Women & the workplace: back on the table

I’ll admit, I’d been letting this conversation get away from me. Having eagerly read every article I could find that featured a couple of key phrases–namely,  “Why women can/can’t have it all,” “lean in,” or “family balance”–I had thought I had gotten my fill. But sitting in a room of the United States Permanent Mission’s building in Geneva, this debate suddenly bubbled up to the surface–during a conversation when I had hardly expected to hear it.

We’re supposed to talk about policy, policy, policy–most of the time. But me, I’m allowed to stray a bit from the talking points.” That’s how our speaker began her introduction, and over the next few hours, I wouldn’t be disappointed as she shared tales of both triumph and failure through the weaving and winding path of her foreign service career. A small group of us students were sitting in a comfortable room that featured all the diet coke and cookies we could want (hello, America!) and had been welcomed there to receive an introduction to the U.S. Mission’s work in Geneva. Unlike an embassy which handles bilateral work (such as that of the U.S. Embassy in Bern which handles relations between the U.S. and Switzerland), the United States Mission is named thus because it handles multilateral diplomatic relations at the United Nations and other international organizations. Between advancing U.S. policy at over 100 international organizations and managing U.S. relations with permanent missions from over 160 countries, the U.S. Permanent Mission in Geneva is a bustling place that is also the home base for no less than four American Ambassadors (which is more than any other overseas post). So this was where one could find all the diplomats and foreign service officers that had been romanticized by my political science friends growing up, I thought–these are people who represent U.S. voters and our capital on an international stage.

As you might imagine, there were plenty of policy-related questions that came to mind at the start of the conversation, but what really struck me about the discussion was that the woman diplomat who was serving as our host wasn’t afraid to get personal.

After leaving the State Department in D.C., I did a tour in Burkina Faso. And that’s where my husband and I had two children. I mention it because some people think we shouldn’t talk about family and personal life, but I think it’s important to talk about this stuff.

How right she is, I thought. We have to talk about this messy, raw thing we call human life and all of the challenges that come with it. In a day and age where the blogosphere and the twittersphere and most every other “sphere” you can think of is alive with words like “leadership,” “balance,” and all manner of conversations about workplace dynamics, I appreciated this diplomat’s willingness to shine a spotlight on what being a “woman leader” means in real life. And yes, I said it. “Woman leader.” At this point, a quote from Harvard President Drew Faust comes to mind:


Source: Twitter

I love this quote from President Faust. And I think it demonstrates an important point. Why should we take special pains to note that she is a woman when we know implicitly that women are no less capable than men? A leader is a leader, and President Faust is a pretty incredible one at that. In the end, that’s what matters. At the same time, making the distinction does serve to draw press attention and make news out of something that I hope will one day no longer be news-worthy at all. But we’re not there yet. That’s the point that Dr. Nancy Andrews, Dean of the Duke University School of Medicine and the first woman to lead a top-10 research-intensive medical school, makes in a recent article from Fast Company.

The article’s author writes,

“Even after seven years in this role, Andrews isn’t satisfied with the state of women leaders in medicine. While some condemn noting “women leaders” instead of just “leaders,” Andrews says it’s still important to celebrate when a woman reaches a high level in certain positions. While it may not be news when a woman is appointed dean of a well-respected school of education, seeing accomplished women on corporate boards, academic medicine, or engineering is still too rare, she says.”

But the pendulum swings both ways. Back at the U.S. Mission in Geneva, our speaker talked about how her husband had been the stay-at-home parent for many years in their household and how often he felt treated like a pedophile at children’s playgrounds until the other moms’ heard their daughter running up and saying “daddy! daddy!” She stated passionately that she believes that the future of American feminism will be fighting for dads’ rights. After all, how can we have an equal workplace for women when men aren’t given the opportunity to have an equal role in the childcare? She told us that her husband had to fly out to return to work only one week after their second child was born because his employer wouldn’t allow him any more leave.

The workplace divide can be a very real one. She shared stories of bosses that were extremely kind and accommodating–until she announced that she was pregnant. She also had stories about bosses that were particularly vile but completely changed their behavior after she announced her pregnancy. She had experienced both reactions.

She told us that divorce rates in the Foreign Service are shockingly high. As a result, she and her husband had decided early on that when it came to career and family, they would always choose family. And if that meant not going for the more competitive positions, so be it. But at the end of the day, she also shared an angle on this debate that I hadn’t heard phrased in this particular way:

No one wants to be the weekend warrior. Finding time for your job and your family is easy, but what you end up losing is yourself.

And so, among the many take-aways that I brought with me in leaving the U.S. Mission this afternoon, perhaps this was the one that resonated the most. Instead of being inundated with the “can women have it all?” debate in the twittersphere and the blogosphere and every other sphere, this time I had seen a real, live woman leader putting a face to the seemingly endless and intensely personal work-life balance saga. And at the end of it all, perhaps the person we need to care for most is ourselves–not because we need more care than the loved ones around us, but because it is ourselves that we are more likely to neglect.


One thought on “Women & the workplace: back on the table”

  1. Wow, I can really see that last part. And I don’t really even have a family to take care of yet – they take care of me :p Sometimes I think just the word “balance” is totally off – I’m not really trying to balance anything, I’m just trying to make sure they– both work and family– happen. Anyways, a long winded way of saying, I can see how this woman really got you thinking. In other news, miss ya! xo

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