THE BLOG
05/29/2013 06:05 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2013

You Can't Worry About 'Having It All' When You Already Have It

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Kurt Soller, Senior Editor of Fashion Features at "The Cut," an online blog for New York Magazine, penned a piece recently lamenting the omission of male professionals from the discussions around work-life balance spurred by the publication of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In. He writes:

Yet, as the having-it-all, lean-in debate has given a forum and vocabulary for women to articulate both their problems and aspirations, I'd argue it has pushed guys to the margins. That's exactly the point, I imagine women thinking to themselves as they're reading that sentence, but it doesn't make me any less jealous that women collectively seem to be a lot better at mentoring, giving each other advice, and helping each other succeed in both the workplace and family space.

Soller continues: "There aren't exactly Lean In groups for late-twenties dudes with solid careers who want to figure out how adoption or child care works over a few beers. Let alone whether paternity leave feels emasculating or unfulfilling."

To be fair, I think Soller is well-intentioned. As a fellow twenty-something male, I share a few of his concerns, but only in the sense that most folks our age worry about these things, regardless of gender.

What seems to be lost on Soller is that on top of all the worries with which everyone in our generation must grapple, women get the additional burden of societal, cultural and institutional pressures that men in the workplace do not face.

To say nothing of obvious issues (maternal leave and the gender wage gap), there are a myriad of other problems that, when brought up, are dismissed as "petulant, feminist concerns."

Actually, maternal leave, alone, is enough to make any woman (and her partner) crazy: If a woman takes more than a few weeks, let alone a few months, she risks being hated for "playing the gender card," but if she takes less than a few weeks, they'll accuse her of not being a good mother and/or being too ambitious.

It's nearly enough to encourage some women to avoid having children until they're well-established in their career (and some do), except by age 30, the average woman (with healthy reproductive function) has a fertility rate of 63%. By age 35, it's fallen to 52%. By 40, it's dropped to a dismal 36%. This is before we consider the fertility of their partner or for same-sex partners, the stress of finding an ideal sperm donor.

Time is not on the side of women with professional dreams who also want to have a family.

But what if women don't want to have kids? There's the social backlash and office murmurings that she's a lesbian (a crime in some environments, apparently), hates men (an absence of kids must mean an absence of sex, which must mean she hates men) and, of course, the time-honored tradition of knocking down ambitious women for being a woman and ambitious at the same time.

What about clothes and demeanor? Women must wear makeup, but not too much; wear feminine clothing, but not be sexy (or too sexy); be kind, but not flirtatious; smile on demand (as is frequently requested of them by male colleagues), but not in a saucy way. Basically, women in the workplace should be an unusual, impossible and rather creepy combination of mother and wife, nun and supermodel, consoler and lover, and do all of it without saying or doing anything that might harm some fragile male egos.

Then, it gets darker. Women are expected to put up with "guy humor" and inappropriate remarks, jokes and touching. Speaking out for, you know, that thing we call a "healthy boundary" is ripe for claims among men in the office that she's a "frigid, humorless bitch."

Part of our culture, especially in professional environments, is that men who hear anecdotal evidence that's offered say, "Well, I would never do that, and I resent being lumped together with men who do."

And that's true. Not all men do these things, but the vast majority of men allow it to happen. They are complicit in a sexist culture by not speaking up or by dismissing claims by aggrieved women as frivolous, shrill or any other adjective of your choosing typically used to describe women with "feminist" concerns.

Women's careers aren't normally stalled or killed based on their performance reviews. Their careers shrivel or thrive based on conversations among men at the water cooler, pick-up basketball game, beers after work and any other "male bonding" activity that comes to mind.

It's how you wind up with only 4% of Fortune 500 companies led by female CEOs and a whopping 107 of 111 occupations and career fields paying men more than women, on average, for the same jobs, by a lot.

Thus, when women talk about "having it all," it has more to do with navigating a rigged, biased system to reach a balanced, happy life than it does with asserting that men don't face "balancing issues" as well.

Soller isn't wrong about men facing a challenge in work vs. family. We can't have a society that discourages men from exercising paternal leave, for example. Or that teaches men they lack the "natural empathy" to be good caregivers, especially when so many single fathers are proving that wrong by raising children on their own and doing a fantastic job of it.

Where Soller goes wrong is in failing to see that while women and men do face similar obstacles in balancing family life with professional obligations/ambitions, it's only men who have a cultural system in place that favors their upward mobility.

Further, Soller confesses: "Because I work at The Cut (nearly 100 percent women, many covering these topics), I usually internalize these problems and this debate as ladies-only."

And that's part of the problem! The vast majority of women want men to be part of this conversation. They want men to engage in an open dialogue on gender equality. They want men to express concerns and ask questions.

A final piece of advice: No one is stopping you from asking a woman (or man) who is further along in your career field to mentor you and ask for advice on balancing work and family. In fact, I'm willing to bet most women with more experience would be delighted to give you advice.

As Gloria Steinem famously said on her encounters with college students: "I have yet to hear a man ask for advice on how to combine marriage and a career."

Lean in, Mr. Soller. Lean in.

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