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Posts Tagged ‘work-life balance’

Weren’t we all?

I came across that line Wednesday in a piece by Maureen Dowd, who quoted Michelle Obama as saying that her husband had spent so much time alone growing up that it was as if he had been raised by wolves.

Love that phrase, don’t you?

Think about it and you realize that, in a twisted kind of way, we’ve all been raised by wolves. As women in this new millennium, most of us are going it alone right now, figuring out how to navigate new and unfamiliar turf, without really knowing the rules once we leave the woods.

Growing pains? You bet. And you see them everywhere you look, in a variety of flavors. Here’s just a taste. In a piece in The Nation on the upcoming confirmation of Elena Kagan, Patricia J. Williams predicts that Kagan’s success as a lawyer will be characterized as “unwomanly” because, of course, success in such fields is equated with testosterone. She reminds us both how far we’ve come — and how far we’ve yet to go, noting that gender stereotyping is sometimes embedded in the language:

Forty years after the birth of modern feminism, we are still not able to think about women who attain certain kinds of professional success as normatively gendered. Officially, the English language does not have gendered nouns. Yet it seems that we do invest certain words with gendered exclusivity—nurse, fireman, CEO, lawyer—if only as a matter of general parlance. There’s a story that used to be ubiquitous about thirty years ago: a father rushes his son to the hospital after a bicycle accident. The boy is whisked into Emergency and ends up on the operating table. The surgeon looks down at the boy and gasps, “Oh, my God! This is my son!” The story would end with the question, “How is that possible?” Much puzzlement would ensue until the “Aha!” moment: the surgeon was the boy’s mother. In that era, the likelihood of a surgeon being female was so negligible that divining the answer became a kind of “test” of radical feminist sensibility.

Then there’s this, Vivia Chen’s piece from Legalweek.com that reminds us how much of our lives are caught up in trying to navigate that odious term called work-life balance. She reports on an interview with Harvard Law School grad Angie Kim whose sprint up the corporate ladder took a five year detour when her second child became sick with an undiagnosed illness. A few months back, Kim did some research and found that the majority of the women in her law school class had left the fast track. But the interesting thing (another sign of shifting terrain?) is what she told Chen:

“The ‘mommy track’ was renounced at birth for sanctioning boring flextime jobs with low plaster ceilings. But some of my not-fast-track classmates are using their clout and influence to create prestigious roles. A senior partner who brought many clients to her law firm, for example, now works 15 to 40 hours per week, mainly out of her home and on her own schedule… The author of a best-selling book on negotiations launched her own conflict resolution firm with about 15 lawyer and consultants. She works from home during school hours and after bedtime and takes July and August off.”

Kim argues that “the line between the fast track and the mommy track is blurring,” and that flexibility “is infiltrating more and more jobs and replacing traditional work values – long hours, face time – as the new workplace ideal.”

Positive signs? Could be, especially when you consider that as our workplace numbers rise — and with it our economic clout — we girls are in a better position to push for changes that work for us. Let’s look at Hanna Rosin’s piece in The Atlantic entitled “The End of Men.

What would a society in which women are on top look like? We already have an inkling. This is the first time that the cohort of Americans ages 30 to 44 has more college-educated women than college-educated men, and the effects are upsetting the traditional Cleaver-family dynamics. In 1970, women contributed 2 to 6 percent of the family income. Now the typical working wife brings home 42.2 percent, and four in 10 mothers—many of them single mothers—are the primary breadwinners in their families. The whole question of whether mothers should work is moot, argues Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress, “because they just do. This idealized family—he works, she stays home—hardly exists anymore.”

The terms of marriage have changed radically since 1970. Typically, women’s income has been the main factor in determining whether a family moves up the class ladder or stays stagnant. And increasing numbers of women—unable to find men with a similar income and education—are forgoing marriage altogether. In 1970, 84 percent of women ages 30 to 44 were married; now 60 percent are. In 2007, among American women without a high-school diploma, 43 percent were married. And yet, for all the hand-wringing over the lonely spinster, the real loser in society—the only one to have made just slight financial gains since the 1970s—is the single man, whether poor or rich, college-educated or not. Hens rejoice; it’s the bachelor party that’s over.

Rosin doesn’t mention things like the wage gap or pervasive gender stereotyping (see above) that effectively quashes our numbers right now. But she does make an important point: if higher education is the “gateway to economic success” as well as a prereq for life in the middle class, clearly women in the not-too-distant future are going to be calling their own shots.

What those shots might be, however, is what’s so hard to figure out. In “Doing Grown-up Wrong” on siren.com, Allison Hantschel asks “what we do when we don’t have what the Jonese have and worse, don’t even want it?” What she knows she doesn’t want: a big house in the country, a bunch of kids, a climb up the corporate ladder. What she does want? That, she doesn’t quite get.

Which brings us back to the wolves. We’ve been raised in one world and suddenly we find ourselves in another, roadmap not included. What now? Insert howl here.

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At least, that’s how it must look to researchers at UCLA who have come up with a landmark video picture of what work-life balance really means to today’s frantic families. The picture? Not so pretty.

On the surface, it’s more than a little bit creepy: Thirty-two families that allowed social scientists from UCLA to videotape every waking moment of their post-June Cleaver family lives. Reality TV, no edits. Ew.

Get past the voyeur factor, however, and what you find is life like yours. After coding and analyzing 1540 hours of video tape that chronicled everything from hugs to meltdowns, the researchers have come up with the first picture of what the New York Times reporter Benedict Carey calls “a relatively new sociological species: the dual-earner, multiple-child, middle-class American household:”

“This is the richest, most detailed, most complete database of middle-class family living in the world,” said Thomas S. Weisner, a professor of anthropology at U.C.L.A. who was not involved in the research. “What it does is hold up a mirror to people. They laugh. They cringe. It shows us life as it is actually lived.”

After more than $9 million and untold thousands of hours of video watching, [the researchers] have found that, well, life in these trenches is exactly what it looks like: a fire shower of stress, multitasking and mutual nitpicking. And the researchers found plenty to nitpick themselves.

What you find is that, when it comes to so-called work-life balance, there’s not a whole lot that isn’t work. The study found:

• moms still do more housework than dads (27 percent of their time versus 18 percent)
• husbands and wives were alone in the house only 10 percent of the time
• moms spent 19 percent of their time chatting with family members, either in person or on the phone, but only 11 percent taking “breathers” (the researchers called this “leisure”) while dads spent just about the same amount of time in chitchat, but 23 percent of their time was classified as leisure.
• household and childcare boundaries — who does what and when — were often undefined and blurred, which added to the household stress.
• the so-called “life” part of the worklife equation included more than just putting meals on the table and folding clothes but enforcing homework deadlines, tutoring, coaching, and coordinating schedules for everything from playdates to soccer games.
• both parents had large chunks of one-on-one times with their kids — 34 percent for moms and 25 percent for dads.

Crunch the numbers, and you have to wonder where the life comes in, as in having one. Leisure defined as “breathers”, as in a few minutes here, a few minutes there?  Doesn’t anyone just play cards?  Back to Carey’s story:

“I call it the new math,” said Kathleen Christensen of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which financed the project. “Two people. Three full-time jobs.” Parents learned on the fly, she said — and it showed.

The study also measured stress levels, via saliva that participants spit into small vials at routine intervals, allowing the researchers to track cortisol (the stress hormone) four times a day. Not a lot of good news there, either:

These cortisol profiles provided biological backing for a familiar frustration in many marriages. The more that women engaged with their husbands in the evening, talking about the day, the faster their cortisol dropped. But the men’s levels tapered more slowly when talking with a spouse. (A previous generation’s solution: “cocktail hour”)

Frankly, who wouldn’t want a cocktail? Or ten? Carey’s story notes the reaction of the field workers to all the household chaos:

“The very purest form of birth control ever devised. Ever,” said one [of the researchers], Anthony P. Graesch, a postdoctoral fellow, about the experience. (Dr. Graesch and his wife have just had their second child.)

And therein lies the rub. Even a researcher with a camera trained on the good, the bad and the ugly of modern family life has chosen to reproduce. There’s no doubt that even given what we know many of us still choose to raise families. There’s also little doubt that, especially in this economy, many women will stay at home with them. And yet. As the study shows, there’s something broken in the way it all comes down. There’s work at work. There’s work at home.

Maybe that’s balance. But should we really call it life?


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What a day for a daydream. Just as we’re settling into another week of work after a blissful three-day weekend, here come three signs of intelligent life in the universe. The common denominator? Changing the norms of how we think of work — and maybe even chipping away at the cult of busy-ness that encourages even five-year-olds to have dayplanners.

Sign No. 1 is a new study out of the U.K’s New Economics Foundation that suggests that a 21 hour workweek might help us all to flourish in the 21st century. From the study:

There is nothing natural or inevitable about what’s considered ‘normal’ today. Time, like work, has become commodified – a recent legacy of industrial capitalism. Yet the logic of industrial time is out of step with today’s conditions, where instant communications and mobile technologies bring new risks and pressures, as well as opportunities. The challenge is to break the power of the old industrial clock without adding new pressures, and to free up time to live sustainable lives.

And, from a piece in the Guardian about the study:

Citing the example of Utah, the study shows how the US state’s decision in 2008 to place all public-sector workers on a four-day week saved energy, reduced absenteeism and increased productivity.

The report argues that 21 hours a week is already close to the average length of time spent in paid employment.

“A lot of this is already happening,” said the report’s joint author, Andrew Simms of the NEF. “Job sharing is common practice … It’s going to be increasing. Maybe we’ll have less income and more time.

“Other than the benefit of having more time, what will happen is a reduction in inequality and the potential to be better-quality friends, partners and parents engaging more with communities.

There’s a daydream for you. Scaling back the workweek — even to just forty hours — would clearly allow more time for life itself. And what if that became the norm, rather than the exception, even for those in high-powered careers? I think we’d see a change in workplace expectations with a possible bonus: If we knew that no matter what our life’s work, we could still have a life apart from it, would we be more free in choosing what to do with our lives? More likely to follow our passions?

As for the second sign — something we’ve noted here before but clearly bears repeating — Reuters Life! reports on that Accenture study we noted above that found that millennial women not only believe they will find a balance between a “rewarding career and a fulfilling personal life”, but because of their sheer numbers are likely to have the muscle to make it happen. Possibly a “trickle -up” effect for the rest of us? From the story:

Accenture surveyed the 1,000 women because “we are always interested in attracting and retaining the best and the brightest,” explained LaMae Allen deJongh, noting that globally the company employed 60,000 women.

Women are soon expected to make up half the U.S. workforce and the so-called millennials, those born after 1980, are now one-third of the working population.

DeJongh, managing director of US human capital and diversity at the company, said the survey showed that “one-size is not going to fit all” when it comes to retaining women. Half of the respondents said flexible hours were important to them.

Finally, sign No. 3 may not be representative of anything but one enlightened dad, but here’s a post from our fan Chrysula’s blog. It’s written by a freelance photog who has chosen to be a stay-at-home pop, “a part of the first generation of men that could consider staying home an option.” He explains his choice this way:

My own father, by which I mean– the only father I’ve ever known–was a great dad to me growing up, but he worked until 9pm everyday, and was frequently away on long business trips. I knew this model wasn’t going to work for us. What it all seemed to boil down to was being there for my son when he needed me. A simple proposition at first glance, until I realized that it meant being on call 24/7 for the rest of my life. Simply put, that became my priority. Other parents may prioritize putting food on the table, paying for college tuition, helping others, keeping the world safe, or simply holding on to their own sanity or self respect. And who’s to say they are right or wrong? All I knew was that I never really had a choice.

“Many people would disagree, pointing out that not only is there a choice, but that it is a real luxury. I know I am very lucky, although I resent people highlighting it. On the other hand I know there are many impoverished mothers, who are secretly wealthy because they hold tight to what matters to them most. And I know that even a child can put up with great hardships, as long as they know someone is always watching over them. It seems to me that as a culture when we sacrifice the goal of being there for the sake of practicality, or comfort, or convenience, or even ‘the future’, that we risk a lot more than we gain.

“And that’s my balance. I do most of the cooking, almost all the cleaning, all the laundry, and the weekday food shopping. I do my best to scratch out some profit as a photographer. I don’t give a damn what people think about my life. And I pick my son up from school.”

Wow. Talk about sweet dreams.

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This ever-elusive work-life balance thing we’re all so fond of talking about? Well, what if the cold, hard truth is that there’s just no such thing?

I know, I know. Telling a woman who works and also has a life that there’s no such thing as work/life balance is pretty much on par with telling a little kid who’s foregone all manner of enjoyable mischief in the hopes of quality returns come Christmas morning that there’s no such thing as Santa Claus. Yet that’s just what author Fawn Germer suggests in a recent Huffington Post piece. And she might be onto something.

In “Work-Life Balance? The Mantra That Balances What Matters,” she tells us of her own experience:

Years ago, when I was still married and working as a newspaper reporter, I was drowning in an investigative project that stretched for ten brutal months. It was the most challenging and important work I’d ever done, but as that series became more consuming, I kept moving the mail and my junk to the guest bedroom where it amassed itself into a giant pile of unresolved clutter. One evening, friends gathered at our home before we all went out to dinner. Imagine my horror when my then-husband opened the door to the guest bedroom and said, “Look at this!” before exposing my secret mess.

Been there? Yeah, me too. Gerner continues:

In the midst of some of my greatest accomplishments as a journalist, I was exposed for the one failing that trumped everything. I’d failed in my traditional role as wife. I don’t think it was his intent to land that kind of blow on me, but I felt that, if I wasn’t a good housekeeper, I was not worthy. I was humiliated and I was crushed.

That, though, that one hits pretty close to home. The guilt she alludes to, the being judged, the need for approval, but even more: that “failure” on one scale can trump all our other successes. It’s a familiar feeling. And it makes me think. Is it a uniquely woman kind of a thing? How many men do you know who consider their successes at work irrelevant, or even slightly diminished, because they don’t vacuum as much as they should? Why are we so hard on ourselves?

I’ll get to that in a second. But first, back to Germer. She suggests that, ultimately, in our search for balance, what we find instead are choices.

Of course, if you come by my house today, you will see that my office doesn’t look much better than the guest room did on that particular occasion. I’ve grown into my identity and balanced myself out by making decisions that let me define success and failure, rather than tradition or guilt. That is how you achieve life balance. You do it consciously and on your own terms.

Though it seems so much easier said than done, I can see what she’s saying. And I think perhaps there’s a gem in her logic, a gem that should, in theory, help make our decisions easier: Do what you like; skip what you don’t. (For me, that means read, write, run, cook; as for making the bed and blow-drying my hair? Never, ever again.) All we need is to take an honest look at our lives, what we enjoy spending our time on and what we don’t; from that, we should be able to glean a little wisdom as to what really is most important to us. And then, we can use that to help us prioritize, to make our choices a little easier.

It’s a sweet idea in theory. But, it seems that, for women, often it just is not that simple. Suddenly opting to drop the balls that don’t matter as much to us as the others? That’s contrary to all the messaging we’ve heard for years: have it all, do it all. Be all things to all people. Friend, employee, wife, mother, daughter, office mom, domestic goddess, sexual superhero, kitchen queen, triathlete who can speak intelligently on any number of important subjects and tackle the Sunday NYT crossword puzzle in pen. On some level, we want to, we feel like we should be able to be superwoman, even while we call out that unholy icon as bullshit.

And so we keep those balls in the air. And we watch our sisters, with all their balls in the air, and think to ourselves: Well, if she can do it, I should be able to do it, too. What’s the matter with me? Rather than: I bet she’s as overwhelmed as I am. Why are we doing this to ourselves again?

(Not to mention the sad, not insignificant fact that if we were to blow off all the stuff we’re not so fond of doing, there is no bed-making, laundry-folding, hair-drying fairy waiting to swoop in and pick up our slack.)

But maybe, if we could decide to throw caution to the wind and let a few of those balls drop, maybe we’d find ourselves a little happier, our sisters a little less stressed out by the juggling act they’re trying to pull off, our lives perhaps a little less balanced, but tilted more in our favor?

Is such an idea way too good to be true?

I don’t know. But I’m going to mull it over in a minute. Just as soon as I make the bed.

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The fix is in, at least according to a piece in the Guardian entitled “If you only do one thing this week, stop talking about work at home.” So simple. And yet.

From the piece:

Sharing your working life with your partner can give you perspective, reassurance and a chance to offload, but banging on and on and on about the minutiae long after the working day is over can be counter productive.

When Cancer Research UK looked into modern relationships last year it found that 28% of us spent less than three hours with our partners each day, and that one in eight of us spent less than 10% of our time together conversing. So do you really want those precious conversations to be about the knackered photocopier?

Knackered. Doesn’t it make you wish you were a Brit? But apart from the envious slang, such a good point. Why do we bring work home? Either literally, watching a UCLA game with a stack of work in your lap to do in between plays (oops, did I type that out loud?) or figuratively, letting yammering about work suck the air out of the room, until you’re the only one left in it.

We’re acting like the boys.

Maybe we need the validation. Generationally new to this power world of work, do we need to prove that we’re one of the boys?  To identify ourselves with what we do — and bring it all home? Our male counterparts have done this for years. And the outcome? Not so great.

But back to the Guardian piece:

The trick is in accepting that we need to talk about work while learning to restrict the time we spend doing so. Switching off after hours is an important part of dealing with the stresses, strains and everyday irritations the workplace imposes on us. If the spectre of your annoying boss looms over your kitchen table just as he or she does your office desk then what’s the point in going home?

See, I think this is how we women can get it right. Embrace our differences, as Shannon pointed out yesterday. Realize that we are more than what we do. Smugly smile and note, as we stretch out after work, that kicking our pumps to the floor is one more sign that we as a gender have the capacity to get it right. Call it evolved.

Years back, I did a long magazine piece on the 60s hippie icon, Wavy Gravy. (The piece is so old, I can’t find a link.) You may remember him — apart from the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor — as the Clown Prince and Head of Security at Woodstock, famous for the line: “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000.” I profiled him in the late 80s, when he was living in a commune in Berkeley and up to his ears running a number of charities and non-profits, which took up all his waking hours.

At one point, I interviewed his wife, Jahanara, who said, somewhat ruefully, “Sometimes, you just want to play cards.”

Sometimes, you should.

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Yesterday I came across a post by Cindy Krischer Goodman on the Miami Herald‘s Web site, about a speech given by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the Commonwealth Institute South Florida. The appearance featured tales from Albright’s recently published book, “Read My Pins,” as well as a little personal history: she was a journalist, researcher, full time (single) mom to three daughters, and later a professor… all before ever stepping foot on Capitol Hill.

Pretty amazing. So amazing you might think you’ve nothing in common with the Artist Formerly Known as Madame Secretary. But believe me, you do.

In regard to work/life balance, Albright said: ‘There are no easy choices. Every woman’s middle name is guilt.’

Told you.

Guilt. It’s truly a woman’s problem, isn’t it? Much like the need for approval, it’s almost a birthright.

And what is it good for, anyway? I mean, I’m sure Jiminy Cricket would insist it serves a certain purpose, helping that know-it-all goody two-shoes on our shoulder ensure we don’t actually beat up the idiot driver who cut us off or steal the shoes we can’t afford or get busy with the guy in the mailroom, no matter how tempted we might be. But it’s not the same as a conscience–and I think we’re quick to confuse the two.

Nor do I think there’s any doubt that guilt weighs heavily on our choices. To a certain extent, it drives them. And keeps us looking over our shoulders. And stresses us out. That wicked emotion can be downright paralyzing. We don’t want to hurt anyone, put anyone out, do the wrong thing. It hits us from both sides, too: Sometimes we make choices we don’t really want, strictly because we’d rather not deal with the guilt. And other times, we choose to go the other way–and then are left feeling guilty over it. It complicates things, loading each choice down with some additional–and not necessarily relevant–worry. In the same way that factoring others’ feelings and our own fear of being judged out of our decisions requires conscious work, so does eliminating the guilt factor. How often do we do things we don’t want to do? Say yes when we don’t mean it? And women, with our oversized To-Do lists and our underdeveloped sense of balance–well, I don’t think it’s too wild a stretch to suggest the two are related.

So, how do we get rid of it? Hell if I know. But perhaps a good place to start would be to take back our middle names and cut that Guilt Monster down to size. Are you with me?

Crickets…

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The other day, one of our Twitter followers sent me a link, with a “What do you think?”-type note. (Using 140 characters or less, natch.) A click landed me on Harvard Business’ blog, and a post entitled “Why Are Women So Unhappy At Work?” The piece (written by a man–just for the record) quotes the findings from an earlier post by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy. In that post, entitled “Are Your Best Female Employees a Flight Risk?” Hewlett writes:

We found that in the wake of last year’s financial crash, high-powered women were more than twice as likely as men–84% compared with 40%–to be seriously thinking jumping ship. And when the head and the heart are out the door, the rest of the body is sure to follow.

Hewlett goes on to cite examples of what various companies are doing in order to keep their ladies on board. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before the subject of passion came up:

Intel created workshops aimed squarely at retaining one of its most at-risk populations: mid-level female engineers. Exit interviews revealed that many of these talented technologists were leaving not to spend time with their family but because they no longer felt challenged by or passionate about their work. In the 21st century, talented people of both sexes often feel stymied by a traditional vertical career path that follows a straight line up a narrow ladder. Rather, they’re interested in and open to lateral moves and a variety of “work style” options, such as flex schedules and telecommuting, as long as these options are intellectually and professionally challenging and/or satisfy personal obligations.

That’s surely a part of it. Now, consider this, from Russell Bishop, via the Huffington Post, still rumbling with riffs on the Paradox of Declining Women’s Happiness study:

The implication seems to be that if you were to gain more in terms of physical world success you would naturally become happier… My theory is that over the past 40 years, as American society exited the “Father Knows Best” or “Leave it to Beaver” mentality of the 50s and 60s, we seem to have increasingly equated success and fulfillment with jobs, career advancement, position title, bank accounts, and other symbols of success. If you were one of those statistical women who took on job, career, or economic goals as your “symbols” of success, you just might have wound up sacrificing what mattered most in hopes of greener pastures at the eother end of job, career or economic goals. What if you won the race to the top: a better job, increased paycheck, more “toys” than the boys? Did you bargain for all that comes with it? Did you anticipate the sacrifices you would have to make to get there? How are those trades looking now?

An interesting take. Going back to the original post, the one our Twitter friend sent, author Sean Silverthorne writes:

Unfortunately, Hewlett doesn’t answer my burning question: Why are women more likely than men to consider jumping ship? Certainly there are career opportunity questions. If women believe they don’t have as good a chance as their male colleagues of advancing, of course they should be considering options. But a 2x factor suggests something much more deep seeded. Something about the nature of work in the modern company.

His post earned a slew of responses, citing reasons for our wandering eyes ranging from discrimination from the good old boys’ clubbers, to a need for more corporate support for work/life balance, to female “dogs in power that insist on running a place like a sorority.” No woman wants to take part in the proverbial workplace pissing contests–and even if she did, she’s not properly equipped. But this comment really made me think:

I also think there’s a fundamentally different paradigm that can exist in female-oriented workplaces and it takes us away from the whole aggressive, money and progress-oriented approach to work–it is collaborative, nurturing, fun approach which while achieving goals and earning a living isn’t centered or structured the same way–it’s like a circle not a hierarchy and goes to the heart of our culture.

Lest you think that sounds a little too kumbaya to actually work, consider these points, enumerated by Hewlett:

  • Research demonstrates that companies with significant numbers of women in management have a much higher return on investment
  • A study has shown that when work teams are split 50-50 between men and women, productivity goes up. Gender balance, the research posits, counters ‘groupthink’–the tendency of homogenous groups to staunchly defend wrong-headed ideas because everyone in the group thinks the same way
  • Another study–out of France–showed that firms in the CAC 40 (the French euivalent of the Dow Jones) with a high ration of women in top management showed better resistance to the financial crisis. The fewer female managers a company has, the greater drop in its share price since January 2008.

So, clearly it behooves everyone to keep women engaged, in the game. But if a whopping 84% of us are thinking exit strategy, what’s the answer?

I kind of think they all touched on a part of it: Hewlett pointed out the need for passion and challenge at work; Bishop noted the inevitable let-down that comes from chasing–and then catching–material things; and Silverthorne offered a tease, earning comments that allude to something deeper, something about the very way in which workplace structures are organized, a la Elizabeth Lesser’s suggestion I first wrote about here:

The conversation we need to have now is no longer about women assuming positions of leadership within the existing power structure, it’s about the power structures themselves, it’s about how to go about assuming power, how to change the structures.

But in order to change them, we’ve got to stick around.

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