The Closing Keynote at BlogHer 2011 in San Diego was amazing. It featured Ricki Lake, who really needs no introduction. (Aside – if you haven’t seen The Business of Being Born, get on it, pronto!) Me and my fellow birth-y mamas were out in full force to see her. But her co-panelists were equally fabulous. Fatemeh Fakhraie of Muslimah Media Watch raised a lot of excellent issues, and changed my perspective on how I view the women’s movement in other countries. And Carol Jenkins, Emmy award winning newscaster and part of the Women’s Media Center (WMC), was really inspiring.
Carol shared this video clip, which the WMC made at Sundance Film Festival. It gave me chills:
Through the keynote, the presenters shared their opinions on how women are represented (or misrepresented) in the media, and discussed some of the core issues. They talked about things like how to present yourself as a subject matter expert, so that reporters will seek you out for interviews, and how to rectify the gender imbalance in key positions. Of course, gender imbalance is not limited to the media in any way. However, because the media is our primary method of sharing information and informing ourselves, when it is created almost entirely by men it follows that women are, to some degree, left out of the conversation. We become invisible.
With the advent of social media, things are changing. That’s the good news. Anyone with access to a computer can set up a blog, send a tweet, or update their Facebook status. This is leveling the playing field, and changing the dynamic. But most of us still turn to newspapers, magazines or the nightly news to find out what’s happening in the world. So if women want to have a greater voice in what news gets shared, then we need to participate in traditional media in greater numbers.
Carol Jenkins discussed two ways to make our voices heard. The first is that when someone wants to speak to us, we need to be ready. She said that, in general, men are more willing to drop everything and be someplace in 20 minutes to talk to a reporter, which means they’re easier to interview. Her other point was that we need to deliberately cultivate a bench full of qualified women, so that when hiring decisions are made, there are many women to choose from.
I understand Carol’s points. All the same I feel that this is where we confront the elephant in the room.
Women are still, for the most part, the primary caregivers of young children. This severely limits our ability to drop everything and be someplace in 20 minutes. On top of that, many women (and I include myself among them) struggle with balancing career responsibility and family responsibility once we have children. Because of that, we often choose the “mommy track”, opting for alternative work arrangements or less demanding roles. And once you’re on the mommy track, it can be hard to get off it. I personally believe that this is one of the big reasons why we see fewer women CEOs, fewer women news directors and fewer women in publishing.
It is very difficult to combine the care of small children with a job that carries a lot of responsibility. I think that men understand that just as well as women. The difference is simply that – in general – women are more likely to take the career hit, while men continue to work. Yes, we need to do our best to be prepared to answer the call when we get it. Yes, we need to act as mentors and help support and cultivate women in the workforce. But until we can bear children and make some career compromises without stigma, I don’t believe that things will change.
There are two things that I think need to happen. The first is that we need formal workplace arrangements that allow employees to change their work schedule or their role for a period of time, and then transition back on to their career track. The second is that we need men to take advantage of these policies, as well as women, to help remove the stigma. As long as only one gender is taking family-related leave, then work-life balance and caring for children remain “women’s issues”.
I have a son and a daughter. When I think about the world that they will grow up in, and I imagine them having children (hopefully lots!) one day, I would love it if they both had access to the same options and opportunities. If Jacob so chooses, I hope that he will be able to take some time off to be with his children, or juggle his work schedule so that he can go on field trips. If Hannah so chooses, I hope that she can have the same things. And then, as their children get older, I hope that they are able to continue advancing in their careers as they are ready. I would like a better working world for both of my children.
I can see that progress has been made, even in the course of my lifetime, in terms of leveling the professional playing field and creating better workplace policies. But we still have a long way to go. I’m glad to have women like Fatemeh Fakhraie, Ricki Lake and Carol Jenkins leading the way. It gives me hope, and helps me see what I can do to make change happen. If we all work together, I believe we can get that elephant out of the room.
What do you think? Do you think that women should face a career penalty for stepping off the professional track to spend more time with their children? Do you agree that as long as only women go on the “mommy track”, it will carry a stigma? And how do you think we can better level the playing field? I’d love to hear your thoughts!