I just read a really interesting and though provoking article on “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter that appeared in The Atlantic, as well as her follow-up comments, “The ‘Having It All’ Debate Convinced Me to Stop Saying ‘Having It All’.  Basically her premise is that the predominate workplace cultures existing in to-days’ workplaces are not supportive of women, and men, who are committed to family values and make choices to pass up dream jobs or the fast promotion track because of their family.  And these two articles are just the tip of the iceberg – she has sure started a ‘conversation’!

If you’ve ever felt guilty about taking time to take a child to the doctor, or left early so you could coach a child’s sport activity, you’re not alone.  I know I certainly experienced my fair share of guilt every time I had to take time off, or leave early or come in late because of a family commitment.  Reading Slaughter’s article made me realize how so not alone I was in feeling that guilt.  She relates that when she was a law student in the 1980s many women climbing the ladder in New York law firms told her that they never admitted to taking time out for a child’s doctor appointment or school activity but invented a more neutral excuse, one that wouldn’t raise questions about their level of commitment to their jobs.

In fact no less than Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, admitted to Slaughter that although she leaves work at 5:30 every night so she can have dinner with her family, she did not dare make this admission to others for many years, even though she would make up the work time later in the evening at home.  Apparently the guilt that women carry because they are committed to their families s well as their jobs is widespread and no one is immune to feeling it.

In my case one example is still a pretty vivid memory.  I worked in environmental and agricultural research at the time and during the growing season that often meant long days as well as some weekend work.  But because of past experiences I kept a log and tracked all time worked, including if it was a statutory holiday.  Some might think that was a little anal retentive, however in a totally male workforce, and based on pasr experiences, I just thought it prudent to be able to support my case when something came up on the home front that required my presence during normal s, working hours.

And it most certainly did!  I had to request a day off because of something to do with the kids, so went to the Deputy Director with my request in writing.  Suffice to say he made a few cracks about women taking time off because of their kids and how you couldn’t count on them, in spite of the fact I had recently worked evenings and a long weekend to finish some data collection before the weather deteriorated.  It was the proverbial straw that broke the camels back.  I had my log book with me and proceeded to give a detailed accounting of all I had given up of my own time to make sure my work was done, as well as a lecture on how civil servants were neither slaves nor indentured servants to be at the governments beck and call 24 hours a day, without overtime (I was in the professional category – no overtime!).  The ‘discussion’ got a little heated (he was of Dutch descent, I trace my family tree back to Ireland and definitely have an “Irish temper”) ).  In the end I got my time off.  When I left his office his secretary confided in me that they had begun to wonder if they should call an ambulance for me or the police to break us up before someone got killed!  I guess we really were a little loud.

But the strangest thing happened.  From that day forward he treated me with the greatest respect, while continuing to bully other staff.  In fact I was often approached by male colleagues to intercede on their behalf if one of their projects was being challenged by this man.  And he never again made any cracks (in my hearing) about a women’s commitment to her job or her lack of professionalism due to family commitments.

Now I certainly wouldn’t recommend this as the best way to deal with a workplace culture that doesn’t truly value your commitment to your family and makes you feel guilty every time you need to tweak your schedule for family commitments, but you definitely need to air the issue (unless you work in a truly toxic workplace – then you need to quietly start looking for another job).

If you are a professional and it can be made to work, here’s a simple 6 step process you can try.

1)    First and foremost you have to be able to take the high ground – you have to be impeccable in your work habits and always perform in a professional manner, no cutting corners or skipping work to save time.

2)    Keep track of your work time, all the times you went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure the work was completed and met the highest standards of performance for your profession.

3)    If something happens that causes you to feel guilty simply because you want to honour your commitment to your family, request a meeting with your superior to clarify whether the company supports family values (few companies would admit to they don’t) and how this is demonstrated by the workplace culture (this is often the sticking point).

4)    Ask for his support in establishing a default acceptance for keeping ones commitment to ones family when it is done without prejudice to the organization.

5)    Get his/her agreement to

  •   using your worked overtime in place of the required office time;
  •   accepting additional time worked outside of your standard hours, or
  •   accepting work done outside of your actual workplace (with today’s modern technology this is feasible for many professional jobs)so that you can be with your family when needed.  And this is appropriate for men as well as women – this isn’t just a “woman’s issue”, it’s a society issue.

6)    Ask your supervisor to let all staff know that it is entirely acceptable to make alternate work arrangements when family duty calls and that it applies to both men and women.

Well this may not work for everyone, and I recognize that many people work in jobs that are totally inflexible, there are still many workplaces where this concept of true flexibility could work.  We just have to examine our assumptions and beliefs around what it means to do ones job and look closely at workplace culture.  Too often we’re working in a culture based on assumptions suitable for the 19th or 20th century, but totally inappropriate for to-days professionals and working families.

So what about it ladies – have you ever felt a wee bit guilty because you felt you needed to be with your family, for whatever reason, or given an alternate reason for having to be away from work so people wouldn’t think you were “unprofessional”?  Isn’t it time to speak up for more family friendly workplace policies and cultures?   If not now, when?


Until the next time, keep on Thriving 🙂

Karen Switzer-Howse

Canada’s Premier Thrive Synergy Strategist