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Posts Tagged ‘work-life balance’

I’m starting to wonder if this presidential election might hinge on apron strings.

In the wake of the last debate, we’ve all been caught up in binders and trapper-keepers and funny Facebook memes – along with some hijinks on Amazon, where a bunch of smartypants hijacked several binder pages.  I think we’re missing the point.

According to the New York Times, both Obama and Romney are in hot pursuit of the women’s vote.  Which is to say, they seem to think that Double Xers may determine the next president of the United States:

 … And on the campaign trail and on the air, the candidates and their allies argued intensely all day over who would do more to help women. At the same time, the topic of whether the heated encounter Tuesday night had alienated the very female voters they were seeking to connect with became fodder for cable TV discussions.

The level of intensity left little doubt that the election was coming down not only to a state-by-state fight for territory, but also to one for the allegiance of vital demographic groups, chief among them undecided women.

Whew.  Whether the chattering class is right or wrong, it appears we have a lot more power than we’ve had in quite the while.  Let’s think this through.

The bedrock issue in the debate over the women’s vote has had to do with reproductive rights:  abortion and contraception.  Key issues.  Agreed.  Especially because the next president will more than likely be appointing one, or maybe two, justices to the Supreme Court, who may hold the future of Roe V. Wade in their hands.

And then there’s the funding of Planned Parenthood, which not only provides family planning services, but also provides women without health insurance life-saving care for breast cancer, among other medical issues.  My friend was one of them.

But the real issue as I see it is the vision of women’s role in the workplace and the home.  I found one of Gov. Romney’s responses in the debate to be key.  The question had to do with inequalities in the workplace, including the pay gap — Go here for a state-by-state chart of gender pay inequity — which the Governor sidestepped with the unfortunate comment about binders.  What I found revealing, not to mention troubling, was the end of his response, which related to the woman he had hired as chief of staff while governor of Massachusetts:

 Now, one of the reasons I was able to get so many good women to be part of that team was because of our recruiting effort, but number two, because I recognized that if you’re going to have women in the workforce, that sometimes they need to be more flexible. My chief of staff, for instance, had two kids that were still in school. She said, I can’t be here until 7:00 or 8:00 at night. I need to be able to get home at 5:00 so I can be there for — making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school. So we said, fine, let’s have a flexible schedule so you can have hours that work for you.

On the surface: flexible schedule.  Good.  One of the issues we’ve been writing about is the challenge faced by working women, who put in the same hours as their male counterparts, and then have to dig into the second shift when they get home.  But look again at the governor’s answer, then ask yourself this:  Where was the chief of staff’s husband and/or kids’ daddy at 5:00?

That’s it, right?

Why is it that in 2012 some folks still assume that household and childcare duties are women’s work?  And why, as one of the sources in our book fumed, do we plant work life balance smack in the middle of the “women’s issues” silo?  Shouldn’t this be a human issue?  A family issue?

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I cook dinner most nights, no matter what time I get home from work.  And I’m damn good at it.  No, scratch that.  I’m really good at it:  I inherited my culinary mojo from a long line of incredible Italian cooks (Ask me about my aunts’ gnocchi or cannoli sometime, or my mother’s ability to throw together anything fantastic without a recipe).  Plus, I like to eat good food.  But that’s my choice.  Proscribed gender roles have nothing to do with it.

The issue here, as the presidential election heads down the home stretch, has to do with perception as well as policy.  And I suspect that the nuances of the latter are often driven by the former.  And in this case, the perception in question is gender roles in the home as well as the workplace.

Cue the aprons.

The most recent time-use survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that women still own the second shift. Most telling stats?

On an average day, 19 percent of men did housework–such as cleaning or doing laundry–compared with 48 percent of women. Forty percent of men did food preparation or cleanup, compared with 66 percent of women.

All of which, presumably, is on top of a 52 hour work week.

Now, can a president do anything to change all that?  Probably not.  But given that I have been given a lot of power in this election, my vote goes to the guy who doesn’t assume my place is in an apron.

Speaking of which, my husband is wearing one right now.  I’ve got one eye on the Giants game as I write this.  He’s firing up the ‘que and throwing together a salad.

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Now that the chatter about Marissa Mayer has started to grow cold, let me admit that the whole conversation has pissed me off.

In case you’ve spent the past few days under a rock or — same thing — totally unplugged, Marissa Mayer is the former Google superstar who was annointed CEO of Yahoo on Monday. Her story went viral when she casually announced that she was preggers, telling Fortune Magazine: “My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it.”  Those 14 words ignited a shitstorm.

What made me incredibly cranky is how retro the conversation quickly became: It wasn’t about Marissa Mayer, 37-year-old brainiac tapped to become one of only 20 women at the helm of a Fortune 500 company. But Marissa Mayer, new mom:  How on earth will she manage?  When will she bond with her newborn?  How in the hell will she ever run Yahoo (which, it should be noted, is in desperate need of turnaround.)

All the backchat and the judging that came with it? Sheer lunacy.  And, yeah, more than a little bit retro:  Would we be talking about any of this if a soon-to-be-a-father had gotten the top job at a major U.S. company?  You know the answer. No effing way.

What makes me crazy is what we’re not talking about: the real reason the conversation caught fire in the first place. And that’s the fact that the U.S. remains one of the least family-friendly countries in the industrialized world when it comes to public policy and workplace structures. And that, when it comes to managing the almighty juggle between home and work, the problem is seen as purely a woman’s to solve.

We never seem to question that.  Or ask why, when we talk about ambitious women like Mayer, we make what should be the political intensely personal: What will she do?

Who cares? What really matters is what we – men and women alike – need to do to make work work for all of us. Let’s start with public policy. Ours sucks. To demonstrate just how much, look at Sweden. As we reported in Undecided, Sweden subsidizes preschool and elder care—and provides thirteen months of paid parental leave that can be taken in any increments until the child turns eight—reserving at least two months of that leave for fathers. As a result, 85 percent of fathers take parental leave. And those who don’t often face the stink-eye from family, friends, and coworkers.

By contrast, here in the U.S., the Family Medical Leave Act entitles eligible employees unpaid, job-protected leave for twelve workweeks after the birth of a child.  Period. As for valuing work-life balance? In spring of 2010, Congress failed to pass the Work–Life Balance Award Act, a thoroughly benign bill that would have established an award for businesses that develop and implement work–life balance policies.  And child care? Legislation to establish early childhood education and day care programs, with tuition on a sliding scale, was passed by both houses back in 1971.  Then-president Richard Nixon vetoed it.  Some forty years later, the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies reports that only one out of six children eligible for child care assistance receives it.

Then there’s the workplace itself, which is still more reflective of the days of Don Draper, where there was always a Betty at home to take care of business, and Don could come home (or not) whenever it suited him. But how many families live like that anymore?  In this economy, how many could?  And so Betty, like Don, puts in the expected 52-hour workweek, and then comes home to do the laundry.  And sure, while many forward-thinking companies now allow employees to be flexible, what that often means is that, whether you’re at the office or at home, more than likely, you’re at work.  At two jobs.

And finally, let’s look at our social culture, by which I mean: where are the men? Despite the fact that most working women put in the same long hours as their husbands, when they come home, they still own the second shift.  To this day, we largely define work-outside-of-work in traditional gender terms: men do the yardwork and take care of the car, women do the dishes and take care of the kids. This is not to put down the male gender: I’m sure there are any number of guys out there who are more than willing to pick up the kids or fold the clothes, as a 2011 Boston College Center for Work & Family report on “The New Dad” found.  But where the conflict arises, Brad Harrington, executive director of the Center for Work & Family told Diversity Executive Magazine is within the cultural context:

Many working dads are stymied in their desire to spend more time at home because of age-old perceptions of men’s roles, both at home and at work. But it’s also partly because men want to have the best of both worlds. While many men in the Boston College study expressed an increased interest in being at home with their children, a large percentage also said they wanted to have greater responsibilities at work.

So trust me.  I am delighted that  Marissa Mayer was hired as CEO of Yahoo while being, you know, openly pregnant. She’s a great example of the fact that a woman can use her brain and her uterus at the same time.  And as such, she is sure to start chipping away at the maternal wall that holds many of us back when it comes to positions of power.  But let’s go beyond the obvious.  Rather than opining on whether Mayer will be a good mommy, what we really ought to be talking about is why the workplace remains so incompatible with motherhood in the first place – and why we assume that fixing that incompatibility is women’s work.

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In a meeting last week, another editor and I got to discussing the state of the food section of our paper. (Perhaps we were hungry.) He immediately went on a tangent (okay, we were hungry), talking about how he was so interested to learn recently of the history of food criticism; how the food pages, once the provence of women and full of “lightweight” stuff like entertaining tips and easy recipes, were revolutionized when Criag Claiborne took over as  food editor at the New York Times.

“So once a man took it on it became legitimate?” I asked in a teasing voice.

“Well…?” he offered.

“So once a man took it on it became legitimate.” I said.

Now, granted: (prior to the whole $4,000 meal debacle) Claiborne did, in many ways, revolutionize what it was to be a food writer — hell, it was no longer food writing, with Claiborne, it became criticism. Whether the food pages’ newfound legitimacy had more to do with the fact that a man was now in the driver’s seat–or the chef’s hat, as it were–or that this particular man was in the driver’s seat is a question I can’t answer.

But I do think it’s worth asking. And I got to thinking about a similar question yesterday, when I saw a piece in the New York Times about men taking jobs in traditionally female-dominated fields. It features male dental assistants, nurses (paging Gaylord Focker!), teachers. Which is cool. But this part is not:

But these men can expect success. Men earn more than women even in female-dominated jobs. And white men in particular who enter those fields easily move up to supervisory positions, a phenomenon known as the glass escalator–as opposed to the glass ceiling that women encounter in male-dominated professions, said Adia Harvey Wingfield, a sociologist at Georgia State University.

Must be nice. (Hell, I’d settle for stairs.)

Interestingly, many of the men featured in the article did not take their jobs because of a recessionary lack of better options, but actually swapped higher-paying, faster-track careers for the “pink collar” jobs for reasons that would fall under the headings of “career satisfaction” or better “work-life balance.” There’s a story of an ex-IT guy who left his $150,000 salary for a nursing job where he’ll make a third of that, and who got choked up talking about a little girl giving him a hug. There’s an ex-lawyer turned teacher who wanted more time with his family, even an Army vet turned nurse. From the NYT:

Several men cited the same reasons for seeking out pink-collar work that have drawn women to such careers: less stress and more time at home.

Which speaks to something a tad more positive. More like progress, glass elevator notwithstanding. The piece goes on to cite Betsey Stevenson, a labor economist at the Wharton School who we also happened to interview for our book. Here’s her take:

 [Stevenson] said she was not surprised that changing gender roles at home, where studies show men are shouldering more of the domestic burden and spending more time parenting, are now showing up in career choices.

‘We tend to study these patterns of what’s going on in the family and what’s going on in the workplace as separate, but they’re very much intertwined,’ she said. ‘So as attitudes in the family change, attitudes toward the workplace have changed.’

Intertwined. Ain’t that the truth? And hey, maybe now that men are tangled up in the juggle too, maybe ideals like “work life balance” will take on the flavor of legitimacy.

Just a little food for thought.

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Sure, there’s been a lot of chat about everything that’s wrong with Mad Men and why women in general and feminists in particular should hate its unrepentant misogynystic guts.  And let’s face it:  this is a show that glorifies gin, Lucky Strikes and getting laid (by anyone but one’s spouse).

What’s not to hate, right?

Not so fast. As Stephanie Coontz wrote a year or so ago in the Washington Post: “Mad Men’s writers are not sexist. The time period was.”  And so as a woman and a feminist let me unapologetically admit that I can not wait for the season five premiere on Sunday.  Sure, it’s great TV, and the attention to period detail is freakishly fantastic.  (Pause here to drool over those dresses.)  And, as nighttime soaps go, there’s one hell of a story going on.  But the real reason I love Mad Men – as opposed to, say, its short-lived period clones (read: The Playboy Club and Pan Am) — is because it resonates:

Lesson 1:  The Way We Were. Want to know what second-wave feminism was all about?  Or why we needed a focused movement?  Look no further than the women of Sterling Cooper who, with the exception of Peggy (more later), type their days away in the steno pool or, if they’re lucky, move up to the outer office, answering someone else’s phone.  What’s great is that Mad Men doesn’t pretend that these “career girls” are empowered – as Pan Am and The Playboy Club tried to do.  Instead, we get it right away:  these gals are as hemmed in by the intractability of the system as they are by their rigid underwear.  Their only defense against what we now call sexual harassment was a giggle and a shrug. And for those who wonder what The Feminine Mystique was all about, may I introduce you to the chain-smoking Betty Draper?  She left her husband (as well she should have), ignores her kids, and ran off to Vegas to marry another guy who treats her like a house pet.

 Lesson 2. Where We Need to Go. So, yeah, we’ve come a long way in terms of career. Back when I graduated from college — not that long ago.  or maybe it was —  it was still legal for an employer to list an administrative job in the “female” classifieds and a managerial one in the “male.” Most women who graduated from college were told they had three career options:  secretary, teacher or nurse. And prospective employers were allowed to ask women what their husbands did for a living. Ugh. But for all the progress we’ve made, the workplace still hasn’t caught up. Take away the ashtrays and the booze and if you look closely,  you realize that the structure of today’s workplace isn’t all that different from Sterling Cooper’s, where every Don had a Betty at home to take care of business. It’s still designed by, and for, men. But the reality is that in today’s world, Betty puts in 52 hours a week, just like Don, and then comes home to do the laundry.   Even when men step up at home in ways their fathers never did, there’s still the math: take the current workplace expectations, add in the omnipresence of technology that keeps us uber-connected 24/7, and there aren’t enough hours in the day for any of us.  Unless, of course, one has a housewife.

Lesson 3: Ask, dammit.  In a word, Peggy.  She started as a secretary. Ended up a copywriter.  Which apparently was pretty unheard of in those days.  So how did she end up with a title, an office, and a snazzy new job?  She asked. Enough said. All too often, even decades after the days of Sterling Cooper, many of us are afraid to put ourselves out there, for fear we might be labeled as ambitious and thus, less likable.  Or that we might get turned down.  And so we cross our fingers and wait to get the nod from a higher up – and then are grateful if we do.  Sometimes it’s the fear of failure that keeps us from taking those risks — the possibility that the answer might be a big fat no or that even if it’s a yes, we might fall flat on our face. But as the wise woman told us when we were reporting our book:  You’ll always get over a failure. But regret?  It’s not recoverable.

Lesson 4. Beware the personal brand.  And then there’s Don.  Okay, he’s a guy and we write about women.  But, regardless of gender, he is the embodiment of what we call the iconic self, that image we create to project who we wish we were.  Don is an illusionist, a mystery man who invented himself out of whole cloth and, as David Weigand writes in the San Francisco Chronicle, is “on the run from himself.”  Weigand, who compares Draper to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby (Fun fact: Fitzgerald got his start as an advertising copywriter), writes:

Fitzgerald, the Midwesterner who went East to reinvent himself, saw both sides of the American “dream.” On the one hand, ours has always been a culture of hope and aspiration. On the other, our abiding belief in change and the ability to reinvent ourselves can bring us perilously close to the edge of self-delusion.

In short, Don is a cautionary tale, a desperate example (cue the falling man in the opening credits) of how we can lose ourselves when we work too hard to become our brand. When it comes to Don, we wonder: is there a there there?  Who knows. But it definitely makes you ponder what Don might do with Facebook.  Scary thought.

Lesson 5. Embrace our differences as our strengths.  It’s a revolutionary thought, the idea that men and women bring different strengths and talents to the table. After all, we came up thinking that to be successful, we had to fit in — to be “a man in a skirt,” as one of our sources dubbed it.  But what if we could tap into our authentic, feminine selves and do what we do best:  Studies show, for example, that women negotiate in a win-win manner, we’re interactive leaders, we’re sensitive to subliminal cues; we’re multithinkers, multitaskers, and are more comfortable with ambiguity.  Not to say one gender is better than the other.  Just different.  Which brings up one of my favorite bon mots from Man Men, seasons past.  The context may have been different, but you gotta love the line: “Don’t be a man, be a woman. It’s a powerful business when done correctly.”

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Ahead of September’s “I Don’t Know How She Does It”–a movie based on Allison Pearson’s best-selling novel about the realities of life as a working mother, which stars Sarah Jessica Parker as the harried “She” in question–this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine ran a story about the film’s screenwriter, Aline Brosh McKenna, whose other credits include “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Morning Glory,” and “27 Dresses.” 27 Dresses aside, McKenna’s films represent a new guard. As writer Susan Dominus puts it,

McKenna makes romantic comedies in which the romance is not so much between a woman and the perfect man but a woman and the perfect career.

…McKenna’s solution to romantic-comedy fatigue is not to ironize the genre or make fun of its characters’ (and therefore its audience’s) quests for fulfillment, but to give them what they want: a great guy and a great job, a happy family and professional success.

…McKenna plays out, in a frothy, mass-market format, the fantasies promised by ’70s feminism: that you can have a big career without sacrificing a personal life.

Which begs the question: to what extent is the idea of having it all a fantasy? And, in the same way fairy tales are demonized for conditioning little girls to expect some Prince Charming to appear and “rescue” them, can a frothy portrayal of a woman charmingly overcoming the struggles associated with having both a great job and a happy family cause us to expect that sort of juggling act to be easier than it really is? Does it prompt us to pile more onto our plates, to toss more balls into the air, to beat ourselves up more, when our job or our family isn’t the stuff of a summer blockbuster and we still have trouble managing it all?

Interestingly, in the book “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” the protagonist ultimately gives up her high-powered job in favor of a part-time gig that allows her more time with her kids. But McKenna opted to change that:

She decides instead to test the boundaries and carve out a better personal life while keeping her full-time job. (Another fantasy: Work-life balance, with no professional cost.)

A fantasy as dreamy as any Prince Charming. On the other hand, do such tales represent a step forward? After all, an ambitious–if naive–journalist’s attempts to succeed at “the job a million girls would kill for,” or the story of the daily struggles that comprise a working woman’s life–well, they’re infinitely more relatable than, say, Cinderella. Women today were raised with big dreams. Why should we–or our big-screen counterparts–give them up?

The thing is, though, in chasing them down, I’d venture to say most of us have found ourselves juggling. Most of us have likely found that juggle a little crazy-making, too. Most of us have probably worried that we could do better, more. Most of us have likely wondered if we’re measuring up.

And most of us have likely found that there’s no such thing as having it all. So maybe the happiest ending is in a contented acceptance of that. Maybe the new-new happily ever after looks more like happily chucking that ideal, once and for all.

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This just in, ladies: Balancing a job and a family is hard! And, a recent study out of the University of Washington shows, the less difficult you expect it to be, the more likely you are to be depressed  when the rubber meets the road–when your expectations smack up against reality.

Color us unshocked.

The trouble, the study suggests, has as much to do with our own expectations as it does with a workplace that’s still designed as though every employee had the benefit of a full-time wife at home, someone to take care of the kids… and all of the day-to-day business that keeps a life running smoothly. Not insignificant: American women are attempting to do it all in a country with rather dismal structural support for working mothers, in terms of time off after childbirth or subsidized day care. And as real–and important–as those issues are, there’s more to it that that.

Women today are raised being told they can have it all, though rarely are they let in on the way this charming slogan translates to the real world–as if through an evil game of telephone–that, more than likely, they’ll have to do it all, that what they’ll really have “all” of is the work. We’re raised to believe that feminism is old news, the fight has been fought, the battle won–even while we’re presented with an ideal so impossible it would be laughable, if it weren’t so oppressive: while the Enjoli woman of yore was intimidating enough with her bacon and her pan, today the ideal has even more balls in the air: in addition to raising her children perfectly (and feeding them only organic bacon) and making the most of her potential at the office, she’s untouched by the hands of time, doing work that’s deeply satisfying and meaningful for the world at large, finding personal and spiritual fulfillment and capable of a perfect downward-facing dog.

All of which is not to say that women are better off staying at home; to the contrary, in fact. Stay-at-home moms were more likely to be depressed than working moms. So how to handle it? The researchers of the study suggest that the best way to deal is to “Be gentle with yourself and accept that balancing work and family feels hard because it is hard, rather than feeling guilty or unsuccessful if you can’t devote as much time as you would like to your job and to your family.”

And we’d agree. As Ramini Durvasula, PhD–a clinical psychologist, professor of psychology and director of the psychology clinic and clinical-training program at Cal State Los Angeles–told us when we spoke to her for our book, “What I want to communicate to young women is, ‘You can try many of these things, but there are going to be challenges. If you think you’re going to be able to screw your husband, raise your kids, clean your house and go to work, you’re mistaken. You’re going to have a messy house, an unscrewed husband, kids you’re not always with, and a job you can’t always do.”

Or, from a write-up on the study in U.S. News & World Report, “working moms may be happier when they delegate and let a few things slide — in other words, let someone with more time run the bake sale, make sure your husband is doing his share of the laundry folding and limit your work hours when you can.”

And we’d add to that: every choice entails a trade-off. If you’re reading this article right now, you are by definition not frying up organic bacon in a pan, or baking a batch of gluten-free cupcakes for the kids’ school fundraiser, right? To hear that we can’t do it all is, at first blush, an ugly message, but it’s also freeing in its simplicity: you can’t be in two places at once. So perhaps in addition to doing what we can to change the structural roadblocks, we should be doing what we can to address those expectations, revamp that slogan, and cut ourselves some slack.

A tough message, but according to this study, it seems that your happiness might be riding on accepting it.

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Oh, Tina Fey. How do I love thee?

In the current New Yorker, Tina Fey lays it all out there, as only she can. Work. Parenthood. Guilt. Aging. Enjoy:

The writer’s daughter recently checked out a book from the preschool library called “My Working Mom,” which depicted a witch mother who was very busy and had to fly away to a lot of meetings. The two men who wrote this book probably had the best intentions, but the topic of working moms is a tap-dance recital in a minefield. What is the rudest question you can ask a woman? “How old are you?” “What do you weigh?”

No, the worst question is: “How do you juggle it all?” The second-worst question is: “Are you going to have more kids?”

Science shows that fertility and movie offers drop off steeply for women after forty. The baby-versus-work life questions keep the writer up at night. She has observed that women, at least in comedy, are labeled “crazy” after a certain age. The writer has the suspicion that the definition of “crazy” n show business is a woman who keeps talking after no one wants to fuck her anymore. The fastest remedy for this “women are crazy” situation is for more women to become producers and hire diverse women of various ages. That is why the writer feels obligated to stay in the business, and that is why she can’t possibly take time off for a second baby, unless she does, in which case that is nobody’s business. Does the writer want to have another baby? Or does she just want to turn back time and have her daughter be a baby again? That night, as she was putting the witch book in her daughter’s backpack to be returned to school, the writer asked her, “Did you pick this book because your mommy works? Did it make you feel better about it?” Her daughter looked at her matter-of-factly and said, “Mommy, I can’t read. I thought it was a Halloween book.”

Funny, in an idiot-shivers kind of a way. First: A kids book called “My Working Mom” in which the working mom is a witch was actually published? Just… wow.

Then, of course, there’s Fey’s disturbingly pithy definition of the word crazy. (I read another interesting piece about aging while female in Hollywood this weekend here.) Sure, Hollywood–especially writers, especially comedy writers–is kind of the worst of the worst when it comes to sexist work environs, and it’s a relatively small sample. But. It’s disturbing when you consider what Hollywood writers do. They, quite literally, create the cultural myths that haunt and inspire us. And “they” are over 80% male in movie writing, 75% male in TV. Never wonder again why fat old men are consistently paired with beautiful twentysomethings.

And then, there’s the motherhood question. What will a baby mean for my career? What will another baby mean for my career? We’re often nearing a critical patch, professionally, at the very same time that our fertility takes a dive. Which leaves us with a choice–Ramp down the career?–and, often, a compromise. Questions and choices that are damn near universal for women. But for men… well, not so much. It’s like they wrote the script for corporate culture, too. Oh, wait, they did: they built it.

But, like the rest of it, the question of what’s at stake if we leave is universal. Don’t get me wrong: I realize Tina Fey is Tina Fey, and you and I are, well, not. But, whether we want to see Hollywood’s definition of “crazy” get a makeover, or our employer’s (not to mention our government’s) policies made over to accommodate the reality of working women’s lives, we have to stick around.

Just one more thing to juggle.


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