October 30, 2012

On having it all

Alicia Moore never imagined she’d be sitting behind a desk at the Medical College of Wisconsin with her name on the office door.

Alicia Moore never imagined she’d be sitting behind a desk at the Medical College of Wisconsin with her name on the office door.

Odds were against her.

Pregnant at 14, with parents who made it clear they would not raise her baby, Moore wasn’t certain she would even finish high school.

But she did. When she graduated from high school, she decided on Marquette University.

Her hike took her through graduation, to a job at United Way, up through a master’s degree in management and to her desk as diversity coordinator at the Medical College.

She did it all while raising two more children, on her own.

“I don’t think I’m extraordinary,” the 41-year-old Moore said. “There are two parts to my life: my kids and my career, in that order.”

Working mothers everywhere know the challenge. Though they might not have been teen moms, they know that balancing kids and a career is, at best, an 18-year-long, high-stakes tightrope walk.

Though many have supportive spouses, grandmas on demand or salaries that afford them live-in nannies or personal chefs, trade-offs remain.

Neither hope nor prayer can put a woman at her daughter’s spelling bee and the company board meeting when both begin at 4 p.m. She can sneak in late to one. She can try to Skype or FaceTime. Or she can send someone in her place.

Something will be sacrificed.

Despite the Equal Pay Act approaching its 50th birthday, women still typically earn 80 percent of what men do working in the same industries, according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest numbers.

Last year, nearly 5,800 women filed pregnancy discrimination complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and state and local agencies, up from fewer than 4,000 in 1997.

And while women now account for 47 percent of all employed people, fewer than 8 percent of top earners in Fortune 500 companies are women, according to a December report by Catalyst, an international nonprofit that conducts research on women in leadership positions.

Such statistics make it more likely duel income families will depend on the male to stay in the workforce when deciding who will spend more time at home with children, said Lynne Casper, a sociologist with the University of Southern California and former health scientist at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Casper’s students tend to think the sexes are fairly equal on most fronts.

“I ask them who sends birthday cards, their mom or their dad?” Casper says. “It’s the moms. Women are still taught that we are the caretakers.”

And while men are doing more cooking and cleaning, their contribution to household chores still lags. On an average day, for example, 83 percent of women and 65 percent of men “spent some time doing household activities such as housework, cooking, lawn care, or financial and other household management,” according to an American Time Use Survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics released in June.

Working moms are racing around trying to do it all. When surveyed about their time, 40 percent of working moms said they always feel rushed. That compares with 26 percent of moms who stay at home, and tops working dads, of whom just 25 percent said they always feel rushed, according to the 2010 report.

It’s not just women who are seeking a more balanced lifestyle, said Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former director of policy planning with the U.S. State Department.

Slaughter’s recent essay in The Atlantic — “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” — set off a slurry of discussions about the struggles women face pursuing fulfilling careers while meeting the needs of a family.

Slaughter said she’s heard from scores of men following her story, complaining that they don’t “have it all,” either, contrary to common perception.

They miss out on baby’s first steps and baseball games, piano recitals and parent-teacher conferences. They are snubbed by bosses and not taken seriously for staying home with a sick child.

Even so, women are affected disproportionately when it comes to reaching the top of their professions, said Slaughter, who is now working on a book on the subject.

Slaughter and others say a number of factors contribute to successful scenarios for working mothers — whatever their line of work.

Flexible schedules, for starters, is key. If women aren’t running their own companies, then they need bosses and managers who value results over face time in the office.

Another key to finding a balance is teaching girls and boys early that a healthy family is about partnership, said Elizabeth English, head of the Archer School for Girls in Los Angeles.

Children need to see role models and understand explicitly that having a family is a wonderful thing and having meaningful, engaging work is also a wonderful thing — for both sexes. And being able to balance those depends on an equal partnership, English said.

Aiming to “have it all” isn’t good for anybody, she said.

“The very slogan ‘having it all’ is just an old notion,” she said. “No one can have it all — man, woman, straight or gay, no one has it all.”

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