Corporate Life & Literature

Although I’ve been retired for a long time, I don’t get the sense that life has changed significantly for working women. There isn’t much fiction on the bookshelves either that represents that experience. Romance novels may use the office as their geography, but the subject is romance or sex (if there’s a half-naked man on the cover, the focus is unlikely to be the #MeToo movement). Nonfiction abounds, and if Ivanka Trump (the author), is someone you can relate to, count yourself among the lucky few. Even Sheryl Sandberg has lost some of her Lean In sheen since Facebook’s scandals.

I used to joke about high heels when I had a job requiring corporate attire. Wearing them gave me the ability to be eye-to-eye with men, yet walking around the office, making that distinctive tap-tap sound that makes men’s heads swivel like Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist, made me feel as though I was encouraging the wrong reaction.

Perhaps my high heels example is frivolous, but the truth is most women have had to make gut-wrenching choices between office and home, specifically, their own professional needs versus their spouse’s, and their children’s needs versus their work deadlines. Although fewer women can afford the luxury of staying home than years ago, those who take time off to care for young children are often at a perpetual salary disadvantage to their husbands once they return to the workplace. No one wants to choose which parent should remain home with a sick child based on money, but whose job is of greater economic value to the household can end up the subtext of the argument.

Women have a switch in their brains that turns on when their kids come home from school. Who’s watching them? Are they parked in front of a video game? Is the person driving them around a safe driver? Is the nanny drinking on the job? (That one happened to me.) If there’s enough money to pay for an after-school program or camp, how good is the care? When do the kids have to be picked up?

The biggest change I’ve seen in recent years is that younger men pick up a large share of the household and childcare tasks. They may pick up the kids, cook, shop, clean up after dinner, and help with baths and bedtime. Less often, they’ll clean house, and definitely not the toilets. I’m sure there are husbands who’ll do this, but the anecdotal evidence doesn’t give lie to what is generally true. The mom is also the one who keeps track of when the kids need checkups, a trip to the dentist, or new underwear. When it comes to managing the household, men may be master executers, but women are the ones giving direction.

The sad truth for men is that the more they have committed to dropping kids off at daycare and picking them up, or taking a sick child to the doctor, the more they have been subjected to discrimination (or at least a raised eyebrow) by their managers, a reaction formerly reserved for women. What a system we have in this country, where childrearing responsibilities are a not-so-subtle career limitation.

The net of it is that women have stuff going on in their heads at work that has nothing to do with the job. Sometimes it’s impossible to keep the personal and the professional from getting tangled up together. Literary agents have told me that business fiction doesn’t sell. If that’s true, it’s sad. I know I’ve read some that’s great, and I’d like to see more women ‘s fiction that shows the work world so many of us inhabit.

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