I just read a disturbing article on Forbes.com about how the culture at tech companies causes women to leave tech jobs. My immediate response was that while things are particularly bad in tech, it’s definitely not limited to tech. I’m a lawyer, and I deeply identified with several of the stories, particularly those about how it’s nearly impossible to be a decent parent and work a demanding job.
Without even having to think too hard, I can come up with several anecdotes to add to the fray:
- My friend returned from maternity leave early at her boss’ request, and was given an office in which to pump that had floor-to-ceiling clear glass panels in the walls. She had to cover over the glass with sheets of copy paper in order to have a modicum of privacy. Oh, and the office door didn’t lock. Try pumping three times a day under those circumstances, I dare you.
- My friend once stayed home with her one-year-old, who was sick with coxsackie virus (also called hand, foot, and mouth) and thus couldn’t attend daycare. Her boss called her at home and told her he needed her to be in that day, so she should find a babysitter and be at her desk by noon. She felt forced to leave her baby, who had a 103 degree fever, with a babysitter she’d never used before who was in effect a complete stranger.
- My friend concealed her pregnancy with her third child for close to 20 weeks because she was certain when her boss found out, he’d remove her as lead negotiator for a high-profile deal. And yes, I know this kind of treatment is illegal. The reality is it still happens and it’s maddeningly difficult to prove.
And then there’s my own job. I loved my job. It was challenging, interesting, I had brilliant coworkers and a boss I worshipped. When things got rough, my boss went to battle on my behalf to get me a part-time schedule; I will be eternally grateful to her for her efforts. And yet…the year I was part-time (my last year at the company), I worked Thanksgiving Day, I worked Christmas Eve, I worked New Year’s Eve, and I was an hour and a half late to my own birthday dinner. I worked nights. I worked weekends. I took ugly, adversarial conference calls at 7:00 p.m. on Friday nights, periodically muting the phone and begging my children to be quiet so no one would hear them playing in the background. I flew to New York City for meetings with 24 hours’ notice, frantically trying to cobble together childcare on the outbound flight via terrible wifi. I routinely worked 40+ hours per week for less than a third of my previous full-time compensation. And I missed a big event at my daughter’s preschool, for which I will probably never forgive myself. That missed preschool event – and my daughter’s resulting heartbroken tears – was the final straw. It caused me to open my eyes – really open them – and realize my work had bled over the line of acceptability and was actively damaging my marriage and my children’s well being. I gave notice shortly in its wake.
Here’s the rub: I am one of the incredibly lucky ones. First, I could afford to go part time at my job, then walk away from it altogether. I didn’t stop working entirely when I quit, but initially took less interesting, lower-paying work elsewhere in order to get my hours under control. I could do this because I have a supportive spouse whose work situation gave me some flexibility with my own work.* And second, I have a great childcare situation, which sadly is not the case for a lot of working parents today. I’m putting my story out there with full knowledge that there are a lot of moms and dads who have it much rougher than me.
And it all makes me angry. I still miss that job, that company, the people, the challenge. It’s the career equivalent of the one who got away, and I think about it with regret.** Yet, I bent over backwards and nearly blew up my marriage trying to make that job work, and with all the advantages I have, I still couldn’t do it.
Looking back, I don’t believe this was a failure on my part, although it felt that way at the time. With full respect to the amazing Sheryl Sandberg, I tried my damndest to Lean In, and it just didn’t work. The consequences for leaning in were too high.
Today’s work culture is dysfunctional for many of us. We need to face the reality that the culture of the always-on, always available, 60+ hour workweek carries significant consequences for both women and men, and one of those consequences is that it’s driving smart, talented women out of the workforce or onto lower-achieving tracks in the workforce. It’s causing sexism in certain industries to remain static or worsen.
And I don’t believe for one minute that this is solely a “women’s issue”. I know far too many men with great careers who would like to work fewer hours, or have more flexibility, or just turn the smartphone off sometimes without fear of repercussions. It’s also not just parents who face these obstacles. This type of work culture equally damages people dealing with major life crises such as caring for aging parents, divorce, or family members battling addiction or other illness.
I wish I had some brilliant suggestions for how to fix things, but I really don’t. I do, however, hope that talking about it is a step in the right direction.
In truth, I found it terrifying to write this post. I’m even more terrified to hit publish. I don’t typically discuss my personal baggage. But being honest – not ashamed – about the challenges we face as working parents strikes me as critical.
To that end, if you have story you’d like to add to this conversation, please email us at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, or comment below. We’d love to talk with you. Thanks, friends.
* I don’t wish to divert this post with a discussion over why the onus was on me to shoulder more than 50% of the parenting duties. My husband and I had several lengthy discussions and agreed one of us had to dial down our work obligations. After exploring all options, there were several reasons why it made more sense for me to do so rather than him. It was about our family’s particular circumstances, nothing more.
**My current work situation is outstanding. I feel incredibly fortunate to be where I am professionally today, and I don’t mean to downplay or diminish that in any way. However, my current work satisfaction does not take away from the fact that I regret the circumstances under which I left my previous job.