The ‘day job’ — a gender issue no more

There’s a remarkable amount of discussion going on, just now, of Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.  Sandberg is COO of Facebook.  Her book attempts to explain why women have stalled out in their march on the executive suite and “offers compelling, commonsense solutions that can empower women to achieve their full potential.”

Bah.

In this discussion, I’m much closer to the view of Jody Greenstone Miller.  Miller is the author of a recent Wall Street Journal piece:  The Real Women’s Issue: Time — Never mind ‘leaning in.’ To get more working women into senior roles, companies need to rethink the clock.  She correctly, in my opinion, points out that many great women don’t lack the skills or aggression to advance in large corporations.  They ‘stall out’ or bail out, rather than “‘lean in’ because they don’t like the world they’re being asked to lean into.”

Amen — but . . .

But even Miller is missing the boat somewhat when she frames this discussion as primarily a gender issue.  Women working for large corporations may have lead the charge on big-corporate work values for a few decades but they are hardly alone any more.  That movement has become much deeper and more pervasive.

Why isn’t anyone talking about the fact that the same ‘problems’ that have impeded women in some workplaces for the last few decades are exactly the same ‘challenges’ that Gen-X and Gen-Y employees of both genders are presenting to employers?  

Women may have been the most noticeable class of workers to demand the right to a life outside their corporate identities in years past but it’s hardly a gender-specific demand any more.  Today’s workers, female AND male, younger AND older, know and feel free to express that it is truly just not worth it to sell your soul to the company store.  Jobs don’t last.  Heck, companies don’t even last.  Loyalty to a specific employer HAS to be tempered these days with a realistic eye on fall-back plans and other opportunities that might come up.  But this change isn’t just about job security or the lack of it, this change is about values and motivation.

Employers, all employers, but especially those large, hard-charging corporations that Ms Sandberg thinks more women should be leaning into, need to recognize the fact that the employment they offer is now pervasively seen as “the day job” — the gig you do to make possible whatever is REALLY important to you.  Isn’t that the easiest way to reconcile the traits that HR folks tell us Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers and, oh, by the way, older workers now, too, have in common?:  an independence that is often interpreted as flightiness, a need for flexibility in both schedules and responsibilities that can be used to carve out a very personal work/life balance, and — paradoxically, in the traditional view — a demand for meaningful, challenging work.

Maybe this is easier for me to see because I’ve made this trade-off longer and more consciously than a lot of people, albeit for a different reason.  Yes, I’m female but, frankly, leaning in and working long hours have never been issues for me.  (Those stories will have to wait for another post; for now, just trust me on this one, when it comes to long hours and asserting myself in discussions,  I’m certifiable.)

For me the trade-off was always about location.  In order to live where I wanted and with whom, I’ve bypassed a lot of opportunities.  It never occurred to me that this wasn’t a big trade-off or that it wouldn’t/shouldn’t cost me money and opportunities for rank and advancement.  And I have not always executed the trade-off gracefully.  My very first job out of college was with General Electric.  I had jumped through all the corporate recruiting hoops senior year to get the job.  GE did everything they could to attract me and make me welcome:  a top salary, an exciting career trajectory via a new corporate initiative, introductions to other young workers including helping me find temporary housing with some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.  My manager even postponed my start date for 60 days after graduation so I could spend some time at home ‘one last time.’  I quit after two weeks.  Sigh. I’m not proud of it.  That’s not just ‘flighty’, it is the corporate equivalent of jilting your intended at the altar.  And it still haunts me in the occasional dark hour.  But how could I really know, till I got there, that I simply wasn’t willing to live anywhere in or near Bridgeport, Connecticut?  (No offense intended, current Bridgeportians — it was a personal thing for a kid who grew up in Montana, not a value judgement on your town.)

In the 35 years since then, I’ve moved around, living in Montana, New Hampshire, Oregon (on the coast, not Portland), New Hampshire again, Vermont, and now Wyoming.   And I’ve done some good work, if I do say so myself.  Worked for large companies and small, as an employee and a free-lancer.  Been the co-founder of a small technology start-up that established a new software market niche, employed 200+ people at one point, and, after 15 years, sold itself to a big company where, as far as I know, our software lives on.  Got to travel to New York City, regularly for a time, living a couple of days a week in a company apartment and soaking in one version of city life.  Made sales calls and worked trade shows in a lot of big U.S. cities.  Gone on marketing tours in Europe.  And, most memorably, got to hire and work with extraordinary people.

On reflection, I actually think I worked too many hours and leaned in at my co-workers a little too much for a lot of those years.  But I had a life, too.  With my husband, we have lived where we wanted, raised a family, gotten outdoors, and had adventures — although never enough, so we’re not done yet.

But now I’m on the other end of the stick. I’ve got a start-up of my own and I’m trying to attract employees.  And I have to deal with the fact that my start-up, my dream business, is my new employees’ day job.  This is a critical issue for me to address.

You’d think that, when trying to do a software startup in rural Wyoming, that just finding people qualified to do particular jobs would be the hard part.  And it sure is challenging.  But the fact is, great people live everywhere and almost all rural areas have long had a substantial segment of under-employed folks — people with the skills to live and work anywhere who, instead, live and work exactly where they choose.  They are needles in a huge haystack but, given that I don’t care if they are local or remote, I’m pretty sure that, over time, I can find people with the skills I need.

My bigger problem is that, just like any old MegaCorp these days, I have to face the fact that the job I offer is a “just the day job” and that the best people I can find will almost always already have a more important gig of their own.  It might be raising a family or finishing college or playing in a band or environmental activism or even ‘just’ wanting time to get outdoors a lot to ski or hike or hunt.  I have to find a way to reel them in, nurture their interest in the work I want them to do, and help them figure out a long-term fit between the work we share and their own priorities.

The upside is that these folks, when I do find them, are mostly already entrepreneurs.  Their real gig, whatever it is, probably demands they wear a lot of hats.  They are likely to know a lot more about marketing and about running a business than traditional job seekers used to know.  And they surely know a lot about trade-offs and flexibility and life/work changing out from under you in unpredictable ways.

So I believe I can make this work eventually, even I’m not getting it just right just yet.  I lost a good resource recently.  I thought my long term risk was that I was not giving her enough hours.  I thought she needed enough work  so she would feel comfortable turning down an upcoming seasonal job she wanted to avoid taking this year  So I kept coming up with more projects for her to do.  She seemed interested and enthusiastic and invested, even, in the outcomes.  Then she quit.  And hard as I tried to understand the little she would share with me about why, I’m still confused.  As far as I can tell, I crossed some sort of line and started sucking too much time and attention away from her own projects.  Leaning in a bit too far again, sigh.  (See why I don’t think that’s the answer?)

But one thing I do know:  this trade-off between work and life is no longer a woman’s issue or even an employee’s issue.  It’s an employer’s issue.  I don’t care what the overall job market is like.  The competition for the very best people is always going to be fierce and if we employers want great people to work for us and stay, WE have to help them find ways to make the day job fit the life, not the other way around.

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