Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Women, Family, and the Expectations of Leadership

“Women do almost as well as men today as long as they don’t have children.”

-- Professor Jane Waldfogel, Columbia University, 2010

In EEOC v. Bloomberg L.P., 778 F. Supp. 2d 458, 485-486 (S.D.N.Y. 2011), a major gender discrimination lawsuit, Chief Judge Loretta A. Preska of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York declared, “[M]aking a decision that preferences family over work comes with consequences…perhaps unfortunately, women tend to choose to attend to family obligations over work obligations thereafter more often than men in our society.  Work-related consequences follow.”

We see this pattern not only in the fast-paced, high-pressure world of financial journalism, but across a spectrum of jobs, including the highest leadership posts in our government. While the last three men nominated to the Supreme Court (Samuel Alito, John Roberts, and Stephen Breyer) have all been married (with seven children among them), the last three women (Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Harriet Miers) have all been single and without children.

As freelance writer Robin Marty noted, “When men are able to rise to high-powered positions, dominating the roles of CEO, upper level management, and yes, Supreme Court Justice and even President, all while at the same time being able to raise a family, but women can only pursue these options without being encumbered by children, there is still a major hurdle to overcome.”

Others, however, appear nonplussed by the sacrifices demanded by politics or business at its highest levels. As Kathryn S. Wylde, President of the Partnership for New York City, told the New York Times in the wake of Judge Preska’s historic ruling:

I am among the first generation of ‘liberated’ women professionals who took for granted we would have to sacrifice personal time and family life to achieve our professional goals. Younger women tend to assume ‘equality in the workplace,’ along with the notion that they can and should ‘have it all.’ I don’t think that is possible for men or women, and certainly not in the competitive environment of New York City.
Thus, before we can even figure out how to overcome the hurdle Marty described, we must first decide how or whether to characterize it as a hurdle in the first place. This effort requires us to examine the appropriate balance between professional duty to our community and our personal lives.

This week, Gordon Marino, a professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College, wrote in the Times Opinionator, “Our desires should not be the ultimate arbiters of vocation. Sometimes we should do what we hate, or what most needs doing, and do it as best we can.”

On the one hand, it seems plain that people need and deserve to live enriching lives beyond the toils of our labor. If, as a great ancient philosopher once said, humans are “luminous beings” and not merely “crude matter”, it stands to reason that our professional passions are but a small part of our souls.

On the other, as Christina Rossetti wrote in her poem-turned-Christmas-carol In The Bleak Midwinter, each of us must do our part, particularly the “wise men” who have been granted opportunity to little credit of their own.

And yet, what Marino misses in his piece—and what so many people who view work and life as a “zero sum” game fail to understand—is how love, family, and personal fulfillment can and do enable professional success and should be viewed as assets rather than liabilities, particularly among leaders in business, politics, and law.

It’s no secret that finding internal peace and happiness in life is brutally difficult, even for those blessed with the material trappings of the developed world. Waving that quest off as if it is a distraction from our core functions is neither helpful nor realistic. Indeed, while some of us can dupe ourselves into thinking that somehow we can do the professional without regard to the personal, life eventually hits you upside the head and it becomes crystal clear that the foundation of success in any realm—the font from which all-else flows—is intimate human connection: familial, fraternal, romantic.

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While it may be acceptable to expect professional athletes or master chess players to have an almost monastic devotion to their craft—the skill and dexterity needed to succeed at the highest level being almost directly tied to their hours of practice—political leaders are different animals.

Being a “political junkie” does not dovetail with being an effective representative. Sure, politicians need to have an understanding of the levers of power and should have a strong historical/procedural understanding of the body to which they are elected; but successful leadership in government requires so much more.

It requires an understanding of the diverse perspectives of your constituents, while simultaneously being confident in one’s own conception of First Principles. It requires a keen awareness of the values of the community and the emphasis placed on certain elements of life that may not at first glance appear to demand prioritization. And perhaps more than anything else, it requires empathy with the real problems of real people (as opposed to obsession with the political problems of political people).

In the spring of 2001, a friend who was graduating from Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School gave me a wallet-sized yearbook photo with a lovely message on the back, which I carry to this day. Well aware of my outsized ambitions, my friend took pains to urge me to “never close my mind to a family life.” It was an incredibly poignant piece of advice from someone one year my senior by the clock, but ages ahead in the consideration of what factors make a life worth living.

And yet, even as I recognize the prescience of her words, it is a challenge to beat back the uncertainty that comes from a political world that demands more of us than most are willing to give and, perhaps more importantly, more than it should demand if we want our representatives to have the perspective of a well-rounded existence that is so cherished by the polity at large.

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