In March, at a White House forum on workplace flexibility, Michelle Obama told the story of how she brought infant Sasha along on a job interview because she couldn’t find a babysitter. “It was fortunate for me that [Sasha] slept through the entire interview,” the First Lady said, smiling broadly as the audience laughed. Obama got the job—her last before moving to Washington—thanks in part to a sympathetic interviewer who was a new father. But despite the story’s happy ending, its point was clear—because really, if Michelle Obama has trouble with the work-life balancing act, how do the rest of us stand a chance?
At the time, Obama was addressing a White House–sponsored conference for 100 experts, authors and labor leaders convened to discuss the challenges of combining career and family; her husband spoke later in the day. That the forum boasted the administration’s two biggest stars underlines the new reality of the workplace: Women finally have clout. And it’s not just because of our numbers; it’s our earning power. Today women bring in 44 percent of family income, and 26 percent of women earn at least 10 percent more than their husbands. “Work is changing massively, and the biggest piece of that is women’s evolving role in the workplace,” says Nancy Koehn, a professor at Harvard Business School. “Women have been given a shot of Miracle-Gro, if you will, by the recession. Enormous qualitative shifts will come out of this.”
We are all too familiar with the many ways the workplace does not accommodate women’s lives. What’s new about this moment is the realization that the workplace no longer serves men particularly well either. The demands of child care, elder care and housework—once seen as the reason women couldn’t compete professionally—are now shared by men, who increasingly want to participate in family life. “Men are spending more time with their children and experiencing more work-life conflict than women these days,” says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute. In many ways, the inequalities and inefficiencies of the contemporary office don’t reflect gender differences as much as they describe a workplace that hasn’t caught up with a changing workforce.
Because of our education, our control of the family purse strings and our resilience through the recession, women are at last in a position to address these problems. But first, we are going to have to stop accepting personal responsibility for bringing work and life together in a sustainable way and start demanding policy change from corporations and the government. “It’s almost like we’re working off the memory of a time that doesn’t exist anymore rather than facing the facts on the ground,” says Katie Corrigan, director of Workplace Flexibility 2010, a public-policy initiative at Georgetown Law Center. “We don’t have to muddle through this alone. This is something we can work on as a nation.”
The key is to reframe the conversation so that everyone understands the true goal and reward of encouraging a better work-life fit. The payoff is not that women will be allowed time to pop in another load of laundry but that companies will become more profitable, to the benefit of the larger economy. Come 2012, as the oldest baby boomers turn 65, more people will be retiring than graduating from college in the U.S., which will cause a labor shortage. That shortage will in turn create competition for workers, and employers who can offer strategies for integrating work and life will be better able to attract and retain talent. Here, a preview of that new workplace and ideas on how to get there.