Aspen Summer Reveals an Old Theme

07/21/2011 11:04 am ET | Updated Sep 20, 2011
  • Meryl Chertoff Executive Director, The Aspen Institute’s Justice and Society Program

Thirty years ago, when I was a law student, I lived across the landing of a Cambridge walk-up from a well-respected young scholar of French feminist studies. We had a nodding acquaintance, but I noticed one odd thing about her comings and goings. Each weekday without fail, she would come home at midday, slam the apartment door, and an hour or so later would emerge. A single set of footsteps would echo in the hall, and she was gone. One day, I asked her about her midday sojourns. Sheepishly, she confessed her secret vice -- she regularly followed a particular soap opera. She was addicted, but embarrassed to think that any of her protégées might learn of her politically incorrect predilections. She pledged me to silence, but in return, I extracted from her a synopsis of the current plot line. I laughed when I learned that not much had changed in the soap opera bubble since a couple of years earlier, when confined to bed due to some passing ailment, I too had begun to follow the show for a brief time. In the soap opera universe, I learned, change came very slowly, if at all.

In the years that followed, I married and practiced law while trying to juggle that with caring for babies and aging in-laws. I tried family day care, drop-off care, babysitters, nannies and being a stay-at-home mom (the last, a mistake for me). I struggled in a thousand ways, like many women of my generation with advanced degrees to use my training, or at least my brain, while still raising decent, happy and productive children and providing emotional support to an extremely driven and successful husband. A husband whose parents also needed me.

Which brings me to a recent evening in Aspen, Colorado, when I was lucky enough to be a guest at a gathering hosted by some of my colleagues at the Aspen Institute. The topic of the evening was Women in the Workplace, and the panelists all agreed that women had made significant strides -- the glass ceiling was cracking, hotels were taking pains to be more sensitive to the needs of female business travelers, and so on. One speaker announced that his wife had a career just as relevant and meaningful as his own, and that they shared household responsibilities equally.

The room was filled with successful entrepreneurs, many of them women, most at least ten years younger than I am. Where, I wondered in the discussion was the "k" word -- kids. There was minimal discussion of them among the panelists, who painted a rather rosy scenario. I didn't have to wait long. No sooner had the floor opened to questions then a half dozen women, in order, let the panelists have it with both barrels. Apparently I wasn't the only one who thought something was missing. But wait, said the moderator, a single woman -- not all women have child-rearing responsibilities. Quite right. But many single women, and a lot of moms are responsible for the care of someone, be it an aging parent or close friend. Somehow in our culture -- whether we define that locally or globally -- women remain, disproportionately, the caregivers.

I wanted to ask the proud equal-care dad if when one of his children woke in the middle of the night with a fever of 102 degrees, that child called out "I don't feel well...Daddy." Somehow, I doubt it.

And that takes us back to the French professor's secret. After all the years of advancement in the workplace, and all the debates over equality, even these young, entrepreneurial leaders, women at the top of their game who seemed to me far more together than I ever was while raising my kids -- even they were frustrated. Even they felt trapped by someone else's rules, with one-size-fits all expectations. Change comes slowly, if at all.

Still, there are bright spots. Just this week, one of my colleagues was promoted only a few weeks after returning from maternity leave. Her time out didn't "count against her" as it surely would have fifteen years ago. A couple of years ago Georgetown Law, where I then worked, initiated a nursing room, an acknowledgement that yes, female law students, faculty and staff might indeed be the mothers of infants and might actually need to bring those infants onto campus. I cried when I read the news. It would have been unthinkable in the year of the soap opera.

With two kids on the cusp of adulthood, I can now look back and say I tried pretty much every option as I raised them. Each option was good, each was bad. Even today, with every hiccup of their emotional development as young adults, I ask myself, was I home enough when they were little? Did I pay enough attention when I came home from a day of work drained and exhausted? Did I model well to my girl? To my boy? The truth is, there are no right answers; every family works out its own accommodation. Disposable income helps, but it is not the end of the discussion. The ongoing challenge is not to remake women -- the Aspen group of young female entrepreneurs was indeed impressive, but they are not the only impressive women of that age and younger. Solutions will come only with efforts to change the culture, particularly the culture of the workplace, to respect difference as fully as we have come to embrace equality.

Meryl Justin Chertoff is the Director of the Justice and Society Program at The Aspen Institute and adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center.