Looking for the Part-Time Sheryl Sandberg

Looking for the Part-Time Sheryl Sandberg

Why you should care

Because lost in the whole work-life debate is an entire workforce of women who just want to work part time – and still kill it.

If you told me five years ago that I would leave a full-time job I loved to spend more time with my son, I would have thought you were crazy. Full-time working parenthood has always been a pillar of feminism to me, based on my own mother, whose fleeting experiment with freelancing from home was so disastrous that the family breathed a collective sigh of relief when she stopped cooking dinner and went back to the office, and the Earth was put back on its axis.

But my mom’s experience was a rare thing — a highly educated woman who went part-time and was able to return to a full-time career with few major ripples. Today, research shows that when a woman decides to leave the workforce, a short-term pullback may mean she puts herself out to pasture long term.

Research shows that when a woman decides to leave the workforce, a short-term pullback may mean she puts herself out to pasture long term.

That freaks me out. Six months ago, I quit my job as a magazine editor so I could freelance and spend more time with my son, right about the time that Lean In fever was sweeping the nation. I had read the book by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and admired its message that women should push for the job they want before they have kids, so that they are motivated to come back from maternity leave.

I tried hard to do the Lean In Check List. My husband is a true partner, a hands-on parent with a knack for unloading the dishwasher. At my job, I pushed for a title and responsibilities that would make me want to return. But the commute from San Francisco to the Silicon Valley was an hour-plus each way, and a month into my return, the cupboards were bare, I had hardly seen my baby, and my husband and I interacted like stressed co-workers. Part of me wanted to write Sandberg an email: “Sorry, Sheryl, I really, really tried. But Highway 101 and my son’s fat little feet are undoing me.”

So I left my job and came up with another plan: I would find the part-time Sheryl Sandberg, read her book and know just what to do.

The problem is, she doesn’t exist.

While plenty of ink has been spilled in recent years over the work-life balance, there are still no easy solutions. And according to a book by Debora L. Spar, the president of Barnard College, only 40 percent of women who eventually try to return to full-time professional work are able to do so.

Egad.

Is the notion of being ambitious while working less than 40 hours a week in this country so laughable that no one has thought to champion it?

2 women at a desk looking at blueprints by a window

Source Gallery Stock

For some perspective, I turned to Mariam Naficy, the founder and CEO of Minted, the crowdsourced stationery startup that’s taking over the wedding invite/holiday card world and also hires a lot of part-time contractors during its busy cycles. As a successful tech entrepreneur who co-founded and sold her beauty site, Eve.com, for $100 million, Naficy surprised me by saying she went part time after her first child was born.

Europe, especially the Netherlands, has done a better job cracking the part-time code. According to a 2011 study, an astonishing 77 percent of Dutch women work part time, the highest number in the EU.

“Take risks early on, so you can go a little further a little faster,” she advises. “The more of a track record you have, the more credibility you have to negotiate some flexibility when you have kids.” When the Body Shop recruited Naficy to launch their e-commerce business, she was six months pregnant. “I said, ‘Are you sure you want to hire me?’ But I got that job because they decided that having me at four days a week was better than someone else at five days a week.”

Exactly. Evidence that “part-time employee” doesn’t have to be synonymous with “slacker.”

In the U.S., one big stumbling block is a reluctance to let managers work part time. I get that there are some jobs that just don’t work part time, but one of the best bosses I ever had worked four days a week, an in-early/out-early commuting mom who combined the efficiency of a German automotive engineer with the humor and writing talent of a Nora Ephron.

The truth is, we need the Sandbergs of the world beating the drum for us to shoulder our way into the boardroom and climb the corporate ladder. But we also need a standard bearer for part-time work — the kind that rewards ambition, that is creative and stimulating and doesn’t park your career until your kids are out of diapers. I have to believe it’s out there.

Because there are smart, driven women who are willing to take risks, chase down new skills, and do the thing that they are passionate about — 25 hours a week.

This piece was originally published Feb. 10, 2014, and updated as of Nov. 27, 2014.

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