Friday morning found me at an event at the New York Times Center for HSBC. One of the panelists was Irene Dorner, the refreshingly down-to-earth and frank CEO of HSBC USA. She told stories from her time in the business over three decades: from 1985, when the only restroom that she could use in the entire Bank of England was the one adjacent to the Governor's office, to 2005, when her colleagues held an event in a London club that would not allow women into the bar. As she dryly pointed out, had she been excluded because of a disability or because of her religion, her partners would never even have considered holding an event in such a facility, but did not think that exclusion based on gender was a problem. The difference that 20 years made? She kept quiet in 1985, but in 2005 was perfectly willing to raise a fuss. And as CEO, she says that "business has to make it possible" for workers to pursue their careers and take care of their families at the same time.
Friday afternoon was Johnson and Johnson, another corporation with a wide array of flexible work-life policies but only woman on the Executive Committee. J&J has a robust women's employee network that operates across different locations in the U.S. and abroad and sponsors programming not only for women, but also to allow women to come together and support projects empowering women around the world. One of the announcements for International Women's Day was J&J's co-sponsorship of Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In initiative; the company will be disseminating Lean In materials and encouraging Lean In circles. It was an interesting glimpse of the value of effective top-down organization with regard to rapid dissemination of both a message and a product. The women I saw were both excited and receptive.
The week culminated at South by Southwest, an invitation that to me was enormously exciting and actually gave me some street cred with my teenage sons. (On the other hand, I managed to fly back next to the actor Paul Rudd without knowing who he was, a parental transgression so uncool as to almost get me disowned when my sons found out. After three different flight attendants came up and said how much they liked his work, I at least had the sense to ask him who he was.) Jessica Coen of Jezebel interviewed me about work and family before some 300 people. True to the under-30 tech generation, the audience was at least a third guys, several of whom asked questions that were every bit as engaged on how to juggle work and family as those posed by women. Even more interesting, from my point of view, was a woman who asked how her husband could get back into the workforce after spending a number of years at home with their children. In subsequent discussions, several of my tech friends described families in which the wife is bringing home a steady paycheck at a "regular job" while the husband stays home tending both his kids and his start-up. I take that as a very promising sign.
So there you have it: a week's snapshot from the front-lines of the work-family debate. I answered countless questions about Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg along the way and fielded numerous expressions of frustration and disbelief that "we are still having this conversation 50 years after the publication of The Feminine Mystique." Still, overall I found women and a growing number of men engaged, energized, and convinced we can together turn all this talk into action.