THE BLOG
03/23/2013 02:34 pm ET | Updated May 23, 2013

When Caring Costs Too Much

Alamy

We've all now thought about Sheryl Sandberg's new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Sandberg encourages women to take on greater responsibility in the workplace and improve their leadership potential. But here's an interesting statistic in the context of all the discussion of whether women should or should not be "leaning in" to their careers: by a substantial majority, women prefer a better work-life balance to a bigger paycheck.

As the working mother of two small children this is not a surprise to me. But my burden pales next to that faced by the 42 million Americans who care for an elderly or very ill family member or friend. Fifty-six percent of these caregivers are women. In al the talk about women and leadership, we need to take a moment to remember that because women are the majority of caregivers for babies and for the elderly and sick, women will not achieve full equality until the burden of caregiving stops having such a high financial cost.

Sandberg offers a great piece of advice: women should pick a great partner, who will support them in child rearing and the demands of home life. You can pick a great partner (I'm proud to say I did) but you can't pick your parents- or your spouse's.

Yes, we have the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which requires public agencies and some employers to provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave (and continuing medical benefits) to employees. FMLA acts as a safety net for those who have no choice but to give care full-time themselves. However, FMLA only applies to companies with more than 50 employees. Consider the fact that a majority of Americans are employed by small businesses, and we can see what a huge problem the sandwich generation of caregivers has on its hands. Year on year, the number of people using FMLA to provide eldercare grows, while our policies regarding family care stagnate.

A huge cause of income-related losses (wages, etc.) for women is caring for elderly relatives and friends. A woman who contributes a significant amount of unpaid care loses on average $324,000 in wages over her lifetime. In comparison, researchers estimate that the average high-skilled woman worker loses $230,000 in wages over her lifetime due to childcare. Informal, unpaid caregivers (think, bringing mom to her doctor appointment or making dinner for your great aunt) contributed $450 billion in help to older adults -- and two out of three say caregiving has impacted their work. The amount of caregiving America's workers (particularly our working women) have taken on is impacting not only their ability to increase their salaries, it's impacted their ability to lead at work and to be present and productive on the job- unless our system changes.

This framework is interesting for me as an advocate for working parents because in my experience, taking time away from work to care for young children is often seen as negotiable, and a choice. Is the same true for those of us who have to care for a relative with a terminal illness, or a parent with dementia? I'm honestly not sure, but it's a conversation that needs to happen. Over the past year, as I have worked with AARP and other organizations on expanding the conversation around caregiving in this country, I've felt a kinship with the many working caregivers older than me who still have to fib to get out of work, or always feel as if they are headless chickens, too much to do and no time to do it.

Much of the criticism around Sheryl Sandberg's philosophy in Lean In has centered on the fact that people feel she blames women for their lesser success, and not employers' or even the federal government's poor family leave laws. I don't think this is true, although I have not read the book. I believe Sandberg understands the role public policy must play in making work better for women.

But media coverage of Sandberg's book plays into an unfortunate narrative that leaves caregiving by anyone except the mother of young children out of the conversation. What I know is true is that we have a shortsighted view of the purpose and importance of family leave. It's too often seen as an issue for younger working mothers. In truth, AARP reports "42 percent of U.S. workers have provided care for an aging relative or friend in the past five years. About half (49 percent) of the workforce expects to be providing eldercare in the coming five years." Our current policies and workforce culture will not support the rapidly growing need for more comprehensive solutions that allow workers to address their responsibilities at work and their duties to parents, relatives, and friends who need care.

What Cali Yost has termed the coming "eldercare cliff" will offer us a renewed chance to examine the benefits of workplace flexibility and better legislation around caregiving, bringing eldercare into the conversation.

I would like to see all caregivers -- from new moms to Boomers caring for elderly parents, men and women, band together and demand a plan for a workplace that understands caregiving is non-negotiable.