Column: Needing flexibility at work shouldn’t be seen as a weakness

Editor’s Note: Former Wall Street titan Sallie Krawcheck is the founder of Ellevest, chair of Ellevate and author of the new book, “Own It: The Power of Women at Work.” The following is the second of two excerpts published on the Making Sen$e site. You can read the first here.

Among the key “courageous conversations” I believe we need to own in the workplace is one about flexibility. Real flexibility. Flexibility without shame. That means that if the HR handbook promises six weeks of maternity leave, we aren’t intimidated or “side-eyed” out of actually taking it. Meaning that if we have to or want to go part time for a bit to take care of family, our commitment to the company won’t be questioned and our promotion prospects won’t be diminished.

I’m talking here about flexibility that recognizes that employees are real people, real people with real lives, and not some 1950s stereotype of what an ideal worker should be. I also believe that we need to internalize the truth of the matter: that being real people makes us great employees, not the opposite.

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There continues to be a pretty discouraging double standard in many environments, where women feel like they have to hide their personal lives (that they have kids, may someday have kids or simply have a full life outside of the office), whereas men can put their family lives on display without shame. Ever notice how when fathers leave early to go to their kid’s baseball game, people say, “Wow, what a good dad,” but when a woman does it, it’s perceived as a lack of commitment to the job? And it’s even worse than that: Historically, a woman’s salary and job opportunities have taken a hit after she has children, whereas at some companies men have received a “fatherhood bonus” in the form of a pay bump.

We have the power to help build cultures in which we can be our full selves — whether that means on the home front opting to stay single or to get married or to become a mother — without shame or judgment.

Let me start with my own story to illustrate just how important this is. Some months after I had been given the boot by Bank of America, my son Johnathan graduated from high school. As I listened to him give his (IMHO funny, insightful, sharp) graduation speech, it seemed like another bittersweet ending. A summer of travel and work and then off to college. Pretty soon, if my own recollection of college was correct, visits home would be limited to major holidays and a few long weekends. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he didn’t need me anymore, but the heavy lifting appeared to be over.

A few hours later, he was asleep in his bed, no doubt from the exhaustion of the last few weeks of high school and the prom. Then came the fever and some stomach pain. The excruciating headache. So a trip to the doctor, followed by a trip to the emergency room for dehydration, from which he was sent home with apple juice (ah, modern medicine).

More pain in his stomach and in his shoulder. Another trip to the doctor, diagnosed as the flu and a prescription for Tylenol. Extra strength. A call to the doctor when the pain became significant, with further reassurances that there was no reason to worry. And instructions that if the situation worsened to “just call me in the morning.” So another call. And another over the next few days.

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Then I was sitting by his bed in the middle of the night, listening to my more or less grown son literally crying from the pain that the doctor said was nothing out of the ordinary for this version of the flu. I almost believed the doctor — that is, until I thought Johnathan had fallen asleep and I got up to leave. He said, at 18, words I hadn’t heard for at least a decade: “Mommy, please don’t leave me.”

It was as though I had sustained an electrical shock, as I realized that my son was very sick, regardless of what any doctor was telling me. I went into full mama bear mode, getting him out of bed and straight to a (different) emergency room, where I refused to leave until they ran every test they could think of to explain my son’s pain.

Johnathan’s spleen had become so swollen that it was bleeding into his belly, something that the doctors had overlooked for days (but for which shoulder pain, I soon learned, is a bull’s-eye indicator). This was the result of mononucleosis, the “kissing disease” (ah, teenagers), which affects many at his age to a slight degree and a few to a significant degree. Well, he was definitely the latter. He was in the hospital on complete bed rest for the better part of a week to save his spleen and out of commission for a full month. It took months and months for him to get back to 100 percent. I didn’t leave the hospital for a single minute while he was there, and I think if I had tried, he wouldn’t have allowed me to. And once he convinced us he was finally well enough to head up to school, my husband and I practically moved into the local hotel near his college to help him navigate the tough road of his recovery.

The point is I really have no idea how I would have managed to be present in this way for Johnathan if I were still working at the bank, traveling my customary three to four days and nights a week. Frankly, I can’t stand to think about it. After all, at one of my big company jobs, I had once had a health scare myself and had had to leave an off-site to get a brain scan. My boss’s response when I told him my reason for stepping out: “Okay, hurry back as soon as you’re done.”

Not “Oh no, Sallie, please take the time you need.” Or even, “Gosh, Sallie, I hope everything turns out okay.” No, it was “Hurry back.”

And lest you think I used a gentle euphemism for my absence or lied and told him I was going out to get my hair done: No, I told him it was a BRAIN SCAN. (He never asked me how it turned out, either. Answer: it turned out that what I was suffering from was stress related — no surprise there!)

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So it’s hard to think I could have managed my son’s illness if I had still been working in that kind of inflexible (to say the least) environment. Thank goodness at that point I had transitioned to being an entrepreneur, so I could do right by my family and continue to have a career that I loved, navigating that time without the further worry that I might be fired at any second.

And then, once Johnathan got better, almost as soon as I found myself thinking, Boy, having kids is tough. Can’t believe that happened with Johnathan. I guess that was our “bad thing,” the story of the close call we’ll tell for years — bam. Once again, lightning struck.

It was Labor Day weekend. The middle of the Saturday. I was in the kitchen shelling crabs, making a mess, when my daughter called with these ominous words: “Mommy, I’m okay.” Then she burst into tears.

She had been in a car accident and, it turns out, suffered a severe concussion. She was out of school for months, was homeschooled for a while and the early treatment involved her lying in a dark room for hours at a time with little stimulation. And so I lay there with her. Again, I thought, it was a good thing I wasn’t working for the aforementioned company at the time, because you couldn’t have dragged me away from her.

Did each of these events mean I lost my desire to work? Or my ambition? Absolutely not. They were just… life happening.

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But here’s the thing, it’s not just flexibility on the “big things” like this that matter. Because it isn’t always the “big things” that can knock us off track. Sometimes it’s an accumulation of the day-to-day tasks.

We still do much more housework than men — roughly twice as much. And we still shoulder more of the childcare at home than the men do. On an average day, in a house with small children, women do an hour of physical care like feeding and bathing, whereas men spend 23 minutes. (I often say the smartest thing I did when my kids were small was convince my husband that when our toddler woke up in the middle of the night screaming “Mommy!” he actually meant “Parent of Either Gender!” So we took turns, and guess what? Never — during the search for the lost pacifier, or the drink of water, or checking for the monster in the closet — did little Johnathan ever say, “Uh, Daddy, I believe I requested Mommy.”) And yet we women continue to shoulder these tasks disproportionately.

So those are the medium-size things. If I’m going to be honest, in the earlier days of my career, I sort of thought we women just had to buck it up, that this was just how things were. Sure, we were going to be tired for a time, but it was nothing that a bit more hard work and a bit less sleep couldn’t take care of.

But after these family health crises, my thinking changed. My conclusion is that we often don’t have much of a margin for error. We’ve got the plates spinning, and we’re fine. And then a kid gets sick, and we drop one. We’ve got the plates spinning, and then we get sick ourselves. Or we’ve got the plates spinning and then one of our kids struggles in school. And bam. Shards of ceramic all over the place.

Then, as we’re an hour late for work, because we were busy crawling around the floor picking up the broken plates, comes the double whammy. Because in general, when a woman takes time off work to deal with personal matters, suddenly the implicit assumption is that she’s less “committed” or less of a “team player” (instead of being commended for putting her family first or, as she likely would be if she were a man, for being a “good parent”).

So, let me ask you a question: Did the fact that I wanted (no, needed) to be with my kids when they were sick or injured make me any less committed to my career? Answer: Of course not. I promise you, I would have much preferred to have been working with a healthy son at school than watching my son writhe in pain in a hospital bed.

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Does the fact that a woman who has a child with behavioral issues might want to spend more time with him that first week of kindergarten mean she is less committed to her work?

Does the fact that she had a baby — and, you know, spends the first month healing and the next few months after that trying to make sure that child gets a healthy start — mean that she is a subpar professional?

That’s what parts of corporate America can still project on us. Incredibly, today, less than a quarter of companies offer paid parental leave. (Didn’t they get the memo about how hard having a baby is?) And even those of us lucky enough to work for companies that do offer leave still hear the message that daring to take the time to which our company policy entitles us (which is usually still insufficient, by the way) makes us less committed. A McKinsey/LeanIn survey notes that 90 percent of workers believe taking extended family leave will hurt their position at work; thus, just 2 percent of individuals eligible for part-time programs at U.S. companies access them.

This is certainly what the mindset was like on Wall Street when I had my children (and it still is at many companies for any number of women today). Yes, I’ve got a story there, too, and this is not one I’m particularly proud of. I worked up until the very end for much of my pregnancy: I actually spoke to clients from the delivery room. I started back at work two weeks after my daughter was born. I made my husband throw away the picture of me nursing my daughter while working on my computer in the month after she was born. Do I wish I’d had other options to consider? Do I wish I’d had the courageous conversation about flexibility? I think you know the answer to that. And here’s what I also wish: that you’ll learn from my mistake and have the conversation that I didn’t.

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