We Are Women. Hear Us Roar. Again.

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Diablo Magazine.

Kriste Michelini and Children (Photo courtesy of Diablo Magazine)

It’s 7:30 on a Thursday evening, and 10 moms are gathered at Kriste Michelini’s interior design studio in Danville, drinking wine and eating off a veggie platter artfully arranged by Michelini. This isn’t a book group or PTA fundraiser. These mothers are busy trying to help Bridget Scott finalize the details of her business plan. She’s preparing to open her own chiropractic office, a lifelong dream, but is still determining the best way to incorporate the hours while placing family first. Scott wants to work while her children are in school and is confident she can find clients who will fit her schedule. But issues around finalizing a name and staff management are what she needs advice on. The other women, all business owners themselves, readily offer it.

Scott started Business Owner Moms (BOMS) in 2008 because she wanted to gather like-minded working mothers to offer each other support and guidance as they struggled to balance their professional ambitions with their personal lives. BOMS includes women such as Alamo’s Kristin Kiltz, a mother of three who quit her high-powered job at a public relations firm to set up her own PR consulting business; and Danville’s Julie Ligon, also a mother of three, who left her exciting marketing position at Gap to open one of the first franchise studios of the Dailey Method. The BOMS could have given up work completely to stay home with their children, but haven’t.

These mothers, and many like them who were once on the fast track, have been blamed for the apparent stagnation of women’s advancement, leading pundits (on both sides) to declare the death of feminism. Second-wave feminists worry that these potentially high-powered women are failing the movement. Traditionalists use them as proof that women’s ambition, skills, or natural inclinations are keeping them from the top.

Despite the rhetoric, many women who leave their traditional career paths aren’t racing back to a 1950s model of wife and mother. They are still ambitious and dream of having it all, but they are unwilling to follow the traditional model of success. They know the routine—climb the ladder and you win the game—but they don’t believe the sacrifices are worth the reward.

Instead, these women are willing to take a different path, one that is deeply aligned with their personal values of home and family, and yet still allows them to pursue a meaningful career. They live somewhere between June Cleaver and Murphy Brown, employing their hard-earned freedom of choice by launching into uncharted territory, and ultimately finding a middle way that allows them to balance their ambition with their commitment to their families.

Failed Promise?

Women, or more specifically mothers, and their careers have been in the news since Betty Friedan first defined the “problem that has no name.” Recently, the most famous (and perhaps the richest) working mother, Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, has been cajoling her peers to “lean in” and “put your foot on that gas pedal.” She, like so many others, is frustrated that more women have not made it to the coveted tops of their professions.

UC Berkeley professor Mary Ann Mason is certainly frustrated. She was the first woman to be appointed graduate dean at the prestigious university and has long been an advocate for the advancement of women. In 2007, as a response to the uproar about women “opting out,” she published a book with her daughter called Mothers on the Fast Track: How a New Generation Can Balance Family and Careers. They wrote, “We hoped that once a critical mass of women entered the ‘fast track,’ the balance of power between men and women would inevitably be achieved in boardrooms, courtrooms, and university classrooms.” It hasn’t.

Despite years of hard-fought opportunity, women still lag behind men in the vast majority of industries. You’ve probably heard it before: Although women make up 47 percent of the workforce, they are only one-third of all doctors and lawyers, and are less than a quarter of all tenured professors at doctoral universities. Only 15 percent of senior management in the United States are women, lower than Thailand (45 percent), Russia (36 percent), or even Botswana (32 percent). Out of a total of 535 elected members of Congress, only 95 are women. Today, there are only 17 female CEOs at companies that ranked on the Fortune 500 list. Sigh.

Given these statistics, it’s no wonder people are asking, “What happened to women’s advancement?” Or, dare I say it, feminism?

When my generation was coming of age in the late ’70s and early ’80s, women’s futures seemed to glitter. The pill, introduced in 1960, meant that we were the first to be able to choose when to have children or if we were going to have them at all. The hard work of the second-wave feminists meant that sex discrimination was being battled in the workplace and the classroom.

We were told we had a “choice.” We could stay home, or we could rise to the top of our profession. Nothing was going to hold us back. However, despite all the goodwill and good work, for many of us, our careers stalled just as we entered what Mason has dubbed the “make-or-break years.” That’s the decade or so between our thirties and forties, when our careers solidify, and we are busy laying the foundation for the next phase when we can finally claim, “Success!”

Why then, have so many women chosen to get off the fast track just when we are about to peak? The obvious answer seems to be … babies.

The Illusion of Choice

For my generation, feminism meant not just reproductive choice but individual choice to build the life we wanted. We believed we could have it all. But just what did having it all mean? In the watered-down version, it meant marrying the adoring husband and having his bright-eyed children, all while managing a successful career (and, of course, looking beautiful to boot).

After drinking the Kool-Aid of so-called choice, many of us graduated from college, some even went on to graduate school, and then we launched into our careers with great enthusiasm. We paid our dues and worked our way up, and then we hit our thirties and our babies arrived. Suddenly, having it all wasn’t so easy anymore. We wanted the corner office, but what about the children? Fast-track careers demand 24/7 attention. For those of us who wanted or needed more balance, we found ourselves sidelined or put on a mommy track—a no-woman’s-land of little reward and deep frustration.

Danville’s Ligon wasn’t planning on leaving her job at Gap after the birth of her daughter, Bree. She loved her work, had a great boss, and enjoyed the daily interaction with interesting and dynamic people. Plus, her family relied on Ligon’s high-paying position. But then her daughter got sick.

“I was at a focus group, and we couldn’t access our cell phones. The day-care provider had been trying to reach me all morning. My daughter had a fever of 102 and was throwing up. That was a turning point,” says Ligon. “I realized I couldn’t do it all. I couldn’t be there for my daughter and work in the way my job required. I felt like a horrible mother, and I couldn’t live with that. Something had to change.”

Ligon’s story is nothing new. We’ve been reading versions of it for years. Fast-track women who have children and decide to opt out because they have the luxury of a husband with a stable career. But the statistics belie the headlines. More mothers with children in the home are gainfully employed than ever before. In the 1950s, before the Feminist Revolution, only 30 percent of mothers worked outside the home. Now, more than 70 percent hold jobs. For professional women, those in white-collar jobs that require at minimum a college degree, more work 50-plus hours per week than ever recorded. The myth of the opt-out mom is predicated on the idea that women have a choice. We are now coming to see that the vast majority of women who left their jobs once they had children didn’t opt out—they were pushed out.

Take Kiltz. She was on the executive team at her public relations firm and being groomed to take over the agency when she took four months of maternity leave after the birth of her first child. Before she left, Kiltz had negotiated a part-time schedule, but when she returned to work, she discovered her new hours meant she was no longer a senior staff member, and certainly wasn’t going to be taking over the firm anytime soon.
Kiltz hadn’t heard of maternal bias in the workplace, but she knew it when she saw it. “I didn’t realize that having a child was going to sideline my career,” she says. She tried going back to work full-time, but the damage had been done. Eventually, she quit. Kiltz didn’t leave to be a stay-at-home mom. She left because her work situation became untenable. Now, she’d never go back.

“I get job opportunities all the time that could replace the money, but I am not interested,” says Kiltz. “I value my time and my freedom too much. I get to choose when I work and when I do something for my family versus Corporate America telling me I need to be in the office. It may not have been fully my choice in the beginning, but I don’t regret it for a minute.”

The Myth of the Perfect Mother

As working mothers came to understand the unforgiving nature of the workplace, the very nature of mothering changed. Beyond the daily challenges of juggling work and caregiving, the professionalization of motherhood has raised the stakes. It isn’t enough to love and care for our little angels. Now, we have to ensure they are reaching their full potential. Sally must play soccer, dance ballet, sing in the choir, and help out at the church’s fund-a-need drive. And don’t forget the Kumon math and Chinese language lessons she has to take to stay competitive. (Does the phrase Tiger Mother ring a bell?)

Shuttling children from one activity to the next has become a full-time job. If that isn’t enough, the PTA needs our help on the fall fundraiser, and by the way, state funding has been cut for teachers’ aides, so don’t forget to volunteer in the classroom once a week. With all of these demands, how could we possibly work outside the home? “Motherhood has become a 24/7 job, which makes it hard to have a demanding career and be the kind of mother you might want to be,” says Mason.

One could argue, as Sharon Lerner does in her book The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation, that the professionalization of motherhood was a backlash response to the efforts to advocate for women’s advancement—not quite a hidden conspiracy but something close to it. Couple that with a workplace that, despite all of the protestations to the contrary, hasn’t changed since the 1950s, and it’s no wonder women who wanted a fulfilling career and to still be available to their children had to forge new paths.

Changing the Game

The truth is, women who have had the luxury to opt out may well be the canaries in the coal mine when it comes to the workplace. Katrina Alcorn of Oakland can certainly speak to this. By any measure, she was on the fast track. After graduating from college with a degree in English, she went on to earn a graduate degree in journalism at UC Berkeley. She worked for newspapers and magazines, and even produced a PBS documentary. Eventually, she transitioned to a career in high tech, running a division of a web consulting company. But the demands of the workplace coupled with the many obligations of trying to be the perfect mom proved too much. She quit and founded the influential Working Moms Break blog (workingmomsbreak.com). She focuses on the inherent stress of trying to do it all.

“The 21st-century workplace doesn’t support families and certainly doesn’t support working mothers,” says Alcorn. “To be successful, there’s an unspoken expectation that you put in nights and weekends. We end up hating our jobs because it’s just too much.”

Second-wave feminists like Mason might consider mothers like Alcorn off track. She worries women who don’t lean in will become marginalized in a second-tier career, one that doesn’t offer job security or the accolades reserved for women on the fast track. She has a point. Leaving the security of a stable job, one with benefits and a path to advancement, is risky. The BOMS can relate.

Kiltz and her husband cut back on expenses by selling the home they had just remodeled when she quit her full-time job to launch her consulting business. Money is still tight, but she says the risk pales in comparison to the reward. “At the end of the day, it would be nice to have more money, but that is what I gave up to have the freedom I have now. We downsized to do better.”

But it isn’t just money that women like Kiltz give up. It’s also the prestige of that fancy salary and corner office. Kriste Michelini felt the sting when she left her job in business development and sales at Intuit to launch her interior design business. “I’m sure some people were thinking, ‘Oh, she quit her job and now is dabbling in design,’ ”
she says. But she got beyond that initial discomfort. “I have created a financially successful business, and I have my dream job. In fact, I have my dream life.”

The old-fashioned, pin-striped suit definition of success doesn’t fit these women. As Ligon says, “Success can be measured in so many other ways than just financial.” They are taking a risk based on their personal values and priorities, balancing their love of family with their ambition and professional goals. Michelini says, “I think of myself and all of the BOMS as strong, independent women who are secure in trying to live a rich, full life that balances both motherhood and a career. Isn’t that the definition of success?”

Men Want Balance, Too

Finding a way to balance work and be a parent has begun to preoccupy men, too—with good reason. A study on the attitudes and behaviors of Generation X (those born between 1961 and 1981) by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan reveals that both parents are highly engaged with their children. Of those with children in school, 80 percent reported helping with homework, and most were spending five or more hours a week doing so. They also reported being engaged in the classroom and on the weekends with their children. These hours are in addition to the increased demands of the workplace. According to the report, 40 percent of us work more than 50 hours per week, and many of us are saying enough is enough. Berkeley resident Lindsey Turrentine, editor in chief at CNET and mother of two school-age children, says, “Modern life means that time is the most important commodity. But time is the one thing we don’t have.”

Sally Thornton of Lafayette has dedicated her career to this issue. After she left her job at Covad, she started a company called Flexperience, where she helped employers find interim employees, usually fast-track mothers who’d left their full-time jobs for more flexibility but still wanted (or needed) to work. Soon, she found that more and more men who had full-time employment were calling her to ask if she could place them. In many cases, they wanted more time to be with their children, or they just wanted more autonomy in how they do their work.

Thornton has since started a second business, Forshay, working with companies to help them attract talent by redefining their work environments to be more impact focused and less obsessed with office face time, which she claims is “the killer of individual freedom” for employees.

“Whether we want time to prepare for a triathlon or time to work in our children’s classroom, time is the most important commodity,” says Thornton. “My clients know that to recruit and keep the best and brightest, they have to make fundamental changes to their working environments.”

But it is not just time that is at issue. The deeper truth is men are seeing their bright, capable female peers opt out and are, understandably, envious. As we focused on getting women on par professionally with men, no one seemed to ask the question, Why aren’t men on par personally with women? Finally, the men may be asking that question. Jennifer Chaney, a BOMS member who left a career as a photo editor for Sunset magazine and now owns a successful photography studio, says, “My husband sees what I am doing and knows the balance and joy that I feel. He loves his job, but if one day he wanted to pursue a different passion, my dream would be to make it to the point where I was the primary breadwinner so we could trade places.”

The Future of Feminism

Things may be changing, but they are changing mostly for those who are privileged. For the vast majority of women in this country, having the option to choose is a luxury, and in this, my generation may well have failed feminism. Instead of collectively moving the bar forward, we turned inward, focusing on our individual choices rather than on how to support each other. But no more. We are once again gathering together to offer our support.

Consider Berkeley resident Joan Blades. She was so frustrated by what she calls “maternal discrimination,” she founded MomsRising, an organization working hard to ensure that the workplace is more family friendly. “The United States is one of only three nations that doesn’t have paid maternity leave,” says Blades. “The other two are Papua New Guinea and Swaziland. That’s simply unconscionable.”

Started in 2006, MomsRising now has over a million members. They are working to ensure that parental leave, paid sick days, and more flexible workplace solutions are made available to all. Shockingly, only three states offer paid family leave to their residents (California, Washington, and recently, New Jersey). MomsRising has had numerous wins on the local and state level, including helping pass a paid sick day ordinance in Seattle and helping secure paid family leave in New Jersey. At the national level, MomsRising is advocating for the passage of the Healthy Families Act, which would ensure paid sick days to employees across the country, regardless of where they live.

Feminism of the future may well look like it did in the past because it has to. Sure, my generation has cloaked itself in the notion of individual choice, but in the current economy, that notion is showing its flaws. “Never before in the history of motherhood have so many women been empowered to choose their path,” says Diablo resident Taryn Sievers, senior vice president of wealth management at Morgan Stanley. “However, this empowerment has been predicated on a robust economy. Since the early ’80s, the economy had been expanding. That’s not true anymore. Now, women—and men—need to work together and plan accordingly.”

Which brings us back to the BOMS. They don’t call themselves feminists, but gathering together to discuss the challenges inherent in being a wife, a mother, and now, a career woman, looks awfully like the old-time consciousness-raising groups of the last generation. They may not be advocating for change on a grand scale, but they are working together to make sure they can collectively achieve their individual dreams.

BOMS member Chaney says, “It doesn’t matter what you call it because it all comes back to helping women feel empowered to make the choice that is right for them. The truth is, I live somewhere between domestic goddess and fiery feminist without ever really being either.” She lives, like so many of the other women, and men, who are forging new paths, in the middle way—serving as role models for what the future could hold if we all had the ability to balance our professional goals with our personal commitments.

Lisen Stromberg’s work has appeared in numerous publications, including Newsweek and on Salon.com. She is a former marketing executive, and a mother of three.


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