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Jan Sharry Headshot

Embracing Our Duty

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A lot has been written recently about the need for women to take responsibility for their own careers. Whether they are being told to "lean in," "demand a seat at the table" or "think less, act more," the message is that women themselves are responsible and must take actions that promote their own career goals.

Although there is some limited rhetoric suggesting the need for other women to assist or mentor them, there is very little talk that would even suggest that it is a women's "duty" to maximize career possibilities for others. A duty exists where there is a moral obligation to take action. Is there a duty owed to other women and to future generations?

The existence of any such duty runs contrary to the woman's right to make their own choices. For many, this right to choose still seems the principle relied upon for deciding not to pursue the top job, the stressful job or in some cases even any job. It is hard not to believe in a women's right to choose her own path (especially in her career choices). But shouldn't we also be talking about the duty that women owe to each other and to the future? Shouldn't this duty be recognized within the context of making this personal choice? Could the recognition and reiteration of this duty be a way to change some of the statistics and keep more women in the work force? If we stressed a duty to other women, would we have more women CEOs, more women board members, more equality in pay? If we don't recognize this duty and speak it with conviction, will we ever be able to achieve the parity and equality for which we all yearn?

It is very difficult to balance a women's right to choose with a duty she might owe to other women and to future generations. After all, it is that women's life. She should be able to make her decision taking into account what is good for her and her family. In some ways it is very hard to argue with this tenet of personal choice. But in life we can't always make decisions that ignore the needs of others. We don't ignore the future or the effect on others when we make the decision to recycle. We balance these needs and our individual level of commitment against the mess it causes in our garage. Recycling is not the same, I know. But what about duties we owe to our country or to our parents?

We must implore women to balance other women and future generations in their analysis and to recognize the fact that duty may require them to make sacrifices. In the end as a working mother, many of the sacrifices I made were not about my children -- they were about the loss of my personal time and space.

In some ways, alternative work policies were meant to provide a way to keep women in the work force until they felt they could recommit to their careers. All of this was meant to change the system and to promote free choice. This is good and laudable on its face since providing these alternatives does keep some women in the workforce. But providing these alternatives also means that many who would otherwise somehow make it work and keep career-focused are now taking a step back. And if all women step back, could we ever expect women to have all of the qualifications and experience necessary to get to the top?

I am not saying that we should abolish all alternative work policies or that all women must remain in the work force. What I am saying is that in making the decisions on career vs. motherhood, one of the factors that women must consider is the moral duty they owe to other women and future generations. We can't ignore our duty to them. We can't make these decisions without considering the effect they have on other women. We stand on other women's shoulders and future generations need to be able to stand on our shoulders.

In order to achieve true equality in the work force, the CEO suite and the board room, more women must be willing to balance their personal choices with their duty. All women deserve these opportunities and our grandchildren need us to keep the movement going. We must state this duty out loud and embrace all that it may require us to do.