Back in December, a dear friend invited me to a women’s leadership luncheon that was set to highlight women who had fought to have a seat at the table. As I scrambled to piece together an outfit from my leftover corporate wardrobe that was fitting enough for a business event, I felt a bit of excitement as I threw on a pair of long-neglected ‘work heels’.
During the event, Christine Darden, whose work as a mathematician, data analyst, and aeronautical engineer for NASA helped inspire the movie Hidden Figures and Deborah W. Davis, CEO of VCU Hospitals and Clinics detailed their experiences climbing the ladder in a time when leadership roles were almost exclusively held by men.
Unexpectedly, my friend and I both left feeling wholly inadequate and coined our own hashtag: #goodenough. Because, although the women we saw on stage were groundbreakers and difference makers, we couldn’t get past wondering how they managed to get dinner on the table each night.
The collective minutia of taking on roles as big as theirs almost stood in the way of my appreciating what they had actually accomplished.
To me, these women were one-offs. Like the Sheryl Sandbergs of today, these ladies fought in a very male-dominated world to have a seat at the table.
But what about the rest of us?
What about the moms who fiercely want to offer our gifts to the world, but aren’t willing to significantly shift the delicate balance that holds our families together?
Last week, I attended my second PTA meeting ever. The audience was filled with moms who had stepped away from their #momlife because they were interested enough in the direction of their kids’ school to show up when it wasn’t convenient. I sat, expecting a rundown of contributions made to cake walks and Pinterest-worthy class parties. Heads up: that’s not at all what goes down at PTA meetings.
Instead, I heard laundry lists of volunteerism on behalf of our children, theirs AND mine, that rivaled the contributions of many established non-profits. You see, these ladies are not afraid of having a ‘seat at the table.’ They just need that seat to be one that allows them to also support their family.
We need a new table, folks.
A few weeks earlier, I saw a job opening at a local school system that had my name written all over it. While I’m not actively in the market for a traditional job, the thought of using my skill set to support public education, where I essentially started my professional career, was a bit intriguing. So I reached out to the hiring manager (straight to the top, my friends) asking if there was any flexibility with regard to hours and location. Nahhhh. This division doesn’t offer any flexible work options at the current time.
For some reason, this response chapped me SO MUCH. For a school system who highlights that they are cranking out kids who are poised to leverage today’s technology, skilled in STEM-based problem solving, and able to responsibly leverage the power of the online world by age ten, the fact that they have yet to adopt a more modern approach to their recruitment, hiring, and retainment efforts than what I imagine may have been in place 20 years ago blows.my.mind.
Imagine visiting the Whole Foods headquarters and discovering vending machines with Coke, Mountain Dew, and Cheetos in the workroom. Shouldn’t the behind-the-scenes culture of our organizations, businesses, and governments mirror the consumer-facing parts?
You don’t see Apple employees carrying flip-phones, right?
Deep breath. In all fairness, there probably is some cutting-edge shizz going on behind the scenes. Just not in regard to flexible work options. And, this is not a one-off example. I have a laundry list of friends who’ve had to research at the level you’d consider reasonable for a Ph.D. candidate to uncover opportunities that suited their families.
So then, why does it feel like folks are screaming at us that we need to show up bigger and take on more high-level leadership positions when businesses, organizations, and governments aren’t really rewriting the script on what ‘work’ looks like?
I have to imagine that part of it is it would take a lot of hard work. It would take a complete challenging of the norm that’s been upheld for decades. It would take rewriting retirement programs and benefits packages and meeting schedules.
I mean….I could rewrite those things. But only between 9am-4pm.
And, then, there’s a part of me that feels like I’m asking too much.
It feels like I’m asking an organization to accommodate my needs, in lieu of their own. Hold the phone. I’m actually challenging these organizations to do better and to be better. In order to attract a diverse group of highly talented individuals, it’s in their best interest to intentionally become more attractive to a wider variety of folks.
And, let’s not ignore the dolla’ dolla’ bills, y’all. Clearly, I’m no HR expert. My math skills, however, do lead me to believe that part-time employees and contract workers without benefits or retirement might be a smidge cheaper than full-time employees. There are lots of companies spearheading opportunities like this in the private sector and I have to believe it’s because, at the end of the day, flexible work options are not just a PR stunt, but that they lead to financial prosperity.
As it stands today, the only women that are typically invited to the proverbial leadership tables are ones who are willing and able to work traditional full-time hours. That, from the outset, excludes women like my best friend, who quit her big career and left her resumé which includes CFO of a publicly traded company (and many more notches in her professional belt) to be more available to attend her son’s therapy appointments, IEP meetings, and school demands, in general.
Trust me, if you have a table, you should be begging her to pull up a seat.
So, as everyone’s clamoring to have more women in leadership positions, stop looking at women like me and telling us we need to show up. Instead, reach out and ask what it would take to make that happen.
In most cases, it’s not rocket science: a schedule that loosely mirrors that of our children’s, flexibility to work from home on a fairly regular basis, and somewhere between 20-30 hours of work per week would make me and a lot of my rockstar friends happy as a clam. Again, cue the ‘I’m asking for too much’ music.
So, what do we do in the meantime? What do we do until organizations, businesses, and governments start leveraging the technology that, as a society, we’re currently using to make everyone ‘busier’ and ‘tied to their work 24/7’ and instead use it to build bridges to the people we claim we want in places of leadership?
We lead from our own tables.
We dip our toes in the waters of the oceans we’re most passionate about. For me, it’s education. I trained as a teacher, worked on state grants in Virginia and Florida while in graduate school, and then taught for a couple of years. Public education is in my blood and I want to be a part of the conversation that challenges the way things are traditionally done. And, if you haven’t noticed, I’m also pretty passionate about supporting other women in using their gifts in big ways.
We lead by asking questions.
Ask if there’s a different way this ‘job’ could get done. If enough highly qualified people are asking and the only hang-up is the hours and location, maybe that will open the eyes of the folks currently in charge. No harm in dangling a carrot of undeniable talent in front of a hiring manager’s eyes, right?
We lead by offering solutions.
When I negotiated an 80% workload at my corporate job, it didn’t get approved just because I asked. It got approved because I created a detailed proposal of what my week would look like, what accounts I would cut back on, and how I would continue to exceed my sales goals while working less.
We lead by locking arms with people who already embrace innovative ways of doing business.
Make connections with folks who will champion the change you’re looking for. Leverage their knowledge, experience, and network to gain a clearer picture of what’s standing in the way of the opportunities you’d like to see.
Will this type of significant change happen overnight? I doubt it. But, there are some big shifts taking place in the private sector, so I can only hope the public sector will follow. And if we as moms and champions of women being able to show up in big ways in our communities and businesses keep questioning the status quo, maybe it’ll happen sooner.
And until we’re invited to take a seat at a table that also meets our needs, let’s lead from our own. Heck, maybe even invite some folks to ours.