International Women's Day was earlier this month, and I spent the week speaking to many different audiences, largely of women, from big corporations to a small community college. My impressions and take-aways over the course of the week provide a snapshot of the state of the movement toward genuine male-female equality in the U.S.
On Monday I spoke to the employees of Novartis at their New Jersey headquarters. A big turn-out, mostly women, but with a number of men who participated and asked questions. Novartis has many different flex policies, as many large corporations now do. But what was most interesting is that the application for flex-time is "reason-neutral." Employees must show that working flexibly would be good for them and good for the business, but they do not state any reason why they want flex-time. It could be to take care of children or elderly parents, or it could be because an employee simply works better at home part of the time. The great advantage here is that parents, mothers in particular, are not singled out and stigmatized. Just as many colleges have "need-blind admissions," corporations could move to "reason-neutral flexible work."
Monday evening I drove to the Raritan Valley Community College in North Branch, New Jersey, to speak to an audience of about 75 faculty and students. It was a lovely audience, with a group of about 20 women from the pioneer feminist generation, women in their mid-60s and up who were the vanguard of women in the workplace. They weren't breaking glass ceilings so much as forcing their way through the door, opening it for the rest of us to enter and thrive. From an era in which "woman" and "family" were essentially synonymous they were determined to create the choice of work.
A young faculty member at Raritan raised a point that I had not considered before. She asked about same-sex couples and their impact on the work-family movement. I replied that the rise of same-sex couples is very important for challenging the deep gender biases and stereotypes that we still contend with in allocating caregiving and breadwinning responsibilities in a heterosexual couple. In a couple of two men or two women it cannot automatically be the woman who becomes the primary caregiver for children or elderly parents. She agreed, but pointed out that for the couple itself, the absence of default roles (the man is the breadwinner; the woman is the caregiver) can be destabilizing and even disorienting. How to know who is doing enough? Where is the starting line and the benchmark against which "equal" can be measured?
By Thursday I was in Chicago at an awards ceremony for the Womenetics POW Awards luncheon. Womenetics is an online set of tools and a suite of courses for empowering businesswomen. The POW awards (for purposeful women), went to nine extraordinary women from the larger Chicago community, all of whom had been chosen through a complex selection process that involved voting by their employees and managers. They included a neuroscientist, the CEO of an earth-moving company, the first lay president of a Dominican college who was also one of the youngest university presidents in the country, a very successful Hispanic entrepreneur, and an African-American executive vice president of a large banking firm who was also the board president of the National Girl Scouts.
In the conversation before the awards ceremony, the two awardees of color argued that many minority women they knew left their company jobs not due to a lack of ambition but because they could see that they would not be advanced up the traditional ladder. They said that for many such women, starting your own business is the only way to go. One of the CEOs present argued that women should be making the business case for flexibility, pointing out the advantages of retaining employees rather than having continually to train new people or even to bring current employees up to speed on specific projects. All these women were calmly confident that "when women are engaged, business improves; the family improves; the community improves." It's good for the country.