Paulette Light is a statistic. As she wrote on the website of The Atlantic, she is learning that the rich and varied details of her life -- a BA from Columbia, a Masters from Harvard and an MBA from Wharton, years working as a management consultant followed by years raising four children -- make her just another data point, one more cautionary tale.
“I am the 43 percent”, she writes, of the footnote she found “on page 98” of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, which says that "43% of highly qualified women with children are leaving careers or off-ramping for a period of time."
Light goes on to wonder what practical use Sandberg’s advice is to that 43 percent when it’s time to get back into the workforce.
Leaning In only works for those who are already in, and only if they are at a place in their lives that allows them to navigate the workplace as it exists. As Sandberg herself says in the early pages of her book, there are two obstacles to women (or any worker who also has responsibilities outside the office). The first are the internal doubts, assumptions and roadblocks that we bring to the equation, and Sandberg has data and ideas as to ways that we can stop sabotaging ourselves. But the second, which Sandberg specifically leaves to others to write about, is external, and lies in a workplace that has not kept up with the society around it.
Oh, it thinks it has. As Light describes it, her company did everything it could think of to keep her:
They let me work from home often and take time off for appointments. "Just get the job done," they said. That was the problem, though—getting the job done was all about giving everything to the job, and that wasn't sustainable for me once I had a child. I don't fault my firm at all. They are a scrappy service business that needs to consistently deliver high value to their clients by working better and harder. I was good at my job, which was why they were willing to accommodate me—but it was also why, after having my second child, I had to leave.
And yet, a few paragraphs later, Light explains that, as with so many “stay-at-home-mothers” her years “at home” really weren’t. As a volunteer she did such things as “created a neighborhood preschool and co-founded a synagogue. When a local charter school asked me to write their business plan, I got more involved, eventually chairing their board, reorganizing their org structure and expanding their schools. When people were having trouble finding great nannies, I started a nanny agency and ran it for a few years.”
In other words, Light had the time to work, and certainly the ability to accomplish. In a workplace designed from scratch -- one that accounts for such things as biological clocks, leaps of technology, increasing lifespans, the necessity for two incomes, and the fact our careers speed up sometimes and ratchet back at others creating an ebb and flow makes us more valuable as workers -- some company could have been benefitting from Light’s contributions during those years, and would be scooping her up today.
What she is looking to do now that her youngest is in school, she writes, is essentially what she has been doing -- taking on “closed-end projects where a business gives clear deliverables and milestones,” (the corporate equivalent of founding a synagogue or reorganizing a charter school.) “If you want high-achieving mothers back in the workforce,” she continues “don't give us an office and a work week filled with facetime, give us something to get done and tell us when you need it by.”
There are companies that are starting to work this way. There are not enough of them and change is not coming quickly enough for a talented generation that should be well past having to choose between family and career. Light’s solution, for the moment, is to start a company of her own, “a web startup called Momstamp that features trusted recommendations for service-providers and products.”
I hope it exceeds beyond her wildest expectations. And that soon she hires parents who would otherwise feel forced out of an out-dated workplace.