Get the briefcase and the pacifier ready, it's time for another round of Opting Out of Having It All While Leaning In to the End of Perfect Madness. That is, a debate about women in the workplace and What it All Means.
This time, the catalyst is a New York Times magazine cover story premised on the idea that a small group of super-high-achieving women, who once chose to stay home with their kids (dubbed by the Times, in 2003, as the Opt-Out Revolution), are now, 10 years later, after a serious recession and in some cases divorce, heading back to the workplace, and seemingly unsatisfied with both decisions.
I call BS to this pile of anecdotes disguised as fact. This story is not about women and their choices. Actually, it's not about gender at all. It's about partnership.
The false frame on this story, and many stories like it, is the individualism. The focus on mothers crops fathers almost entirely out of the frame. But no one makes choices in a vacuum, and that's doubly true if you have children. In a nation with a pathetic social safety net, it is partnership, and only partnership, that enables any freedom of choice about careers and family, for men OR for women.
The true economic connection between work, home, and childrearing is crystal clear: The highest-earning, most stable households in the country are two-career, educated married couples, and the poorest, least stable households are headed by single mothers. There is no "opting out"—there is no "option" at all—unless someone else is opting in. If you want to kill it at work, your vision for your most intimate relationships is at least as important as a business or a career plan—regardless of gender. It's integral to the whole.
And whether or not you want kids, rewarding partnerships—if not romantic, then lasting and very close ones with family, friends, and even colleagues—are the foundation of meaning, fulfillment, achievement, and all that is desirable in life.
A good marriage, if you'll permit the comparison, is like a successful startup. Choosing the right cofounder, someone with complementary strengths, is key. But that's only the beginning. You must work out graceful ways to communicate and deal with inevitable friction, or the culture of your company, or marriage, is going to go toxic over time.
It turns out that a lot of the current management wisdom applies handily in this context. Here are four approaches to successful partnerships from the startup world.
- Optimize for happiness. That's the mantra of open-source platform GitHub. This should go without saying, but the happiness of everyone in a family is job number one. Happiness, according to GitHub, comes with as flat a hierarchy as possible, and when everyone gets to choose as much as possible what they'd like to be working on. This kind of egalitarianism and autonomy is the marriage model preferred by Millennials and educated people; it seems to drive happiness for both partners as well.
- Lower barriers to experimentation. In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries talks about dealing with extreme uncertainty through constant experimentation and systematizing improvements. Marriages, like other partnerships, get stuck using coping strategies that no longer work, rooted in outdated assumptions, even as the needs of both partners change, because of a new job or a new child. A spirit of no-fault experimentation—"let's try this for two weeks and see what happens"—is a good antidote to grinding conflict.
- Take the long view. "Ask yourself: Is the way you're working today sustainable over the next 20 years? Then listen to your answer," said David Lunsford, director of advanced technology at Dell. This is doubly true for a relationship consciously cast as a lifelong partnership. But the reason that so many women who opt out find themselves in a dead end is short-term thinking. They stay home with babies because their take-home salary barely clears the cost of childcare, forgetting about opportunity cost. They find themselves going back to work after five to seven years at a much-reduced level.
- Be nice. America's happiest companies "cultivate a culture of mindfulness and meaning," share abundant "acknowledgement and praise for a job well done," and "seriously honor the humanity of their people." America's happiest families, ditto.
Sheryl Sandberg strongly emphasizes this point in Lean In, but it bears repeating: You cannot have a happy life without a supportive partner—at work and at home—who sees your success as being as important as their success. As important. The same. Maybe MBA programs and startup incubators should focus on the giant unstated piece of people's success that comes from the person they choose to spend their lives with, and how both manage that relationship. This is not a gendered statement. It's equally true for men and women.
[Image: Flickr user Emilio García]