studies coming out of Boston College Center for Work and Family – you see more and more men saying I want more balance in my life…they may have been raised to say I provide and I die, right? But they are realizing something much more fulfilling is happening in the home…”
But it’s still risky for a lot men to say they want more time with family. In the US, the attitude at most workplaces is that work comes first. I know someone who works for a global company based in New York. When his son was born several years ago he had the opportunity to take paternity leave. But he was taken aside by some male colleagues and told not to do it. They said taking time off to be with his baby would make him look like a slacker. So he didn’t take his leave. That’s totally different from the attitude in Europe, where you’re expected to take your paternity leave, and looked on askance if you don’t. We’re going to hear more about European attitudes to career and family in a minute.
SQUARESPACE SPONSOR BREAK HERE - use the code 'BROAD12' to get a 10% discount when you sign up.
After talking to Liz, I decided I wanted a man’s view on some of this stuff. And I knew exactly the man I wanted. Simon Kuper is a Financial Times columnist. He and his wife live in Paris with their three children, a seven-year-old girl and five-year-old twin boys. Life in the home, fulfilling? Yes, but also unexpected.
“I grew up thinking that I would have a job and I’d have a family, but I’d never conceived of having a family being that, you know, you’re woken up at 7 in the morning by children making a noise, and then you have to help everyone get dressed and brush their teeth and then you want to be back at 6 to spend time with them and you end up completely exhausted at 8.30 by time they fall asleep, etcetera. And when the weekend starts you face 36 hours straight with them. And I’d never imagined that.”
Why would he? When he was a child in the seventies, as he wrote in one of his columns, girls grew up playing with dolls and visiting new babies. Boys didn’t. They grew up thinking they’d have time to themselves.
“When I vaguely thought about having children I thought well, you know, there’ll be a child or two but I’ll really just work…and I didn’t really think about who would bring up the children. Now I find myself in a situation I hadn’t expected at all and that makes it probably more difficult, because there’s a voice in me that says if you weren’t putting the children to bed now, or if you weren’t going to spend the entire weekend with the children, you could do a million other things, you could do all your work, or go to movies, or go to Rome, you know, all these fantasies, whereas I should really be thinking, well, this is my life.”
I started to say this made sense – that no wonder men feel quite proud of themselves for the work they do at home given most of them weren’t raised to think they’d be playing these roles at all. But Simon disputes the idea that men feel smug about their contribution.
“Almost all the men and women I know would subscribe to the statement ‘men and women are equal’, so we should both raise the children, we should both work. I don’t really know people who would dissent from that statement. So when I do the same amount of childcare as my wife or perhaps a bit less, nobody says, oh, that’s wonderful, you’re doing as much as a woman, people say that’s about right, that’s what you should be doing. I think men don’t largely feel in my circle we are wonderful, we’re doing a lot of childcare, it’s just what your wife and yourself and your friends expect from you.”
I don’t see quite that level of egalitarianism here in the US. Life in this country involves more hustle these days what with stagnating wages, expensive childcare and rising healthcare costs. It’s also a work culture of long hours.
“A job in upper-middle class America is more than full-time. And so generally you can only have one more than full-time job per family. Whereas what I see with my friends in Europe, male and female, is we all work 90% - we never quite do the extra hour, not because you’re lazy…but because you have to take the kids to school or get the kids from school…so both men and women I see with families in my generation in Europe, we’re not maxing out our careers, we’re doing as well as we can and more or less trying to get by in these years…I think that’s a difference from the upper middle class American families I see…where the man is maxing out his career and kind of has to, to earn the family budget, and the woman has left her career.”
And that does happen, of course, even when both parties earn well. Vanderbilt University released a study earlier this year - it found women from America’s most elite universities were less likely to work once they had kids than other educated women.
Liz O’Donnell says her book is really for the women in the middle - people who actually can’t afford to give up their job, but in many cases have had to give up their cleaner.
“So women who are saying I really want a fulfilling career, I want to add value, be valued, I want a good paycheck and a good job, but I can’t do it at 60 hours a week, and I’m not willing to make the personal sacrifices that are required to go all the way to the C suite.”
Simon Kuper says he and his male friends aren’t willing to make those sacrifices either.
“There’s this debate among women about, you know, how hard it is to combine work and family and how women are in this really difficult position, which is all true. But I think what that debate ignores, and I felt it reading the Sheryl Sandberg book, is that most men I know have many of exactly the same problems. I’d like to be the most successful journalist in the world but I have to – at 7 in the morning I have to spend the whole weekend in playgrounds shouting at people, so…
AM-T: Can I just say, you’re not doing too badly…
Well, I make huge work sacrifices, so all these Sheryl Sandberg arguments about how women should lean in, you know, most of my male friends it’s the same, we’re not leaning in, who has the time to lean in to your career the whole time? So I think that the Anne-Marie Slaughter and Sheryl Sandberg argument is all totally valid, and it’s definitely harder for women, especially in the US, but they talk as if it’s only about – as if only women have these choices, which is just false.”
Simon Kuper. Thanks to him and Liz O’Donnell for being my guests on this last show of the year.
I’m going to post some show notes under this episode at The Broad Experience dot com, including a link to a recent study on men, women, childcare and housework – as well as a few articles about attitudes to paternity leave.
That’s The Broad Experience for this time. I’m taking a break till late January, but if you’re a newcomer to the show or you’ve missed an episode or two, there’s plenty to catch up on. A few favorites from this year are the 6-woman debate on Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, the show I did on professional women and sex, and the show I did on women in Kenya.
You can find all those via a link on the homepage and also on iTunes.
The Broad Experience is supported by the Mule Radio Syndicate – they – and I – want to find out more about my listeners so please take 5 minutes to go to Mule Radio dot net and fill out the survey they’re linking to from their homepage. As some of you know putting this show together every 2 weeks takes a tremendous amount of time and energy and I don’t get paid for it. Filling out that survey will help when it comes to finding the right kind of sponsors for this podcast and getting more of them. So please fill out that survey. It really will be helpful.
I love hearing from people so if you have thoughts or suggestions about the show shoot me an email at Ashley at The Broad Experience.com. And please keep spreading the word about the show.
I’ll be back in 2014. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.