A few months ago, during a trip through Southeast Asia, I found myself in a small Laotian village at 4:30 in the morning, watching a sea of saffron-robed monks quietly making their way down a dirt road to the monastery. What made their procession even more memorable was the silent audience of villagers, mostly older women, kneeling by the side of the road, rising only to place an offering of sticky rice into the men’s baskets. This happens every morning.
It was a serene, beautiful sight far removed from the typical American morning of rushed stints on the treadmill, coffee to go and auto-pilot commutes to the office. I wondered what these monks and the women who honor them would think if they woke up one morning in the United States and realized that there was no procession to the monastery.
“What do you mean there’s no procession?” they might ask. “When do the monks go to work? What do they eat if nobody gives them sticky rice?”
I experience this phenomenon every time I travel: What seems totally normal, the default way of living, for people in other countries is a complete departure from the norm for Americans — and vice versa. Next to the exotic food and spotty Internet coverage, gaining a different perspective on what is normal is one of the best reasons to travel.
Americans take for granted that our way of life is the only possible way to do things, and then we find ourselves kneeling on a small square of cloth before dawn and are reminded that it isn’t.
When it comes to gender roles and the role of women in the American workplace, what counts as normal is changing dramatically. A higher percentage of women than men earn college degrees, according to “The Gender Gap in College Enrollment and Graduation” on The Population Reference Bureau’s website. A generation of young people are entering the workforce and placing a higher priority on work-life balance than previous generations did.
Given those pressures on the supply side in the labor market, employers soon will have a much stronger incentive to create a new normal: a workplace that accommodates flexibility and family demands, whether it’s caring for children, a sick spouse or elderly parents.
If “normal” doesn’t change — if long hours in the office and a culture that equates family obligations with a lack of commitment — employers, including firms, will find themselves competing for an increasingly small pool of people willing to work under the old rules.
Clearly, I’m not the first person to bring this up. Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former director of policy planning at the State Department, penned “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” for the July/August issue of The Atlantic. Her article, inspired by her decision to step down from her dream job because she worried about the impact her absence had on her family, ignited a debate on seemingly every talk show and among columnists and bloggers everywhere about whether the trade-offs for success are worth it.
One of the most telling anecdotes Slaughter related was that, when she said she was leaving to spend more time with her family — which can be Washington-speak for “this person was fired” — her colleagues went to great pains to clarify that Slaughter really and truly did leave to spend more time with her family.
Slaughter writes: “Think about what this ‘standard Washington excuse’ implies: it is so unthinkable that an official would actually step down to spend time with his or her family that this must be a cover for something else. . . . [T]his sentiment makes true work-life balance exceptionally difficult. But it cannot change unless top women speak out.”
One of those “top women,” of course, is Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, who has become a YouTube sensation through her talks advocating for more women in high places. Sandberg, though, puts much of the onus on women, particularly younger women who don’t yet have children or elderly parents, to stay in the game and push through the barriers to success. Only by staying in the game, she says, will there ever be enough women at the top to make a difference for those working their way up.
In contrast, Slaughter puts most of the burden on employers. She offers up several ideas for making the American workplace more accommodating to those with family obligations: flexible working hours, a redefined career track that allows occasional downshifts, and management that really believes families come first.
But the solution isn’t going to come solely from employers adapting or from women soldiering on. The change needs to come from both sides.
Ultimately, it all comes down to simple economics. American companies need talent, and women, increasingly, are the talented workers they need to keep. There’s data to support the notion that having women in positions of authority makes good economic sense. “The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women’s Representation on Boards,” a study by the nonprofit Catalyst, shows that Fortune 500 companies with more women board members performed better than those with fewer women on their boards. And, as Slaughter noted in her Atlantic essay, there’s even evidence to support that offering family-friendly policies provides an economic boost to those companies.
Will such policies and the culture they hope to create ever become the new normal in corporate America? And if they do, will they ever take hold in the legal profession? In some ways, they already have. Speaking from my experience, it seems that more firms offer flextime policies today than they did 20 years ago. When I became a lawyer in the 1980s, “balance” wasn’t even up for discussion.
True, it’s discouraging that the legal profession is moving at such a glacial pace. But progress is progress, and I’m not inclined to belittle the advances we’ve made. People just have to keep pushing, speaking up and providing data. The only way lawyers who care about balance are going to bring about a new normal is to show beyond a doubt that the current model isn’t the most profitable one.