You know the conversation. You are sitting in a conference room with some female colleagues before a meeting begins and you talk in hushed voices about the challenges of balancing work and family, about your Saturday morning breakdowns, about how your boss just asked you to travel on Mother's Day, how you have not seen the kids or that you left one of them with a fever, or how you just wish you could work in the company's office closer to home, or work part of the day from home, you wonder how much longer you can do this. Just then, the attendees arrive, your conversation ends, you stiffen and straighten up and carry on as if nothing but the work matters. Underneath, you know nothing could be (or should be) farther from the truth.
I spent 20 years in the corporate world; most of them at the executive level with large, global luxury brand. I have lived on the other side, peddling beautiful yet unnecessary objects to women and men, believing that we were selling substance and quality, in love with them ourselves, but at the heart of all of it was the power of aspirational things that came in a blue box. During that time, I was a working mother, a wife, an employee, I traveled, I commuted three hours a day (because my employer would not allow me to work in the headquarters an easy 30-minute drive from home), and because of those extra two hours I spent on the train, I saw my children for only two hours each day, most of which time I was cooking dinner and preparing their things for the next day. It was miserable, and yet I did not conclude this was a ridiculous paradigm. I concluded I was simply not cut out for it, while the others I worked with seemed more hip, flexible, modern, something.
But the truth is that it was not me, and it is not you. The false images of perfect life, and by extension of the ingredients of a happy life, sold to women in the 1950s after WWII are not all that dissimilar to the false imagery pushed at women today by mass media and marketing, only it is now a half century smarter, slicker and with boatloads of help from technology. We are bombarded with images and discourse showing us how we should live, what we should be able to do, accomplish and master, how we should be able to juggle work, family, fitness, marriage, self and whatever else comes with grace and ease. The unattainable ideal of the superwoman has not faded, it has gotten worse. Despite our intellectual awareness that this ideal is unrealistic, the messages about what today's working, supposedly equal, and "leaning in" woman should want and be capable of are deeply seated in our thinking and emotions and they drive our expectations and assessments of ourselves. This ad from Organic Valley is a much needed and refreshing break from the ridiculous mass marketing depictions of what a working woman's life is like, even if just for a moment. But the truth is, despite it's humorous take on a working woman's day, it is not at all funny.
Let's review. We still don't have equal pay, women's health is declining from chronic, unrelenting stress and the pressures of role overwhelm, our traditional family roles and the division of labor at home has not changed significantly enough to support balance, and workplace polices continue to exploit women and men at the expense of the family... oh, and you are getting paid only 77 cents on each dollar paid to the men who just walked into the room.
Why does this continue? I'll tell you. It is because you allow it to. The real question is why are you silent?
I get that we are not in the middle of the women's revolution anymore, but the push for equality remains unfinished until women are able to meaningfully change the work environment, structure and schedule in order to create a healthy and sustainable model for men, women and families that supports the unique (but equal) needs of women. But organizations will not give up their position of power in this relationship willingly, it has to be demanded by the workers, by society, by you.
So how do you do it? No, you will not want to show up at your place of work with a picket sign or walk off the job. I am definitely NOT suggesting you do that. But, I am suggesting that, using the same intelligence and strategic thinking with which you approach your work initiatives, you can create a movement in your workplace that may bring positive change.
1. Don't go it alone. Get the women you talk with in hushed voices together for an informal lunch, maybe create a lunch group that meets once a week. You may just need to share and vent at first, but then you will discover you can do something more. If you can get one at a management/senior level to sponsor or join your group, even better.
2. Discuss what would help you bring balance, be specific. Bring in evidence-based research that supports your goals, whether they be flexible schedules, shorter days, or family related policy, such as paid maternity leave. Demonstrating how family and "well-being" friendly policies result in many benefits to both employee and organization including health, productivity and attendance will make your case compelling and harder to ignore, because who would not want those things?
3. Create a proposal that you can share. Invite your HR team in to one of your gatherings to hear what all of you as a group have to say. If you work for a high profile company, and you have enough people involved, the ease with which you can bring work practices to light in the media may compel them to listen a little harder.
4. Here is one last idea to chew on for the real activists out there: Sweden is leading the way in social policy with this test: Sweden to Experiment with 6-hour work day . Interestingly, if you do some quick math, a 6-hour workday is 75% of the usual 8-hour day, which as it happens would bring women very close to the 77% of pay that they currently receive for their work. Now that's a movement I would love to see - 77% of the time for 77% of the pay. And you know what, I believe we (men and women) would still get the job done - 100%.
5. If that doesn't work, maybe we paint some picket signs. Let's face it, a weekend of protesting might be less stressful than a typical work day.
In the end, the only reason not to accommodate family friendly (and well-being friendly) policy changes is a collective will not to do so on the part of your management and society and an even stronger will to maintain the status quo. These socially constructed ideas that working more hours always equals more productivity, results and dedication are an illusion. It doesn't, and many studies confirm this. Arianna Huffington has so well noted in her efforts to raise consciousness about it, "Pay people for judgment, creativity, innovation --not stamina" (Huffington, 2014) .
So why break your silence? Because when men and women get balance back in their personal and family lives, good things happen: health and mental well-being improve, families thrive and that happiness and engagement goes back into the work, resulting in even more productivity. That is a real win-win.