Recent research by the organization Allbright found that in the wake of the pandemic, three-quarters of the women they surveyed are making plans to start their own businesses, and two-thirds are planning a career change (with additional training). Women are “emerging from the pandemic resilient and motivated,” unwilling to let the challenges of 2020 undo decades of progress on gender equality according to the organization.
It’s terrific news, and we could use some good news these days. It’s heartening to know that women are finding alternative paths for dealing with the challenges we’ve faced in the past year. Whether it’s a career change or launching a new business venture, women left to their own devices will always figure out a way to make it work.
But here’s the problem.
Women shouldn’t have to opt-out of corporate America to make work and family work.
Starting your own business can be a exciting, exhilarating experience. Great ideas can lead to great rewards (and maybe an appearance on Shark Tank!). But for many women, the businesses they start are consulting businesses in their area of expertise. Some women may even end up with contracts with the very firms where they worked prior to striking out on their own. But they do so as contractors, at a lower pay rate, and with 100% of the responsibility for their own taxes, health insurance, dues and subscriptions, professional development/tuition reimbursement, retirement savings, mileage reimbursement - the list goes on. They also lose out on less tangible benefits that aren't as obvious until they are gone - access to professional networks, mentors and sponsors, the camaraderie of working with others on a daily basis - people we learn from and people we help nurture. Being on the outside is very different than being inside the tent.
Men don’t typically incur the same consequences for making the same “choices” women do. And frankly, when the same “choices” (to have a family, to be a caregiver, etc.) impact men and women differently, it's gender discrimination. I’ve quoted Joan Williams before: “choice and discrimination are not mutually exclusive.”
I made the decision to go out on my own early in my career - the situation I was in wasn’t working and I couldn’t see a way out. I truly have no regrets but the choice was not without its challenges. I paid for my own master’s degree, and with a self-employed husband, we have lived in fear of not being able to obtain health insurance each year (who knew I’d be counting the days until I turn 65 and qualify for Medicare?!). I also remember showing up for a committee meeting, only to be told that without my corporate affiliation, I could no longer serve.
On the flip side, I also remember a client meeting where I walked into the joke that I must have gotten the “blue memo”. (Women will understand - those are the days all the women show up wearing the same color with no prior discussion. It’s not just our periods that end up in sync). It was a moment of camaraderie that I had experienced often while leading a department of all women - it felt good.
The world of work will never change if women (and men) don’t push back for better solutions to the demands of work and the rest of our lives, and let’s face it, it’s not just about having a family. It’s about having a life that includes our work (and not the other way around - having our work and making the rest of our lives fit around the fringes).
Women have the same right to be at the table as men do - and frankly need women to be at the table as full participants at every level. With the challenges we’ve faced in just the last nine months alone, we need to use 100% of the brain power available to find new solutions, not just 50%.
Women striking out on their own can be a great solution, but it shouldn't be the only solution. Women shouldn’t have to opt-out of corporate America to make work and family work.
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