The following guest post is by Joscelin Cooper, a communications and public relations consultant and writer fortunate to work with companies with healthy perspectives on work/life balance. She spends a lot of time climbing things and being outdoors.
I recently interviewed with a large, global technology company. The interviewer felt it necessary to tell me that I was expected to work a minimum of 55-60 hours per week. She didn’t want to encourage any assumptions I might have of a “40 hour work week.”
Not that I had any. We joked about the nonexistence of such a professional unicorn, and hah-hah’ed about how people could even expect to leave their jobs every day after only putting in a paltry eight hours or so.
Fairly recently I was offered a position to work closely with a very high-profile technology company CEO. Talking to her immediate staff, I was struck by the tone of reverence and sincere admiration they felt for their leader, as well as the solemn assertions that they were “on call all the time.” The admin assistant admitted sheepishly that she “never saw” her significant other; the chief-of-staff cheerily recounted how he’d begun to appreciate his 2+ hour commute, often heading home well into the evening. Any talk of work-life “balance” was treated with invisible air quotes. It was a special request—the vegan Kosher airplane meal, granted begrudgingly, to fulfill a check box toward building a healthy corporate culture. Basking in this CEO’s good graces, it seems, was well worth the intense, unrelenting pace and sacrifice of a personal life.
You might think, “55 hours, that’s nothing!” And you wouldn’t be alone. I, too, have worked 70-hour weeks and set my alarm for the middle-of-the-night for international product launches or meetings with colleagues overseas. I didn’t exactly feel unduly burdened by the long hours either; I was in fact exhilarated by the pace. I found purpose in being needed and instrumental for such extended periods of time.
Working marathon hours is part of Silicon Valley’s DNA. The drive, excitement, and intensity of startup culture, and indeed much of tech in general, draw me, and many others, to this industry. The problem, however, is that this narrow focus of work-as-life unto itself favors the young, especially young men—and disadvantages ambitious women who want to have children
Judith Warner’s recent piece in the New York Times Magazine follows up on several women executives who “opted out” a decade ago, choosing full-time parenthood over their high-demand careers. I have several issues with the scope of Warner’s piece — the most central being that it, again, crystallizes the debate around a privileged 1% or 2% of women who have the option of not working. Most women—even middle-to-upper class, well-educated American women—can’t afford not to work. Warner does home in on a few, telling conclusions: women AND men want challenging, fulfilling work, but also seek to balance a professional identity with personal commitments to their relationships and children. Women AND men face workplace stigma, and unfair stalling of their professional trajectories by insisting upon a reasonable level of flexibility in their work lives.
Silicon Valley likes to parade its pseudo-feminist poster women, who alternately raise scornful eyebrows and elicit praise for their work-life choices. Marissa Mayer’s appointment as Yahoo CEO while six months pregnant was heralded as a signal of post-feminism progress, while her choice to return to work two weeks after childbirth was roundly criticized. Sheryl Sandberg is both mocked and revered for inviting women to “lean in.”
Both women have inarguably advanced women’s progress toward equality in leadership. But their persuasiveness derives from the near superhuman and unattainable standard they’ve set. They have achieved a perfect melding of work and personal identities because they can afford the luxuries of around-the-clock childcare, and have wealthy, supportive spouses and networks—advantages unavailable to most.
Katherine Losse, ex-Facebook employee and writer, penned one of the most articulate and provocative responses to Sandberg’s book. Her Lean In screed identifies the crux of the issue: This shouldn’t be about women figuring out how to “have it all” (thanks and no thanks, Anne-Marie Slaughter), but about people asking, Why have we created a society in which work is religion, and the rest of life is something to be squeezed in?
I identify Silicon Valley’s work culture as the culprit both because I live this reality, and because we self-righteously applaud ourselves for being more irreverent, informal…even revolutionarily unique and disruptive in how we work than other industries and parts of the country.
The truth is that the sexism, hierarchy, and entrenched social mores prevail here, as they do everywhere else. They’re just dressed in T-shirts and expensive sneakers, momentarily drowned out by playing Guitar Hero in a break room.
To be truly “innovative,” women (and men) in the Valley might take incremental, but meaningful steps to wean ourselves from our addiction to work. Don’t take meetings after 6 p.m. Limit evening work to a 20-minute e-mail check-in after dinner. Go for a walk at lunch. Advocate for more flexible company policies on working remotely, or for part-time work. Stop trying to have it all.
Work culture will only be reformed by a critical mass taking a stand to prove that you can be dedicated to your career, but also to having a substantial, rich, and entirely separate life, outside of the office.