A Fresh Start
If you’re looking for a fresh start, the trick is to find out whether your potential mate is really everything he says he is. How do you know for sure this is a company that’s going to suit your Womenomics requirements? When you’re considering a new employer it’s easy, of course, to ask about the job itself; it’s a lot harder to ask about the firm’s commitment to work-life issues. So how do you go about the hunt without scaring off the prey?
Here’s some advice from an unexpected source.
Just as we were finishing this book, we checked in again with all of our women to see how they were doing, and we got some surprising news from Christine Heenan. Remember that when we first met Christine she was being wooed for a big job at Harvard and seemed pretty confident she would turn it down because she didn’t want to give up her fantastically flexible work life at her own communications company in Rhode Island. Well, she changed her mind. The high-powered Harvard job was too exciting to resist. But here’s the interesting thing: she only took that big job after pointedly raising her schedule requirements with the university.
At the end of her first interview with the search committee, Christine was asked if she had any questions. That’s when she raised her work-life concerns and here’s how she did it. “I said, ‘I think it’s probably fair to say that I work as much or as intensively as anyone at this table but I also think it’s quite likely that I work differently. I’m at my kids’ school at 3 o’clock most afternoons picking them up and I run a school newspaper project on Fridays and I value my flexibility. What is Harvard’s commitment to work-life balance?’”
She knew the Harvard job would demand more hours in the office than she was used to, but she was also clear that if Har – yard wasn’t going to be able to try to accommodate her family commitments, she wouldn’t take the post. Christine wouldn’t have taken the job if Harvard had responded negatively to her family concerns. Christine also feels the fact that Harvard has a new President, Drew Gilpin Faust, who is herself a working mother, means her boss genuinely understands her priorities. She says that makes a big difference in making her flexibility a practice not just a policy. And she believes that, having raised the issue formally, if her new colleagues ever raise eyebrows when she leaves early, she can always remind them of their interview conversation.
This is the thing about Womenomics, and it’s what makes the traditional ladder idea so ridiculous: there are times to scale back and times to ramp up, just as Christine did. But whatever stage you’re in, it’s worth making very sure that the new job fits your work-life goals. And remember: there is a big difference between policy and practice when it comes to flexibility.
Do your due diligence. This seems obvious, but it’s worth a reminder. Check out the company you’re thinking of joining on the Web, at your favorite social networking site, in the local paper. There are lots of great resources. We love the Sloan Foundation’s Family and Work Institute. They’ve got piles of data and a family – friendly annual survey. Or try Working Mother magazine. They’ve been rating the top companies for us for twenty years.
Take cards or names of people you come across in interviews who might be good sources. Check out the company-related blogs. They can be a trove of candid information. Call anybody on-site who might be straightforward about responsibilities, and potential issues; that connection is invaluable. Ask other women at the company what the reality is. And by the way, the savvy employer expects to be checked out.
“I keep reminding managers here,” says David Rodriguez, head of HR at Marriott, “we’re being evaluated constantly.
Somewhere on the Internet there is a group of people sharing this information. You can’t hide. You can’t say ‘I’m this type of company’ and not expect you will be assessed.”
Be rigorous on details. Any employer can point to a couple of women who job share or leave at 3 p. m. Or he could open up the company manual and point out their progressive-sounding policies. For example, 98 percent of law firms offer part-time or flextime scheduling. Actual usage rates? Five percent. “It just shows how incredibly stigmatized the schedules still are,” says Flextime Lawyers’ Deborah Epstein Henry.
Even if the company as a whole has a good approach to alternative work schedules, just make sure that attitude applies to the corner of the shop where you’ll be working. “Sixty percent of the company you’re looking at could be on some type of flexible work arrangement, but the department you may work in could have a manager who’s totally opposed,” warns Women for Hire’s CEO, Tory Johnson.
Now, we hope you are feeling empowered by Womenomics, but you do still have to be smart about getting the most from your power. Please do not start any interview by leaning across the desk and demanding a job share. It’s important to know when to raise flexibility. “It might be a way to be knocked out of the interview process to say, ‘What I want to know first and foremost is what’s your policy on flexibility,’ ” says Johnson.
Christine’s advice about how and when to raise the issue in the course of your job search? “I think you do have to first establish yourself as having the work ethic and the DNA to do the job as it’s required, before you have permission to say, ‘What’s the threshold for you for doing it a bit differently?’ ”
But she did raise it early because she was ambivalent about even taking the job. First Lady Michelle Obama likes to recount the story of having a babysitter crisis just as she was going for her interview as public liaison for the University of Chicago hospital system. At the last minute, she threw her daughter in the stroller and figured that, since this was partly why she was looking at this job, they needed to know she put her family first. She took her daughter to the interview—a ballsy move—and got the job. And before her husband ran for president she routinely skipped out for afternoon soccer games.
Melissa James says it’s like any other sales presentation: you have to know your audience. “You need to know the most effective way to talk about it for the person who’s listening. Try to figure that out. But my advice would probably be to put it on the table. It’s important to calibrate expectations from the start.”
So if you feel you’ve got plenty of muscle, raise it early. For most of us, it’s probably good smarts to follow that old chestnut of a standard script: inquire about responsibilities, show off your knowledge of the company, subtly brag about your achievements and prowess, and express enormous enthusiasm for joining the team. Once they are charmed by you and your talent, that’s the moment to test the waters with your potential bosses and HR. Clever phrases to break the ice from Tory Johnson: “Talk to me about the culture of your department. Talk to me about your policies around flexibility. What do schedules look like here? What are the work styles of the people I’d be working with?” Whenever in the process you choose to make your point, it’s far better to get specific before you take the job about both your intentions and expectations. Using everything you’ve uncovered in Womenomics, make sure you know exactly how you want to work, and then let them know what you’d like to do and how you plan to do it. Don’t cross your fingers and think you’ll “sort it out later.” By then, patterns and habits will have been established. You don’t get a chance to reset the stage of your work life very often. Grab it.