A US perspective by Dariela Sosa, Columbia University, New York, NY

Imagine professional life as a marathon. People yell at men: “Hey, bread-winner, failing is not an option!”,“Does your wife earn more than you?”, and “He is not earning enough money to support his family.” On the other hand, people yell at women: “You are a workaholic, that’s why you don’t have a partner”, “Aren’t you too aggressive?”, “Your kids need you at home,” and “Aren’t you being too selfish?”

I read this metaphor of the marathon in Lean In, a book written by Facebook COO, Sheril Sandberg, on why women’s progress in achieving leadership has stalled, and what women can do to achieve their full potential.
Heidi or Howard

Harvard Business School conducted an experiment three years ago: students were divided into two groups to discuss the story of a venture capitalist. The story was the same for both groups, with the exception that the protagonist was called Howard for group 1 and Heidi for group 2. Students pointed out that both Heidi and Howard were competent, but they considered Howard a better colleague than Heidi. Interestingly enough, Heidi was perceived as selfish, ambitious, and not a nice person to work with.

Why is that? Gender stereotypes are preconceived ideas about how women and men “should” behave. Women should be sweet, quiet, community-oriented, and maternal. Men should be brave, strong, ambitious, and insensitive. Why did people make a distinction between Heidi and Howard? According to Catalyst, gender stereotypes are correlated with women perceived as competent or liked, but rarely both (The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership: Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don’t)
What would you do if you were not afraid?

Even in the 21st century, we are influenced by social conventions, peer pressure, and family expectations. We all are afraid of not being liked. Men are afraid of crying. Women are afraid of going far in their careers and being judged. Men are afraid of being “bad fathers” if they do not earn enough to give their kids a better quality of life. Women are afraid of being “bad mothers” if they do not spend enough time with their kids.

The truth is that a man can devote his time to his family. He can work in the mornings and take care of the kids in the afternoon, or he can work full-time. Women should also be able to choose between these options. Stereotypes impoverish our life experience. They hurt both men and women as they constrain the freedom of choosing the life we want to have.

Actually, the opportunity of choosing simply does not exist for many moms and dads. Both parents need to work full time in many homes. Hence, it is relevant that the families distribute responsibilities equally. Beyond that, choices are made according to needs, opportunities, and personal preferences of each family member.

Only 4% of fathers in the USA are stay-at-home dads. Approximately 17% take care of their kids part-time while mothers are working. We could condemn the remaining 83% because their lack of commitment, but the reality is more complex. Tom Stocky, director of Product Management at Facebook, wrote a post on how hard it was to take his paternity leave. He was surprised by the low expectations for fathers, negative perceptions of working mothers, and negative perceptions of ‘non-working’ fathers.
Labor Flexibility

Both parents should take the paid leave. My grandma would tell me, “breastfeeding is something that only you can do!” True, but nowadays there are breast pumps, and moms and dads should both have the opportunity to make emotional bonds by feeding the baby. Finally, lactation lasts between six months and one year. After that, there are at least seventeen nurturing years that couples can and should share.

Men will have more opportunities to deeply engage with their families when companies promote accessible labor flexibility for women and men. World Work pointed out that, in 2013, eight out of ten US companies offered flexible work arrangements or part time to their employees. However, 68% of companies do not have formal norms for flexible work arrangements. So, the arrangements are designed and given at the discretion of the manager. Thus, preconceptions and gender stereotypes may influence her/his discretion. In conclusion, policies on paper benefit the work-life balance.

The Norwegian government established the paternity leave – the “fedrekvote” – in 1993. Both parents decide if they want to take 32 weeks off (with full salary) or 42 weeks off (with 80% of the salary). There are 14 weeks of paid leave for only the father, and 14 weeks that are only for the mother. The remaining time (4 or 14 weeks) can be allocatedas they prefer.

Policies, such as those from Norway, strengthen the family bonds and generate a more inclusive and diverse talent pool. This promotes creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Stereotypes still affect us, but we do have leeway. Being aware of their existence is the first step in assessing the way they have shaped us. Once you have your priorities clear, use headphones and play music that inspires you while you run the marathon.

Copyright © 2014 Dariela Sosa

Dariela Sosa is a Venezuelan journalist and Outreach Specialist at Columbia SIPA Center on Global Economic Governance