There Are Lots of Ways to Help Make Men and Women Truly Equal


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.

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.