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Sharon Meers's picture

You’re meeting with your boss. Your kid’s Halloween parade starts in an hour. If you’re going to make it, it’s time to go -- now. What do you do?

Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett tells how she found the courage to say “I have to leave” -- to her then-boss Chicago Mayor Daley. (He lauded her for doing so). And today Jarrett wields more influence than most 24/7-men who’d never utter those words (the guys who set the tone at most workplaces.)

I just heard Jarrett tell this important tale at the Women’s Conference, Maria Shriver’s amazing gathering of 25,000 women. I want to remember this the next time I find myself in a similar jam. I want to recall that sometimes it takes only a little pluck to avert work/life collision, that its easy to get so fearful about how we are perceived that we don’t do the right thing -- we don’t leave, we leave late, we lie (“ah, I forgot I have another meeting!”), we feel guilty (“I’m really really sorry to run out on you…”).

To be clear, Jarrett’s story is compelling precisely because she has produced strong results for her employers -- even when interrupted by school events.

But why don’t we know hundreds of stories like Jarrett’s - of people who stand up for family and still succeed? Why don’t all bosses say “of course” (and mean it)? In this week’s Time magazine poll, three statistics in the stand out -- and beg working parents and employers to look at the facts and get a lot more candid.

76% of Americans think it’s good that women are now half the work force. Great!

84% agree that businesses have not done enough to address the needs of modern families. Now I’m glad that we’re nearing consensus on this but there’s still little talk about *why* employers are so slow. Making the workplace sensible for parents has been discussed by blue-ribbon panels for over 40 years (under Kennedy, Carter and even Reagan).

The number that explains it all to me is this:

65% of us think it’s a negative that that few kids have a stay-at-home parent today.

As we say in our book, Getting to 50/50, if parents want to stay home with kids, that’s a fine thing. But fear and misinformation should not be why so many women leave their jobs. Talking to the country’s foremost child psychologists and reading their research, we learned there is no respected evidence that having a stay-at-home parent produces better outcomes for kids. Instead, there is a wealth of data that says something very different: That we should be making it possible for both moms to work and for dads to get home for family dinner -- that kids do better with the positive engagement of two parents (for more on the research, see Mom and Dad: How Kids Can Get More from Two Working Parents).

You can’t blame employers for being under-motivated to overhaul work norms. If helping moms stay at work is bad for kids, who’d want to do that? If men never ask for flexibility, employers keep believing it’s not so important for dads so see kids (mountains of data show the opposite -- see 50/50 Facts for cites). If headlines say that women “choose” to opt out -- that women don’t really want the jobs they’re hired for -- why bother reforming anything?

Updating these entrenched ideas can be uncomfortable in daily life. I asked a lawyer to review a contract for a job I was offered. The lawyer -- a man married to a women who’d left the workforce -- said “are you sure you want a ‘real’ job? I don’t know any families with two demanding jobs and OK kids.”

I told the lawyer that I appreciated his concern but that I grew up among plenty of dual-career parents whose kids turned out great. And that I was paying him to review my contract so I could follow that model. Thank you. It’s often awkward. But I’ve come to realize that when we don’t speak up, old myths persist -- and new truths aren’t widely known. That makes life a lot harder for working parents.

A great way to “out” the conversation and frame it constructively is offered in Shriver’s report A Women’s Nation Changes Everything. Ann O’Leary, executive director at the Berkeley Center for Health, Economic & Family Security, gives the history of family-friendly reform and offers concrete recommendations. Among them: Requiring bosses to open-mindedly talk with working parents about how work is structured so that employers get good output and kids get what they need from mom and dad.

This so-called “right to request” -- the right to engage in a discussion about control of work hours without reprisals -- is now law in the UK. It allows employers to get over social and legal fears that stymie common-sense conversation. It also cuts turn-over costs and lets working parents be big contributors to their employer’s success -- so that more of us will know more stories like Valerie Jarrett’s.

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