In the “Having It All” Conversation, Should We “Give It All”

TraceyFor some reason, we can’t seem to help ourselves when it comes to the “all” conversation. Oddly, many women rail against the never-ending discussion about whether we can have it all, should we do it all, and which way we should be leaning when we’re trying to find it “all,” yet find themselves living lives where they are doing the very things they think other women should steer away from.

Not so long ago, I was asked my thoughts on this debate. And while I have a lot to say, it occurred to me that maybe we ought to be coming at this from an entirely different angle — maybe it’s time to look at our propensity as women to be givers, and how that plays into our internal conflicts about opting, leaning and life in general:

Are you as guilty as I am of not stepping back? What would happen in our families if we stopped “giving” it all?

Joanne Bamberger is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Broad Side.  She was formerly known around these internet parts as PunditMom, but now she is trying to be herself. She is the author of Mothers of Intention: How Women and Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America (an bestseller and now available in E-book form!). She was recently awarded the Campaigns & Elections Magazine/CampaignTech 2013 Advocacy Innovator Award for her research and writing on the power and influence of women online. Joanne is a “recovering lawyer,” but she is still well-versed in her litigator skills and courtroom practices.

Image via iStockphoto

  • Right! I’ve been saying for some time that the true question is not whether we “want” it all (a sexist assumption) but whether we should be DOING it all (or even expecting ourselves to). We need to tear the workplace down to its foundation and re-built it from scratch to reflect the not-really-so-new workplace reality that there are {gasp!} women with children in it working at just as high a level and deserving just as much pay and their male peers. I’ve heard WOMEN, of all people, say that women – all of whom they presume to be mothers – shouldn’t be paid as much as men – whose fatherhood is never an issue – because they are more distracted by their children than men could ever possibly be. I spent 30+ years as a single woman in a male-dominated profession and I can tell you what men are distracted by, at least in corporate law. The pretty young receptionist. Pornography on their computers behind locked doors. Sports talk. Conquest talk – both business/law war stories and women war stories (the latter almost always certainly untrue and yet they BELIEVE one another). Hanging out, putting off going home. Drinking after work. Going “off campus” to smoke a little dope mid-day. Engaging in the complicated and time-consuming activity of having an affair. MOTHERS, on the other hand, many of whom I supervised, are the most productive, dedicated, GUILTY, other-serving, focused workers in the workforce and they get screwed on compensation, bonuses and promotion over and over and over again. I am spreading to meme of “doing” rather than “having” it all myself and hope you continue to spread “giving” over doing. When we teach our [mostly women] students that they raise the bar of compensation every time they ask for their true market value, they finally give up the idea that asking for something for themselves is selfish or greedy. This is an inside job as much as an outside job and we need to gather together with a single voice to demand equal pay – collectively and individually – just like nine women tennis stars once did (see the new PBS special on Billie Jean King)

  • True story: I was traveling to Seattle to give a talk about re-framing the legal librarian career as a career step to the C-suite and had a lengthy conversation with my female row mate who had an MBA from Harvard who was 3 months pregnant. Conversation:

    “I guess I’ll have to accept my role now.”
    “What does that MEAN?”
    “I’ll have to devote myself to my family rather than my work, which I love.”
    “Why? Is your husband the primary bread winner?”
    “No, actually, I am.”

    Then the conversation went to how much business she had to generate to be a partner in her firm and her distaste for business development, which I assured her she was then in the process of doing with ME and was our conversation distasteful (even if a little outside her comfort zone).

    Then she admitted she’d given credit for a client she’d developed to a male colleague because she’d already decided she wasn’t on a partnership track even though her direct supervisor had told her she needed to speak up at meetings and gave her a copy of a book about what mothers don’t teach their daughters about workplace success.

    The credit she’d given her male colleague was the precise number – $1 million/year in billables – that she needed to become partner herself. She also intended to give up her bonus for the year because she was taking maternity leave 2 months before her bonus (for the previous 10 months work) was due.

    I asked, “so, would you give a male colleague $100,000?”
    “Huh? Of course not!”
    “That’s what you’ve essentially done by giving away credit not to mention giving up partnership and a bonus.”

    She was undeterred and I thought well at least I tried. Hopefully, at some 3 a.m. feeding while she’s worried about bills the family can’t pay because she’s no longer working and her husband is STILL not a primary bread-winner, she’ll recall this conversation.

    Sorry to take up more room on your blog than you blogged! {blush} But my aim is not so much to build my own business (though built it I am) but to get the message out through every channel and connect with every female voice dealing a death blow to this destructive “have it all” meme.

    Thanks again for writing this and for talking about it in the interview. Much respect for you and all you write, which I follow every week.

    • Wow, Victoria — thank you for sharing this story. Is this phenomenon even more entrenched than we think? While I can understand mixed feelings about the pull between career and family, it’s hard to get my head around just totally giving up the credit for such a big business “get.” 🙁

      And thanks for following The Broad Side! We’re trying hard! 🙂

      • I talk to women nearly every day about this and of course follow dozens of news sources in response to which women comment on this issue. It’s VERY VERY deep. We HAVE to change the conversation. Women feel that they’re being asked to give up that which is most important to them – affiliation, relationship, being of service. THEY DO NOT. The “having it all” meme reinforces the idea that we are SEEKING TO GET rather than dying to serve. Keep up the good work! Every time a woman reverses this meme an angel gets her wings.

        • 🙂 So do you see the “lean in” part of the meme as helping or hurting?

          • Here’s how I frame “lean in.” There. Is. Nothing. Wrong. With. You. You (women) don’t need to work harder, faster or better. You don’t need to lower your voice or improve your handshake or refine your elevator speech or improve your “executive presence.” All you need to do is to ask for (and skillfully negotiate) your true market value.
            1. Learn your market value on or or pick up the telephone and ask questions of knowledgeable people about the market for someone with your experience, knowledge, education, and skill-base.
            2. Rewrite your job description. It’s out of date. You’ve been working outside of it since you began to take up the slack created by layoffs during the endless jobless recovery from the ’08 debacle brought to us by an almost entirely male-dominated financial, corporate and political leadership sphere.
            3. Learn how to ask for a promotion, a raise and a bonus to make up for the indisputable wage gap that is personally affecting your compensation.
            4. You can learn this by taking a negotiation class or attending a seminar but you should seek out women who are teaching women how to avoid gender “blow back” from violating the gender norm of being self-sacrificing – there are lots of them around the country. I have all of their names and contact information.
            5. If you can’t find a woman-centered negotiation course, read both Women Don’t Ask and Ask for It by Sara Laschever and Linda Babcock – absolutely essential reading for all women in the work place.
            6. Form supportive alliances in the workplace. If your business has a woman’s affinity group or initiative, use it to sponsor women for promotion, raises and skill-building programs.
            7. Knowing what you know now about hot to achieve your true market value, ask for it, using your new found skill and the alliances you’ve created both internally and externally.
            8. Pay it forward.

  • Amy McVay Abbott

    Wonderful Wonderful. Wonderful.
    First, I love how you talked about the male perspective. Feminism is about men’s and women’s choices.
    Second, I love love love that you are challenging your daughter with the laundry. At thirteen when No. 1 Son came home with dirty Scout laundry and looked at me like, “When are you doing this?” I taught him how to do it himself. He was about the only freshman on his floor who could do his own laundry. DUH…..
    Third, studies prove that those who GIVE are happier than those who don’t. While you are saying we should not have to GIVE IT ALL, that selective giving and selective gratitude for what we have been given can lead to a profound happiness.
    Sorry for the randomness of my comments. Great piece.

  • Christine

    I find that many women that have a hard time setting boundaries with other people- coworkers, bosses, adult family members, children- have the most health and stress related issues. I usually have a chat with them about putting things down, not always answering the phone, and learning to say, no. We teach other people how to treat us. If you are never picking up someone else’s slack, they won’t expect it from you.

    For some reason, American women are continually told they are failing their children when they aren’t 100% willing and available to do everything at a moment’s notice. European women don’t seem to have these problems, as children are expected to be at daycares, mothers are expected to return to their careers, and have a balance in there. Not all career focused, and not all child focused. Husbands and fathers also expected to help in that balance. Here there is a constant state of drama, fear and panic, and it is pervasive in how we approach our lives and livelihoods.

    • Dana

      You don’t have to be “child-focused” to think that it’s your job to raise your children, not some daycare’s. Not because they’re your husband’s children or society’s future citizens but because they are YOUR. KIDS.

      Part of transforming the workplace to be more relevant to women’s skills and women’s giving is transforming the workplace so that it no longer assumes its employees are married men with free childcare at home.

      I shouldn’t have to pretend to be said married man with free childcare at home in order to hold down a decent job.

      There are activists beginning to make strides in this area. Google Babies In Business Solutions for a starting point.

      I should go back to the “you don’t have to be child-centered” meme for a moment and explain. Raising children does not mean you focus your attention on them 24/7. You *do* have to *pay* attention to them, yes, but other than you teaching them good habits and good social mores, a lot of the work of learning that kids do is self-directed. (This is why the structured school setting can be so disastrous for children’s actual education. It is other-directed by nature.) If you hover over them constantly, no matter what age they are, they never learn to take initiative.

      Society expecting us to micromanage them in this way is just another way it tries to control us, and it doesn’t even accomplish anything good or useful.

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