Sunday, February 24, 2013

"I'm more than just a uterus"

One thing I have always believed, both pre- and post-loss and infertility, is that "I am more than my uterus" -- something I have expressed in this blog, and on the recent Bitter Infertiles podcast. I strongly believe that my life -- and women's lives generally, whether you ultimately reproduce or not -- is, and should be, about so much more our children, and our ability to bear children. Children are wonderful -- but they are not the only thing that can (or even should) give a woman's life meaning and purpose -- and motherhood should certainly not be the measure by which a woman's value is determined (by others, and certainly most of all by ourselves).

So my interest was piqued by this headline in the business section of Saturday's Globe & Mail:  "Ask about my job, but not my uterus." It was an article by Leah Eichler, who often writes about women's issues in a business context.

"It’s surprising how much we, as a community, think about what’s happening in a woman’s uterus," she writes. (Aside from me:  Or NOT happening.)

Eichler expresses her disappointment at recent comments by Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, encouraging women to be open with their employers about their plans to have a family. She (Eichler) points out that women are still taken less seriously by male decision makers because of their ability to have children, and that forthright declarations about their intentions to have a family aren't likely to change this.   

"We need to stop seeing women as either baby factories that generate our future work force, or as primary caregivers. Both images work to keep women out of the C-suite. For the record, I love my children more than anything but I’m more than just a uterus and the sooner that more people understand that, the quicker we can all get down to business." (Emphasis mine. Guess I didn't invent the phrase, lol.)

Eichler is somewhat kinder to Ann-Marie Slaughter, whose article in the Atlantic titled "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" created a huge buzz last year. More recently, she wrote "Don't Rule Out Having Children Because You Want a Career."  Slaughter suggests that society needs to redefine success. "I tend to agree, so long as “redefining success” is not code that mothers should be content with an average job," Eichler writes.

There is so much going on here, and I have mixed feelings. Let me try to express a few of them.

Some mothers (and non-mothers) are perfectly happy with "average jobs." Not everyone is cut out for the C-suite. Not everyone WANTS a C-suite job. (Me, for instance. While I wouldn't call my job "average," it's still a loooonnnnnggggg way from the C-suite.  I've never been particularly interested in taking on responsibility for managing other people, or budgets.) (By the same token, not everyone is cut out for motherhood, or want to take that on either.)

But at the moment (as the title of Slaughter's latest essay implies), women who do want those C-suite jobs -- and a family -- too often find that it's an either-or situation. How many men have to make those choices?  Women shouldn't have to either, just because they're the ones who get pregnant.

I applaud companies that recognize that their employees have lives outside of work, and are willing to be flexible.  (It was highly disappointing to read today that Marissa Mayer -- the new CEO of Yahoo, who famously got the job when pregnant and took just two weeks off work after the birth of her son -- has ordered all Yahoo employees who currently work from home and other remote locations to head back to the office.  That includes those who only work from home a day or two a week. I can see mandating a certain number of days a week for meetings, etc., when all employees must be present, but this certainly seems like a step backwards -- not to mention a slap in the face to employees who joined Yahoo because of its flexibility.)

But when most people talk about flexible workplaces, they're usually talking about women who are mothers. I strongly believe that workplaces needs to be flexible for *everyone* -- not just moms (or dads). Non-parents have lives and obligations that are important to them, too. 

When my company first introduced a policy on flexible work options, some 15 years ago, I wrote about it for the staff magazine. And, as I may have written here before, one of the people I interviewed was a woman who worked a longer day, four days a week, and then took a fifth day off. When I probed into her reasons for wanting such an arrangement and what she did with the extra time, I fully expected to hear about her children.

Instead, she told me she had no children, and used her days off to run errands, attend theatre matinees with friends and work on her novel. "My time is just as valuable to me as a parent's," she said. And while I had not yet begun my struggle with infertility, and fully expected to be a parent someday myself at that point, I thought that her logic made perfect sense.  In fact, the policy does not ask why the flexible arrangement is being requested, and the reason(s) are not considered by the requester's manager in deciding whether to approve the arrangement. What matters is the work and how it will get done. (Such arrangements are, sadly, still relatively rare at my company... but that's another story...)

Somehow, somewhere, there has to be a way to balance companies' needs to serve their customers and employees' (equally legitimate) needs for a satisifying personal life (which may or may not include children). 

Some people may want to put more emphasis on climbing the corporate ladder than having a family (and vice versa). There may be certain time(s) in your life when you want to focus on your career and others where your priorities may be elsewhere. Some people might require more flexibility at certain times of their lives, when their children are small or parents are aging, or for other reasons (like going through infertility treatments). That doesn't mean they can't or don't want to contribute, or that their past contributions to the company (or potential to contribute in the future) should be discounted. 

Put the mechanisms and supports in place that allow everyone to succeed -- however they define success -- and then let's get on with working and living.


  1. Here here! To everything you've written! These are such important issues that need to be discussed. I remember in my 20s, before I thought I'd want children and long before my son died, I used to get annoyed by the concessions made for mothers that were not extended to the rest of us in the workplace (and beyond). Now, as a 'bitter infertile', I have a whole new series of reasons to be annoyed. But the real point (beyond my anger - Ha!) is that concessions made for women on the basis of their reproductive capacities are just as restrictive and anti-woman as the demands placed on childless (by choice or otherwise) women...they're just flip sides of the same coin. Thanks for posting.

  2. Bravo, Loribeth! Well said.

    You and I are so similar - especially perhaps our views on feminism. Or is it that we're just products of our age/education?

  3. Thank you for posting about this. I have realised I have a lot to say on the topic when the comment got incredibly long. :-)
    I am trying to turn it into a post. We'll see how that goes.

  4. Aahgg. I composed a long reply to this excellent post and it seems to have got eaten. Suffice it to say, amen to all that. Thank you so much for posting.

  5. This is so spot-on. It's frustrating that so much of the discussion in the media about women in the workplace has centered on motherhood ... for two reasons, really. First, as you put it here, being female is more than having a uterus. We don't need flexibility because we have children. We need flexibility because the 60 hour work week is not humane. And it trickles down, even if it's only the "C-suite" jobs that are expected to show up in that way. And second, fathers need flexibility to attend to their children, so that the load is more evenly balanced in heterosexual families (to say nothing of what we need for same-sex couples and families!). Our workplaces need an overhaul in general. And perhaps *that* should be the focus of the conversation, not gender.