Few tough realities during the COVID-19 crisis have been as universal—or as analyzed—as the huge strain on families as they manage their home and work lives in an unstable world. These pressures aren’t new. They were simmering under the surface for decades, as our economy evolved to rely on more women working in paid jobs, but our support systems did not evolve with it.
What’s new, to me, is that we’ve arrived at a moment where real collaboration to smooth the path for the next generation of family builders is possible. The answer lies in how we think about the “future of work.” I believe the tumult of the pandemic may finally be enough to make families central in the conversation. That could bridge a divide that I long observed as CEO of PepsiCo.
I was a high-profile female CEO for more than a decade and was asked over and over to discuss work and family conflicts in front of large audiences. I met thousands of people worried about how to be true to their families, their jobs and their ambitions to be good citizens. This engagement had a great impact on me; I learned and absorbed the details at a visceral level. I thought about how family is such a powerful source of human strength, but realized that creating and nurturing families is a source of stress for so many.
At the same time, I was among a vaunted group of global CEOs regularly invited into rooms with the most influential leaders on the planet. I came to notice that the painful stories about how people—especially women—struggle to blend their lives and livelihoods were entirely absent in those rooms. The titans of industry, politics and economics talked about advancing the world through finance, technology and flying to Mars. Family—the actual messy, delightful, difficult and treasured core of how most of us live—was fringe.
This disconnect has profound consequences. Our failure to address work and family pressures in the senior reaches of global decisionmaking restrains hundreds of millions of women every day, not only from rising and leading, but also from blending a satisfying career with a healthy partnership and motherhood. In a prosperous marketplace, all women should have the choice of paid work outside the home, and our social and economic infrastructure must support that choice.
Women’s financial independence and security—so central to their equality—are at stake. And ignoring the fact that the work world is still largely skewed toward the “ideal worker” of yore—an unencumbered male breadwinner—depletes us all.
Men too. Companies lose out because productivity, innovation and profit suffer when so many employees feel they can’t bring their whole selves to work. Families lose out because they spend so much energy coping with old systems, from short school hours to a lack of parental leave or elder care, that don’t mesh with their reality.
The entire global community suffers too. Many young people, worried about how they will manage it all, are choosing not to have children. This could not only have dire economic consequences in the decades to come, but, on a personal note, I find this sad. With everything I have accomplished, my greatest joy was having children, and I wouldn’t want anyone to miss the experience if they want it.
I believe that we must address the work and family conundrum by focusing on our infrastructure around “care” with an energy and ingenuity like never before. We should consider this a moon shot, first ensuring every worker has access to paid leave, flexibility and predictability to help them handle the ebb and flow of work and family life, then moving fast to develop the most innovative and comprehensive childcare and elder-care solutions our greatest minds can devise.
This mission will require leadership that we don’t often see. The fundamental role of a leader is to look for ways to shape the decades ahead, not just react to the present—and to help others accept the discomfort of disruptions to the status quo. We need the wisdom of business leaders, policymakers, and all women and men passionate about easing the work and family burden to come together here. We need a can-do sense of optimism and a must-do sense of responsibility. We can transform our society.
Adapted from My Life in Full: Work, Family and Our Future
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