She works too hard for the money

The authors of "Womenomics" challenge professional women to say no to overly demanding jobs -- even in a recession.

By Amy Reiter

Published June 1, 2009 10:30AM (EDT)

Mommy wars, brain drains, opt-out revolutions -- working mothers have been through (or at least been warned about) them all. Now comes "Womenomics: Write Your Own Rules for Success," a new book by Claire Shipman, senior national correspondent for ABC News' "Good Morning America" and mother of two, and Katty Kay, Washington correspondent and anchor for "BBC World News America" and mother of four. In their book, the news veterans call for women to say no to 60-plus-hour work weeks and overly demanding jobs that yank them away from their families. Instead, they urge working women to use their clout in the workplace to demand fewer hours at the office, turn down non-family-friendly assignments, and take control of their time by working from home more, checking e-mail less and avoiding meetings whenever possible.

They call the lifestyle that they themselves have pulled off the "New All" -- defined as "enough professional success, balanced by time and freedom." In impassioned prose, Shipman and Kay lay out their advice for downshifting our careers, which they contend is what an increasing number of us desire deep down but are afraid to ask for. "Women don't usually want that promotion," they write, citing a 2007 Family and Work Institute study that only 28 percent of college-educated women want more responsibility at work, down from 57 percent who said they wanted more in 1992. A second study they cite by the same group found that 34 percent of the top 100 women in 10 top-tier companies said they had, at some point, scaled back their career aspirations. "Why? Not because they weren't up to the job -- but because the sacrifices they would have to make in their personal lives were just too great."

Of course, that could be because, as sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild pointed out in her 1990 book "The Second Shift," which is as apt today as when it was published, the vast majority of the women in dual-career families are still saddled with most of the work at home, and because America's social support system is woefully lacking. But Shipman and Kay, both of whom have high-powered, presumably well-paid husbands, barely acknowledge these issues in their book, and then do so only to dismiss them. "We know the solution isn't longer hours at daycare or hiring more babysitters or asking our husbands to stay home," they write. "Because we're the ones who want more time -- for our children, our parents, our communities, ourselves."

"Womenomics" aims its message at professional, educated women and includes work-life-balance success stories from women in mid-to-upper ranks of corporate America, finance, academia and law as well as study citations, statistics and Shipman and Kay's own tips and anecdotes. But the authors don't seem to recognize that the privileges and power enjoyed by, say, high-profile on-air TV talent may not really extend to your basic workaday accountant or bank manager.

Despite its blind spots and somewhat muddled message ("Womenomics" contends that men and young workers also increasingly desire career flexibility), the book's call for greater work-life balance and empowerment certainly has its appeal. It may not be realistic, especially in this dismal economy, to advise workers to waltz into their bosses' offices and ask to spend less time at their desks, or to skip meetings they deem "unproductive," or to check e-mail only twice a day. But how great would it be if we really could do that without losing our jobs? Nowadays, when our livelihoods seem so tenuous and our home lives so shortchanged, the idea is certainly attractive.

Skeptical but intrigued, Salon got the authors on the phone. Shipman joined the conversation late, delayed, appropriately enough, by an unexpected family matter.

What inspired you to coin the term "Womenomics" and write a book about it together?

Kay: Claire and I have talked over the years, sometimes in secret, about how to carry on working and still make sure we had enough time for family life. At first, our conversations were kind of tentative because we didn't want to admit to not being ambitious or accepting a big job or going for a promotion or climbing the ladder. I'd call Claire and say, "I've just been offered this job. What do you think?" She was my touchstone, the one person who would say to me, "Well, that's a great job, but this is really going to screw up your time. You've worked out this balance with your children. Are you sure you want to be at the White House at 5 o'clock every morning and not leave until 5 or 6 o'clock in the evening? And travel every time the president travels?"

We realized we could confide in each other about how to keep this balance. We'd make choices that might seem counterintuitive, like turning down promotions or saying no to assignments when the expectation was that we would jump at every opportunity. We found ourselves saying no more and more. These are my limits. Then when we started doing economic research, we discovered how much power women have in the marketplace now because of their education and talents. There is a talent shortage. And we thought, Well, if you put those two things together -- that most women want to work differently, and we have a lot of clout -- you have an opportunity for women to negotiate their time.

You've both downshifted your careers personally.

Kay: I was offered the job anchoring the evening news for the BBC. I was at the time a reporter, which allowed me a lot of flexibility to be with my children. I was very excited about the idea of anchoring -- it was a new challenge -- but the more I thought about it, the more I realized it would mean I went into the office at lunchtime and wouldn't get home until late at night, five days a week. I couldn’t take on this job I really wanted and preserve the time I wanted with my children. So I went to the BBC, which was really keen to have me do it, and said, "Listen, I can do this four days a week, or I can not do it at all."

I was sitting on the Capitol steps, waiting to do a live shot for the evening news, and I got this phone call. I knew it was my boss in London and that she was going to say we really want you to do this job, but you have to do it five days a week. I picked it up and my boss, who was a woman, said, "You know what, I don't want to have just a reputation for being family friendly. I actually want to be family friendly. I'm going to go to my bosses and tell them we have to let you do it four days a week." That was a real shift moment for me. Because it was the first time I had made a clear decision about saying no to something I really wanted in order to preserve my work-life balance.

Do you think women and men want different things in their careers?

Kay: I think in the last few years there's been this recognition that maybe we don't feel the same about our careers and that we want to have time for our lives as well in ways that a lot of men actually do but haven't demanded. You had that depressing study that came out from Harvard a few years ago that found that women were leaving the professional workforce in great number because they felt that they couldn't do it all, with these 60-hour weeks.

There's plenty of scientific evidence too showing that our brains just work differently. We're more measured in the way we approach everything. We're less monomaniacal than men tend to be. We want more balance in our lives in almost everything we do. We're more ambivalent. We also tend to take fewer risks. There's a whole thing about how if women had been running Lehman Brothers we might not have had this whole crash, because women don't take those kinds of extreme risks. They don't have the testosterone that drives them. So you've got scientific and social evidence that suggests that women do have a different approach to their careers.

You two recently blogged that a study finding a lack of women in the top echelon of corporate America was, in a sense, good news.

Shipman [joining in]: Yeah, it seems kind of counterintuitive. But people tend to focus on "How many CEOs are there?" as a measure of our success. And obviously, it would be terrific to have more women running corporations or investment banks, but the fact that we have such strength at the mid-level now and we're so valued now for our management style gives us the power to make a lot of the changes that I guess people thought we'd only be able to make with women at the top.

Do you think women weigh the relative values of time and money differently than men?

Shipman: We have a much broader view of what we value: time, family time, a life that involves more than just simply being at work and earning money. Money is not the only measure of success for us. That makes us a lot more flexible even in a recession, because we're willing to take different rewards than money: time off, working more flexibly.

Kay: What we find exciting about "Womenomics" is that actually the choices are broader now than they have been over the last 20, 30, 40 years, that women can make decisions that actually suit us, rather than decisions that we tell ourselves suit us. We can have satisfying professional lives, and that might mean aiming to be senior-level or middle rather than the top-level management.

Shipman: It's not only a male-female issue. Younger workers -- Gen X and Gen Y -- all want a much broader life. They want more time. They're not willing to be slaves to the corporate ladder. They value things outside of work and see themselves as more balanced, family-oriented human beings. That's where we are and where the next generation of workers is, and that's something companies will have to cope with.

Well, it's one thing to get companies to accommodate your desired work-life balance when you're high-profile talent, as you both are. But are you worried that your experience isn't applicable to everyday, ordinary competent women?

Kay: You have to achieve your targets. This isn't about giving women or men permission to slack off. Managers will say, "Oh, I don't want to do this, because how do I know she's not sitting at home eating Cheerios on the kitchen floor with her kids rather than actually doing her job?" But actually you can see people's performance almost better this way, because [in a normal office setting] you can spend hours sitting at your desk and surfing the Internet.

Right, you write that the average employee wastes about 80 percent of her time in unproductive tasks or even just trying to look productive.

Shipman: Yes, once a company starts measuring productivity, it doesn't matter where people are working. Look, if you have a company that's really old school, they may only be willing to do this for their top performers or their stars. But there are so many companies that understand you don't have to be a superstar. You just have to do your job. And letting people do their job when and where they want to do it increases productivity.

You have to have a pretty good safety net to be able to do this, right? You both have successful husbands whose salaries you can rely on. [Claire's husband is Joe Biden's director of communications.] Is this really a good time to rock the boat for someone without that?

Kay: Obviously everyone has to look at their own budget, particularly if they're going to propose taking a shorter workweek and taking less money for it. There's a big controversy among economists and academics about whether you should ever take part-time positions because do you end up doing 100 percent of the work for 80 percent of the pay. That's why we talk about how you can be more efficient with your time without going to your boss and suggesting taking a pay cut.

You talk about the strategic no, advising women to check their e-mail only twice a day and not always strive to do their very best all the time. Is that really wise in this environment?

Shipman: Women, particularly high-achieving women, tend to be perfectionists. And that's one of the things that can hold us back. We spend so much time trying to get the book report exactly right that we're not noticing that, in fact, the boss would prefer us to have that book report done and this other project done, too. As women, we need to learn to be more strategic about the work we take on. Most of the time good enough really is good enough.

Some of the companies that have allowed employees to work more flexibly surprised me. You note in the book that Wal-Mart has started a flex-time program for its lawyers. I mean, Wal-Mart?

Kay: We were surprised, too. Who would have thought of Best Buy, really, or Capital One? That's what's fascinating is which companies have really taken this on as not just a favor that they can bestow on women, but as a whole company strategy.

Doesn't this all just go out the window in a recession, when people have to put in more face time at the office -- not less -- and work harder to compensate for colleagues who've been laid off?

Shipman: The companies we've talked to who've used this say it actually becomes more invaluable in a recession. Companies either want to keep their high-performing employees or they see that it's increasing productivity.

Are you worried about sending the message that women are less committed to their work than men? That's an old stereotype women, particularly working mothers, have worked so hard to disprove.

Kay: When I found out I was pregnant with my first child -- I was 29 years old, I was in Tokyo, and my career was going well for the first time -- I walked into the office of my best friend and burst into tears. I said, "Oh my god, no one's ever going to take me seriously again." And actually I've found it just hasn't been the case.

Shipman: We have one employer in the book who says that he has nobody on his staff more efficient than working mothers. They get the job done.

Sure, but are those employers maybe the exceptions? Aren't there a lot of unevolved bosses out there?

Shipman: You're right, but part of what we're trying to do is effect change as much as recognize it. Should every woman storm into her CEO's office and say, "I need to be home at 3 o'clock?" Absolutely not. But we're hoping it’s a book that lets women see that many people feel the way they do, and that change is starting to happen. We show them some of the ways they can make it happen -- in small ways, even if they can't go all the way.

Kay: Women tend to be quite self-deprecating about their value, and hopefully by showing women just how valuable they are -- women are better educated than men, we are bigger consumers, we have management skills that are particularly suited to this environment -- we're giving women a sense that they can take some control over the way they work. We're not telling them "you can slack off." It's just that you can work differently.

Amy Reiter

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