• Search

A Village to Lean On: Caregiving and women at work

The cabin door locked. Everyone was settled in their seats. I was on my way to New York City to facilitate a Mapping Ourselves workshop for women. As the plane began moving, I was feverishly texting with my friend, or “sister-mom”, Alana, about my one and a half year old son, Niki. He developed a fever throughout the day and the earliest I could get in to see my pediatrician was just before my flight. There was no way I could take him. Not a possibility.

Alana lives two doors down from me. Her mother is my mother’s roommate. They live in an apartment located between Alana’s place and mine. Our Los Angeles townhouses are arranged around octagonal circles that are woven together with sidewalks, large grass yards and swingsets. Our kids walk to “The Grandma’s” backyard often without shoes or socks and run freely through the shared yard.  

I rely on Alana multiple times a week to support me in caring for my kids. She picks my daughter up from school twice weekly, and can watch Niki usually on a moment’s notice. I also rely on her to be my emotional rock and cheerleader in all things from my work, relationships, and parenting. We prepare meals together, travel to farms and beaches lugging coolers of snacks and beverages together. We have each other’s back, a chosen sisterhood. 

Alana took Niki to our (shared) pediatrician as I was boarding my flight to NYC. He was tested for the flu (not that, thank goodness) but ended up with a double ear infection and needs to be on stronger antibiotics than he’s taken before. As we took off, Alana updated me. All I could think about was the pain Niki must be experiencing, and that he wouldn’t get his usual comfort in nursing for the next four days. It was the worst.


A Workshop for Women


And all while I was engaged in furious texting back and forth to Alana, I recognized how meta this moment I was having on the plane was. The reason I was leaving for New York was because I had organized a workshop for women, with the goal of better seeing the care we give and receive in our lives. 

Against the backdrop of gender inequality in the workplace, and the band aid efforts from companies trying to insert women in executive roles just to fill their HR priorities, my team at Atlas desired to have a real conversation with women about what they do at home and at work in terms of caring for themselves and their communities. 

There’s a surprising lack of conversation about how the majority of the burden of care rests on women’s shoulders and that this burden of untracked, invisible work has tangible and often negative consequences on our physical health, our mental wellness, and our “ability” to achieve wealth or financial equity to our male counterparts. 

A recent five-year McKinsey + LeanIn report called “Women in Work” noted that though progress has been made in terms of more female leadership, the biggest obstacle to women achieving executive-level roles is a “missing rung” in the junior management level positions. 

The report suggests a 5-step process for fixing the “broken rung” that encompasses everything from bias assessment and succession-process development. However, it surprisingly does not include any sort of focus on the very real consequences of care in women’s life. 

In the center of the report, there are data that show how one in four people say that taking family leave harmed their career or finances – and that most of these people who reported this were women, where 20% of women who have taken leave say there has been a negative consequence, compared to 10% men. What’s more, men who rise to the top of companies are likely to have a stay at home wife, and for those couples who are both working, 39% of women report doing most of the household chores (compared to 11% of men).

Another, more extreme, set of data comes from, a 19-year study in Canada that was recently published in the Journal of Gerontology. It stated, “women are 73% more likely to leave the labor market, more than 5 times more likely to work part-time, and twice as likely to [have taken] time off in the last week” because of caregiving needs. The researchers calculated that in 2015 about 8.5 million hours of work were lost and that this was really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of really understanding the impact of family caregiving on the workplace. 

That this is stuffed into the center of the report and not highlighted as a focus is significant. 

How women tend to care at home and at work has very real implications for how we show up in both of those settings. 

It is not just the rung that is missing, or as is stated in a recent American Express announcement around bringing more women through to executive levels in their company: “ambition” in career, home, health, wealth. 


The problem runs deeper.


The challenge for women in achieving gender parity is not based on the now debunked myth that opportunities don’t exist or that it’s a talent pipeline thing. Women are the most educated we’ve ever been. We are more than capable of doing the work required at those higher level positions than ever, too. People have written about a lack of process for diversifying leadership internally, especially across P&L positions.  But data show how men are hired more based on a potential performance and women are hired or promoted more based on previous performance. Not having the experience in certain positions is important to show that performance, but it’s a problem if hiring bias isn’t looked at just as harshly as the design of the internal succession plan.

Even with all this, though, as this New York Times article aptly points out, “The returns to working long, inflexible hours have greatly increased. This is particularly true in managerial jobs and what social scientists call the greedy professions, like finance, law and consulting — an unintentional side effect of the nation’s embrace of a winner-take-all economy. It’s so powerful, researchers say, that it has canceled the effect of women’s educational gains.”

Many women opt to stay home, raise their children, support their husbands (if they are in cis-gender relationships) despite being highly trained and capable in their vocation. 

Also, many women don’t have a village to support them being at work. Even if the job isn’t a super-power job like a lawyer or investment banker, expanding our professional network, identifying mentors, professional development opportunities  – being able to strive for high levels of achievement at work, life, self – requires us to let go a little of the control we take at home. And for our partners, they need to see tasks beyond gender.


Villages and Scarcity


Building a village of support takes work and intention, which also means there must be awareness for all the things we do – where we can ask for support, who we can ask for support from, and when we need it most. 

How we women care shouldn’t be an afterthought in any report about women in work. It absolutely must be a very central component that rides an equal line to fully dismantling that other myth about scarcity in c-suite level positions. 

As Abby Wambach says (I am paraphrasing): It’s not about accessing the singular seat at the c-suite table, ladies. It’s about breaking the table down and building a brand-spanking new one for all of us, together.

But first we need to see the support structures and the care in our lives. By seeing ourselves more clearly, we lean on people and infrastructure with more intention.  We can step into our power and begin to positively impact our world in a way so that we are better able to collectively build futures that embrace all of us in the way we want to be embraced. 

With our village or pack or tribe – whatever you want to call it – we can start to let go, free ourselves up for doing all the wonderful.

But we will never achieve gender equality at work or home without picking apart and fundamentally re-constructing expectations of care in relationships, families, work, and communities. 



Except where noted, this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.