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When The Glass Ceiling Is A Baby: Working Through Motherhood

Dec 23, 2012
Originally published on December 24, 2012 1:44 pm

Among the candidates President Obama may nominate for the next defense secretary is Michele Flournoy, formerly the highest-ranking woman in the Pentagon.

Flournoy is a mother of three, and in February, she stunned her colleagues when she stepped down from her job as undersecretary of defense for policy to spend more time with her children.

It wasn't an easy decision, but it's a dilemma that many working mothers face. While some call for changes in workplace policy to make caring for families and working easier, others argue women ultimately have to make a choice.

Choosing Family Over Career

When Flournoy was working at the Pentagon, she says her hours were long and intense. She would work starting at 7 a.m. for about 12 hours, "pretty much non-stop." Then she would have maybe two hours with her family at home before being available to work again around 9 p.m.

She did that for three years. During that time, both she and her husband were in senior government positions (her husband, W. Scott Gould, is deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs).

"There was a point in time, when my older kids were reaching the teenage years, that they really needed more of a parent," she tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

So after a number of long discussions with her husband, Flournoy says, they decided it was time for one of them to step out.

It was an agonizing decision for Flournoy, in part because she didn't want to let down the younger women who looked to her to open doors for them. The reaction she actually received surprised her.

Her decision resonated with women around the country — and it prompted a new national discussion about whether mothers can reach the highest levels of government or corporate America as easily as men.

Glass Ceilings Left Unbroken

Though many industries in this country are increasingly dominated by women, there is no evidence that things at the top are changing. Kay Hymowitz, a scholar with the Manhattan Institute, says only 4 percent of the CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are female. Why the disparity?

Hymowitz says it's children — "though we have to always make the caveat that yes, there is discrimination. But the major factor in the gap — both the ... wage gap and the gap at the very top ... is due to children."

Both the public and private sectors are adapting in some ways to change that, particularly by offering flextime. "But at a certain point — and this is particularly true at the top — the competition is so keen to get ahead that if you have a young baby at home [and] you're a woman — or, for that matter, a man — who wants to be quite involved with raising that baby, it's just a matter of physics," she says. "You cannot be doing both things."

So women work fewer hours, take off more time for maternity leave and are more likely to work part time than men. Hymowitz says they seem to want it that way, too.

"The presumption that this is really what women want — they want this absolute parity with men in the workplace — it really remains to be proven," she says.

Not Exactly A Choice

Karen Kornbluh spent three years looking for ways to close the gender gap as an ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. She worries there's too much focus on the "alpha females" who could run companies or governments.

Diversifying leadership is important, she says, "but what I also want to pay attention to is the middle-class family, the lower-income family, where the mother doesn't even have the choice of stepping out."

Choice is a funny word, though. Kornbluh says inequality in the workplace in this country is not about women — of any socioeconomic status — choosing family over work.

"I wouldn't call it a 'choice' in the classic sense, because I don't think they have a lot of options," she says.

"You're expected to give 100 percent on the home front and 100 percent at the work front and 100 percent to your friends and your community," she says, "and you feel like a complete failure."

Unrealistic Expectations

Before serving as ambassador, Kornbluh rose to deputy chief of staff at the Treasury. After the birth of her second child, she quit.

We simply haven't yet adjusted to contemporary family life, she says, which often requires all adults to juggle work and home.

"We still have this idea in our head that the ideal worker is the breadwinner with no [domestic] responsibilities and the ideal parent is the homemaker with no workplace responsibilities," she says. "And we haven't changed our expectations enough."

Beyond flextime and health insurance, Kornbluh says, quality, affordable child care would make a significant impact, particularly for lower-income and single-parent families. That and economic growth. Lower wages have meant more hours for both parents — and more time away from home.

"If we could get growth again — but broadly shared growth," she says, "that would make a huge difference."

Having It All: It's Possible

When Flournoy stepped down from the Pentagon, a number of women thanked her for making it OK to have times in life to "rebalance in favor of family." For Flournoy, that shift happens in waves. She believes it is possible to be a working mom at the highest levels of the workplace.

"I just think ... there's a sequencing," she says. "I mean, I'm one who believes that you can have it all — you just can't always have it at exactly the same time with equal intensity."

"My career has looked like a sine curve in terms of balancing and rebalancing," Flournoy adds. "Different periods where I've had more intense career focus versus more of a family focus." That's not possible for everyone, she admits, as many women don't have the support they need to rebalance while staying competitive.

At this point in her career, Flournoy says, either she or her husband still needs to be out of government service, for their teenagers.

"But I have certainly had a chance to recharge my batteries, and I am eager for public service in the future," she says. "That said, it would be very hard to miss these very precious years where I have ... the last years with my teenagers at home."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

And for our cover story today, a question: Can working moms make it to the top? And we came to this story in a roundabout sort of way because it started with talk about the next Defense secretary.

President Obama is expected to make that announcement in the coming weeks. And in recent days, there's been a lot of speculation over whether that job could go to former Senator Chuck Hagel or even possibly to Michele Flournoy, formerly the highest ranking woman in the Pentagon.

Now, last year, Michele Flournoy stunned her colleagues when she stepped down from her job as undersecretary of Defense for policy. Flournoy is a mother of three, and she said she needed to spend more time with them. And when we spoke with her about it recently, she described what her life was like.

MICHELE FLOURNOY: I usually got to work between 7 and 7:30 in the morning and would pretty much go nonstop until about 7, 7:30 at night. And then I would take a break for an hour and a half or two, have a, you know, on a good day, have a little time at home with my family. Put my kids to bed or help them with homework. And then by about 9 o'clock, be available again to start working, either by phone or fax or just doing paperwork.

RAZ: You did this for three years. At what point did you realize it was really taking a toll?

FLOURNOY: You know, I think for our family, the added complication is that both my husband and I were in senior government positions at the same time. He's the deputy secretary of the VA. And so we were really asking a lot of our kids during that three-year period to have both of us working flat out.

And while I don't think our family would trade it for the world in terms of the opportunity to serve this president, there was a point in time when my older kids were reaching the teenage years that they really needed more of a parent. And so my husband and I had a number of long discussions and decided that it was time for one of us to step out.

RAZ: We'll hear more from Michele Flournoy in a moment. Her decision resonated with women around the country. And it prompted a new national discussion about whether mothers can reach the highest levels of corporate America as easily as men. We asked Katie Jacobs Stanton, a top executive at Twitter and a mother of three as well, about balancing motherhood with career.

KATIE JACOBS STANTON: Last night, I got home from work a little bit late. We've had a really intense week at Twitter, which is great and it's sterling, but it's meant that I've come home from work late every night. And last night, I got back. And my daughter said, well, mom, I owe three dozen cookies, homemade - and they have to be homemade. And we need to bring them in tomorrow.

And it was about 8:30 p.m. I thought, oh, my God. I felt so bad. And, you know, there's nothing that a quick batch of Toll House can't solve. So that seemed to work out OK. So you have to take, you know, each day in stride and enjoy what you have.

RAZ: Two years ago, Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, gave a TED Talk where she described how previous generations of women blazed a trail for people like her. But at the same time, Sandberg described a problem.

SHERYL SANDBERG: And the problem is this: Women are not making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world. The numbers tell the story quite clearly: 190 heads of state, nine are women. Of all the people in parliaments in the world, 13 percent are women. In the corporate sector, women at the top, C-level jobs, board seats, tops out at 15, 16 percent. The numbers have not moved since 2002 and are going in the wrong direction.

RAZ: Sandberg's message to working mothers was this: Don't take your foot off the gas pedal. But for many working mothers, it's not so simple and Sandberg acknowledged that in her talk. For Michele Flournoy, the decision to leave the Pentagon was agonizing.

FLOURNOY: I did agonize over the decision for a number of reasons, including the sense of not wanting to let down the side. But what's interesting is since I've made the decision to step out for a while, I've had a number of young women come up to me and actually say thank you. Thank you for making it OK to have periods in your career where you do rebalance in favor of family and for demonstrating that you can do that and still, over the arc of a career, continue to progress and continue to have opportunities to, you know, serve and contribute. So I was actually surprised by the reaction because I had worried about, you know, letting down the side, if you will.

RAZ: Is it possible to attain the highest levels in government or corporations or academia or wherever and still be a mom, a working mom?

FLOURNOY: I think you can. I just think you have to - there's a sequencing. I mean, I'm one who believes that you can have it all, you just can't always have it at exactly the same time with equal intensity. My career has looked like a sine curve in terms of balancing and rebalancing. Different periods where I've had more intense career focus versus more of a family focus.

And I think the issue is that that's not true for a lot of women. And we as a society haven't figured out how to adequately support women so that they can have periods of rebalancing and still continue to progress in their careers at a rate and at a level comparable to their male counterparts.

RAZ: Do you think you are at a place in your life now, having taken this year away from government, where you could go back to that kind of demanding life again?

FLOURNOY: You know, I think we as a family are at a place where we realize with teenagers, one of us has to be out of government service. So I think if I were to go back in, you know, one of us would have to be out. But I have certainly had a chance to recharge my batteries, and I am eager for public service in the future. That said, it would be very hard to miss these very precious years where I have my - the last years with my teenagers at home.

RAZ: That's Michele Flournoy. She was the highest ranking woman at the Defense Department where she served as undersecretary for defense policy. A few weeks ago, Kay Hymowitz, a scholar with the Manhattan Institute, wrote an article for City Journal about this very dilemma. It's called "The Plight of the Alpha Female." And in it, she cites some staggering statistics.

Women now outnumber men in the American workforce. But at the top, the gender gap is huge. Only 4 percent of the CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are female. Twenty percent of law school deans, even though most law students are women, and just a quarter of senior executives in corporate America. So despite the great efforts in both the public and private sector, why such a huge disparity at the top?

KAY HYMOWITZ: Well, there's one word: children. What happens is that women work fewer hours than men. They take off more time for maternity leave. They tend to also work - they're far more likely to work part-time than men are. And according to surveys, they seem to want it that way, though we have to always make the caveat that yes, there is discrimination. But the major factor in the gap - both the gender gap, wage gap and the gap at the very top, the gap among the alpha females - is due to children.

RAZ: It seems to me that that is a kind of a form of discrimination. I mean, if you have, as you write, many young women when they're at the point in their careers where they're really going to get to the next level, it's usually around the same time when they decide to have children.

So I wonder, I mean, why can't institutions and the corporate sector and other parts of America adapt to that and accept that there may be periods of time when those promising women will be out of work for some time, will be with their children, or they're making scale back on their hours for a few years?

HYMOWITZ: Well, I think that the corporate America and certainly the public sector also is trying to do that and has been somewhat successful. There's a very powerful movement towards flextime. I think the number is something like 77 percent of corporations are now offering flextime to at least some of their employees.

But at a certain point - and this is particularly true at the top - the competition is so keen to get ahead that if you have a young baby at home and you're a woman - or, for that matter, a man - who wants to be quite involved with raising that baby, it's just a matter of physics. You cannot be doing both things. So...

RAZ: It seems, though, that you're being penalized for that.

HYMOWITZ: Well, it's a funny way of putting it in my mind to say that you're penalized because you have children. There's no question that we can do more to try to arrange the workplace around this problem. But I think your question the way you - it really implies that there are no differences between men and women; they all want the same thing and want similar amounts of time with their children, similar things from the workplace.

That may not be true. So I think the presumption that this is really what women want - they want this absolute parity with men in the workplace, it really remains to be proven. But the bottom line is this. Look, if you have company A and they can deliver a product faster, if they can meet with a client at any time of the day or night, go travel anywhere in the world to have a meeting with that client, that company A is the one who's going to get the job. So should we change that? I don't see how you can.

RAZ: Kay Hymowitz's article is called "The Plight of the Alpha Female." It's in the latest issue of the City Journal. Kay, thank you.

HYMOWITZ: Thank you.

RAZ: Women in America earn roughly 77 cents for every dollar men earn. And while many industries in this country are increasingly being dominated by women, there is no evidence that things at the top are changing. It's a point that Sheryl Sandberg made in her TED Talk.

SANDBERG: My generation, really sadly, is not going to change the numbers at the top. They're just not moving. We are not going to get to where 50 percent of the population. In my generation, there will not be 50 percent of people at the top of any industry. But I'm hopeful that future generations can. I think the world that was run where half of our countries and half of our companies were run by women would be a better world.

RAZ: But what about women who aren't at the top? What are their options? We're going to continue our conversation in a moment. We'll hear from the former ambassador to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development who spent three years looking for ways to close the gender gap.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Stay with us. It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

And we're continuing our cover story about working mothers and making it to the top. These are issues Karen Kornbluh knows well. For years, she's been studying and writing about trying to juggle it all, and she's been living it as well.

In the 1990s, she rose to deputy chief of staff at the Treasury Department. But after the birth of her second child, she decided to quit. Kornbluh eventually went back to work and rose to become the U.S. ambassador to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development. And there, she launched a project to improve economic opportunities for women around the world.

Earlier this year, she stepped down, in part to spend more time with her two teenage sons.

KAREN KORNBLUH: You're expected to give 100 percent on the home front and 100 percent at the work front and 100 percent to your friends and your community and you feel like a complete failure. But I think here, we haven't really adjusted to what I call the juggler family - the rise of the family where all adults are working. Either it's a single parent working or two parents working. We still have this idea in our head that the ideal worker is a breadwinner with no family responsibilities and the ideal parent is the homemaker with no workplace responsibilities. And we haven't changed our expectations enough.

RAZ: As we heard earlier from Kay Hymowitz, her argument is that many women make this choice. They choose to spend time with their kids over pay. That the opportunities are there, there's flextime, there are all these, you know, corporations have adapted and the workplace has adapted. And many women just make this choice. Do you think that that's the case?

KORNBLUH: I wouldn't call it a choice in the classic sense because I don't think they have a lot of options. We don't have the option to work flexibly and not lose your health care, in many cases. We don't have the option to work and have your children in a safe, high-quality child care situation.

Until we give families some real options, I don't want to blame or say there's no problem because women are making a choice, and they're making a choice and they don't have serious options. And I think we can look to other countries to see what serious options look like, whether it's a better child care system, paid maternity leave, flexibility. These things exist in other countries. We haven't really incorporated them here.

And if I could just say one other thing. What distresses me a little bit is when the conversation becomes only about the high-wage earner, the alpha women, as some people have called it, the person who might become CEO. I think that's really important. I don't want to diminish that. We want our leaders to be a diverse group. I think women have a lot to add in all of those areas, and our companies would be better off, our countries would be better off, if we had more women. But what I want to also pay attention to is the middle-class family, the lower-income family where the mother doesn't even have the choice of stepping out.

RAZ: Yeah.

KORNBLUH: So 25 percent of American children are living in single parent households. That's mostly women. And those families are very poor. You know, there's a very high incidence of poverty in single parent families. So a lot of our children are in that situation, and those mothers have really very few options.

RAZ: What would make, in your view, the biggest single impact quickly? What's the one thing that would be relatively simple to do, or maybe not, but would have a huge impact?

KORNBLUH: Really high-quality child care. Treating it like public education. Maybe not the government providing it, maybe just providing financial support and more quality assurance. But the fact that we have so many parents who have no options for what to do with their kids - child care costs as much as the first year of college and yet parents have had no time to save.

RAZ: That's Karen Kornbluh. She's the former U.S. ambassador to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development. Karen, thank you so much for coming in.

KORNBLUH: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.