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The Real Reason Women's Careers Stall (Hint: It Has Nothing To Do With The Laundry)

We have a workplace culture that has never adapted to the reality of two-working-parent families, writes Joanna Weiss. (Damian Zaleski/ Unsplash)MoreCloseclosemore
We have a workplace culture that has never adapted to the reality of two-working-parent families, writes Joanna Weiss. (Damian Zaleski/ Unsplash)

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If I see another headline or stock photo that blames women's pay gap on the fact that working women have to do the laundry, I’m going to vomit.

Sorry for the intense reaction. But it happened again the other day: Another study came out that parsed the complexities of career advancement, the tangled web of decision-making and cultural norms that has led us to this place of systemic inequality. And in the internet retelling, it all got reduced to the image of a woman in unfashionable business clothes, gazing sadly at a laundry basket and a pile of Legos.

I won’t name the news outlet that selected this gem, because it’s hardly the only one. And I won’t blame Sheryl Sandberg, who, in her “Lean In” days, popularized a professor’s crack about how the best thing men could do for women’s advancement was “the laundry” — a great half-joke that, a couple of generations ago, might have been true.

If I see another headline or stock photo that blames women's pay gap on the fact that working women have to do the laundry, I’m going to vomit.

Yes, we can still calculate the gaps in domestic workloads — five hours for me, three-point-seven hours for you! — and the studies in question found some inequalities. But blaming husbands, or laundry, is reductive and outdated. Worse, it’s a distraction. Sure, career advancement is easier for women with stay-at-home spouses or bottomless pools of expensive help. (I’m looking at you, Ivanka.)

But the real, persistent reason for women’s stalled careers isn’t the fact that there’s laundry to do, or carpools to run, or homework to assist with, or any of the other obligations that fill so many people’s hours in those too-brief years of full-on family life. It isn’t even that we lack the right volume of paid leave policies and childcare subsidies. It's that the currency of success in too many office settings — face time, meeting attendance, the ability to drop everything on a dime to conform to the packed schedules of the C-suite — is out of whack with modern reality, for both genders.

(John Towner/ Unsplash)
(John Towner/ Unsplash)

Worse, we haven’t shaken the cultural assumption that people who have kids instantly become less competent because they now have to multitask — when, in fact, we should be realizing that they’re demonstrating more competence because they're able to multitask. Until we recognize that someone who manages to get her best work done between 7 and 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday before the kids wake up is a particular type of corporate rock star, we're never going to make real progress.

Yet for too long, we’ve been defining the situation all wrong, and using the wrong language to describe what working parents do. It’s always couched in terms with negative connotations: “juggling,” as if all but the most exceptional clowns are sure to drop a ball; “balancing,” as if we’re standing on a flimsy teeter-totter, waiting for one side to fall.

No, nothing about this rant is remotely new. And yes, these solutions are targeted largely at white-collar workplaces; in service and retail settings, a worker has to be present. But a humane approach to scheduling would help in any field: With enough notice and consistency, most mothers can find the coverage they need and be where they need to be.

the currency of success in too many office settings ... is out of whack with modern reality, for both genders.

Instead, what we’ve got today is what we’ve had for a long time: A workplace culture that has never adapted to the reality of two-working-parent families. And a situation, for individual workers, where luck plays as much a part as design. You can work for a progressive company, or for a singular understanding boss who recognizes that good output happens at any hour. Or you can work in a place where the structure is so rigid — so destined to set you up for failure, on its terms — that you eventually opt out. Either way, you have to set your own boundaries and cut your own deals.

Because, except for the most high-powered and wealthy among us, the realities of domestic life aren’t going to change. Do one load of laundry, finally get around to folding it and putting it away, and presto! — the hamper is full again. Washing dishes is a Sisyphean task. Orthodontist appointments pop up on the schedule. Family life happens. That's not a problem. It's a fact.

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Joanna Weiss Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Joanna Weiss is a former reporter and columnist for the Boston Globe.

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