Sandberg says women shouldn't leave before they leave. In other words, when women are planning their families, they start taking a backseat at work well before the little bundle of joy arrives on the scene. They sometimes do this years in advance, thinking, "Well, I'm going to have a child someday. I'd better cut back now so that I can more easily fit that child into my life."
She's right that women pay a hefty professional price when they curtail their ambitions. No group of women is at bigger risk of poverty than mothers. The workplace isn't set up very well to accommodate women (or men) who leave to have babies. That needs to change, of course. But in the meantime, it makes sense to position yourself to make a quick return later.
Men rarely plan work around their families. There are some exceptions, but in general, men go for the opportunities they want and figure out how to fit work with family life later. Most men in leadership positions have wives at home who care for their children. That's the only way men can put in the long hours that leadership usually requires. And that's great for many couples, if that's what they want to do.
But here's the pervading problem: women are expected to make those professional sacrifices, just because they're female. Men--not so much.
Workplaces are built around the assumption that workers are available pretty much whenever, especially if those workers have leadership ambitions. Even though more women work than ever before, the average work week is actually getting longer in the United States, taking people away from their families for longer periods of time. If a man has to work 60-80 hours, something's got to give. It's usually the wife's career. And, of course, family time. Men experience even more work/life conflict than women do.
There are three areas people typically target when they're seeking changes in the workplace: (1) helping women improve their chances of getting to the top (2) helping workplaces see the value of becoming more family-friendly. (3) promoting legislation that encourages better balance for working parents.
All of these are important, and I hope people will take the initiative to create change. But, more specifically, I'm calling on one group of people to join the family-friendly work cause.
Each of these routes to change will be more likely to succeed if men get on board. I'm not talking about indirect power here. I'm talking about cooperation between the sexes. This issue is important for everyone.
How would our culture and workplace change if men asked themselves questions like these:
- Does my wife bear the brunt of family responsibilities (even if she's working)? Is she happy with this arrangement? If not, what can I do to help even things out?
- Do I feel threatened if a woman's professional achievements parallel or surpass mine? Do I put women into "mom" or "career woman" boxes? Do I send messages, whether deliberately or not, that high-achieving women are not suited for family life or vice-versa?
- Am I happy with the hours I'm working or do I wish to spend more time with family or other personal pursuits?
- Is my wife happy with the career sacrifices she's made? Does she make a disproportionately large share of sacrifices for our family and is that what she wants to do? What are her goals and ambitions?
- What does it take to achieve leadership in my organization? Do these requirements make sense or are they based on face time rather than productivity or leadership qualities?
- Does the status quo make sense (for example, are long residency hours for prospective doctors helpful or just how things have always been done)?
- Are there women in my organization who would like to get ahead but who are being overlooked because of their gender?
- Are there other men in my organization who are unhappy with their work/life balance? How can we work together to change things?
Work/life balance is not just a women's issue. That's how it's often seen, unfortunately, because women traditionally put their own needs and desires aside for others, while the same is rarely expected of men. Women usually do the compromising. But men have families, too, and they don't always want to be the absent breadwinner. Family-friendly workplaces are family issues, and the sooner men recognize that, the faster change will happen.