Cortland Works Career Center

As Lauren and I talked, I wondered, is it true? Could it be that all these years have passed and nothing has changed for mothers in the workplace? Given what we’d heard from the panelists, it certainly seemed so. In that moment, Lauren may have been depressed, but I was furious. Is this what my daughter, soon entering college, would be facing as she embarked on adulthood? How could this be? What happened? Or more importantly, what hadn’t?

We had initiated the panel because the topic of women’s careers, the lack of women in leadership, and the issue we all face around work-life balance had become part of the collective consciousness, again. First, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton professor of politics and CEO of the New America Foundation, wrote an essay for The Atlantic magazine entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” She addressed the challenges she experienced trying to integrate work with her family and, in doing so, put to words what so many women had been feeling.

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And then Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, published her seminal book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. In it, she urged young women to forget the naysayers and commit to their careers. Her goal was to increase the number of women in leadership, but little mention was given to the challenges women face in the workplace once they become mothers.

Together these two women unleashed a hurricane of controversy, discussion, and debate about women, their careers, and the lack of female leadership across our country. “Yes it’s hard, but don’t give up!” was the underlying message to ambitious young women. Answers for how to actually navigate the slippery slope of work and mothering weren’t part of the conversation.

Meanwhile, women and men continue to try to understand how it is that so little has been gained in the last twenty years in terms of advancing women in the workplace. My generation was supposed to be the one that broke down that seemingly impenetrable glass ceiling. But in the decades since I had graduated from college, very few of us have broken on through. The subtext? We failed.

Sandberg’s book, in particular, hit hard at the hearts of many women who had downshifted their careers to focus on claimed. Already vulnerable to the accusations of having “opted out,” they felt her book was an indictment of their choices choices that many claimed were not choices at all. Journalist, author, and former lawyer Joanne Bamberger said it best when she wrote, “I leaned in so hard I fell on my face.”

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