by Leslie Morgan Steiner
Mid-August compromises the dog days of summer for news headlines (witness the front page froth over the JetBlue flight attendant) which may be why the editors at the New York Times chose mid-August as the ideal time to publish David Leondhardt’s "Economic Scene: A Market Punishing to Mothers ." Despite being buried in August amid the Business section, the article makes excellent points. In case you are a tad time-pressed by the demands of your kids, job and husband, Mommy Tracked called out a pithy synopsis  on NewsDesk. However, to get the gist of the New York Times piece – and perhaps most of our entire culture’s view towards working moms – just read the subtitle carefully:
"The next step toward workplace equality begins with acknowledging that most parents can't have it all, as long as flexible schedules and long leaves damage careers."
Before I dismember the subtitle, I’d like to pause to give thanks:
* A mainstream, respected newspaper read by millions has devoted several inches to a hidden reality that has plagued, frustrated, and perhaps ruined the professional lives of an entire generation of extremely well-educated, committed, ambitious women, including most of the women I know from Harvard undergrad and Wharton business school.
* The article was written by a man, rather than the rabidly angry feminists -- whom Leonhardt helpfully points out have contributed to bias against working moms by focusing on women’s equal rights instead of family policies – thereby increasing the chances that men who have the power to hire, retain and promote women will actually pay attention.
* Solid, unbiased points are made about the gender pay gap, workplace prejudice against mothers, and the reality that most women do not have any real “choice” between work and family (since most of us want and need both).
Now onto the heart of the miasma. The problem with our society is not that working moms want “it all,” or that “flexible schedules and long leaves” damage careers, as Leonhardt’s subtitle states. The problem is that neither our country’s policy makers nor our private sector leaders understand how easy it is to offer flexibility to employees, and the vast improvements to morale, loyalty and productivity that result. Moms (the “parents” in the subhead strikes me as politically correct code) should not be blamed or punished for wanting to combine working and care giving through flexible work schedules and maternity leaves. Despite thousands of genius-level economists at the nation’s universities and think tanks, no one has quantified the tremendous national loss caused when well-educated, brilliant, hard-working, ambitious moms leave the workforce for good.
Over the course of three decades toiling in some of our country’s finest educational and corporate institutions, I’ve watched hundreds of female colleagues from Harvard, Wharton, Leo Burnett, Johnson & Johnson, The Washington Post and other companies leave the paid workforce for good. I must stress here that it seems that many of the very brightest, most ambitious women are the first to go. These are the women who sat in the front row, dazzled professors with their insights, the ones with huge red A+ marks on the term papers littering their dorm rooms. Perhaps they leave first because they are the smartest: long before the rest of us numb-nuts, they see the writing on the corporate wall that there is no way to “balance” kids and career in our rabidly capitalistic, Caucasian-male-dominated economy.
Perhaps they leave first because they’ve made wise choices in their partners, who are similarly smart, stable financial providers who make it possible for these women to leave the workforce more easily than those of us burdened by bad husband choices, ill-timed pregnancies, unsupportive families or single motherhood.
If you want to find these brainiacs – the ones who could ostensibly solve the financial crisis, reform the U.S. Postal System, design and launch a national system of affordable high quality daycare -- head to local school carline at 3 pm on a weekday or a nearby toddler playground at 10 am. You’ll find a gaggle of attractive, animated women in their late 20s, 30s and 40s. See, pushing the swings is a Stanford lawyer, second in her graduating class and a clerk for Ruth Bader Ginsberg; two Wharton MBAs, recruited by ten investment banks during a recession; a college basketball star and engineering genius braiding her daughter’s hair.
Now of course these women are performing an unpaid, undervalued job that is nonetheless priceless to our society: raising the next generation of smart, ambitious, hard-working citizens. But with a small, cost-effective measure of sensitivity and flexibility from our nation’s corporations, law firms, and government, every one of these talented women could be doing both: solving world hunger and cooking a nutritious dinner for her children every night. Our society, in a wave of stubborn stupidity that continues to baffle me, insists on making the vast majority of women -- paradoxically our best-educated, industrious, most talented moms -- chose between fulfilling professional ambitions and the deep personal desire to spend huge chunks of quality time with our kids.
How can our country be so myopic? How can employers be so shortsighted? How can a smart reporter at a brilliant paper like the New York Times so thoroughly warp reality? Why on earth would a country want to limit the potential of half of its best and brightest citizens?
Leonhardt’s subtitle would be more accurate and more deftly powerful if phrased thusly: "The next step toward workplace equality begins when employers understand that giving mothers flexibility in their careers, work schedules, and maternity leaves is often free to companies, priceless to employees, and transformative to the American economy and potentially the entire world."