Changes for Working Moms Start Small

By Elizabeth Markovits, associate professor of politics

This article was first published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on May 15, 2013.

Thanks a lot, Sheryl Sandberg.

On top of all the hard work that working moms do to keep their paychecks coming and their families functioning, you just added another big-ticket item to the to-do list: lean in, speak out, and “reignite the revolution.”

For many of us, the very thought of this is simply exhausting. We already know that a working mother’s reward for her work is often to make less than both her male colleagues and her female colleagues who don’t have children – even doing the same job, with the same education and level of experience.

Meanwhile, many working mothers aren’t even sure they want to “make it.” They want more, not less, time to devote to their families, and they want to achieve other important personal goals. The institutional obstacles are also huge, from the lack of paid family leave and meaningful part-time options, to the expense and scarcity of high-quality childcare.

Culturally, the tide still works against women, whether through internalized messages that women really aren’t cut out for leadership, that no one else can do the housework and childcare as well as they can, that being too outspoken or powerful is a turnoff, that we need to make compromises because we can’t have it all … But.

Sandberg, the chief operating officer at Facebook, is right. As long as women aren’t making it into the boardroom or the manager’s office or City Hall, not only do we lose 20 cents every hour we work and find ourselves with a Congress that is 82 percent male, but we also find it more difficult to contest the terms of success or to find alternative ways of creating the work-life balance we really want.

Right now, every woman who makes it to the top — and every man who wants to be with his children — has to be a revolutionary, which is more than should be required of any one person.

But we don’t all have to be heroes, smashing glass ceilings with our brains, pluck, and co-parenting partners. There’s a front line for everyone in this battle. This is equally true whether you are a woman, a man, a parent, a stay-at-home parent, a part-time worker, or a CEO.

The secret is that it’s okay to start small. Starting small leaves no excuse for not taking action. In fact, incremental progress on what may first appear to be smaller issues can lead to big improvements. We know that women in the workplace often reach a point at which all the big and small discriminations, inflexible policies, and snide comments become too much, and they simply, in Sandberg’s parlance, lean back. If we can remove that last straw before it breaks her back, we can keep women on their way to the top and get closer to real equality—a world where men and women are both as equally likely to run the country as the household.

Here are four practical ways to get started today.

  • Find, publicize, and revamp your workplace family, disability, and sick leave policies. You don’t have to be in the human resources department or CEO’s office to do this. I have found that many people, even those affected by these policies, do not know what’s offered or how best to use it. Moreover, these policies may be outdated, illegal, or contribute to retention issues that cost workplaces money. Become the go-to person for this information.
  • Make it easier for pregnant women and new mothers to stay on the job. Are workers allowed to sit, to take breaks to rest? Is there a dedicated space for nursing mothers to pump milk at your work? Are there parking spaces for pregnant individuals? If not, find room for a lactation station or parking spot and make a proposal. Even if you don’t need these policies, chances are someone in your workplace does. Talk to them and see how you can be an ally.
  • Determine how your workplace practices affect workers who are also parents—and change them. Schedule meetings and important work events during school hours. Also, keep employee schedules as consistent as possible. Childcare centers usually require set schedules; unpredictable or frequently changing work scheduling adds an unnecessary burden.
  • Collaborate to develop “on-ramps” for full-time caregivers who want to return to work. Many women—and not just elites—take a period out of their work lives to stay at home with their children, especially when the kids are very young. If you are a full-time caregiver now, what programs and policies might facilitate your return? Reduced fees for licensing? Help with fulfilling continuing education requirements? Is it possible to begin discussions with old colleagues and bosses, within professional associations, and with other full-time caregivers to imagine and then secure the support caregivers need, whether through those associations, employers, or grants?

Sandberg has been slammed for claiming that all women need to lean in. (She doesn’t, by the way.) But the truth is we’re all in this together. Whether or not I want to lean in, I want my children to be able to make that choice for themselves. We need to “lean small” starting today, whether from our laptops during naptime or from the corner office, so that everyone is eventually able to make decisions about their life’s work according to their own vision, not according to tired and tiresome stereotypes.

Elizabeth Markovits is an associate professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley.