Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Is this really news?

I turned on the computer today to see this from The headline for a companion article trumpeted "Bravo to Sheryl Sandberg for Leaving Work at 5:30!" For those who don't know, Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook and a frequent speaker on topics of women's equality, particularly in business. She's a dynamo--a Harvard business grad, who was Chief of Staff at the Treasury Department (at age 29), a VP at Google (at age 32), and all that before leaving to become COO of Facebook in her late 30s--as well as a mom of two young kids. She's more than impressive and likeable. She's frankly kind of irresistible. Journalists gush on and on about her. And it's hard not to get drawn in to the videos of her public speaking.

So it wasn't surprising to me to see yet another article about her on today. But what made my jaw drop was reading this quotation from her in the article:

“I walk out of this office every day at 5:30 so I’m home for dinner with my kids at 6:00, and interestingly, I’ve been doing that since I had kids,” Sandberg says. ”I did that when I was at Google, I did that here, and I would say it’s not until the last year, two years that I’m brave enough to talk about it publicly. Now I certainly wouldn’t lie, but I wasn’t running around giving speeches on it.”

I was shocked. It wasn't that I found her leaving at 5:30 so shocking (ok, a little shocking...she IS the COO of one of the hottest companies in the world). It was that she was admitting it, publicly, on of all places, where you can never ever take it back! And, almost immediately, I began to question WHY this should be: 1) shocking or 2) even news to begin with.

There are clearly some professional cultures in which leaving early--and by "early" here, I mean "while it's still light out"--is a no-no. Surgery, venture capital investing, and corporate law come to mind. Even in kindler, gentler fields, including many of the general medical fields or medical subspecialties, many of us leave work at an hour the rest of the world would consider normal or even a bit late--i.e. in time for dinner with our family--like fugitives with the sunglasses on via side exits, hoping to encounter no one. Why should this be?

Over the course of the day today, I have been thinking about the implications of Sandberg's self-outing for my own life. I have a part-time physician job, and I love it. It is a fantastic balance of academic/non-academic, clinical/non-clinical, and at 3 days per week, a rare gem of work/family life balance too. You'd think I would be advertising this job all over town. But I'm not. Sure, I have held court on this blog about the joys of working part-time before. I've even gone so far as to post instructions on how to get a part-time job as a mother in medicine. But none of those things really count in the way I mean here because they're anonymous.

As recently as a few weeks ago, I was giving a lecture to a group of trainees and junior faculty at a prestigious medical center. The person introducing me was briefly reviewing my bio aloud for the audience and said, "In 2006, she accepted her current position as..." He followed that up by saying that he didn't know how I had ended up in my current position, which is somewhat unusual, and suggested that I briefly elaborate on how I came to take that job and what I do there. I explained that the job enabled me to do all of the things I really enjoy about medicine--think about important questions in oncology and design trials to answer them, see patients, etc--without many of the things I find unpleasant about medicine like having to write grants or rush through patient visits. What I didn't say was that the job also offered me a ton of flexibility. I didn't mention that it's the norm where I work for doctors to work a flexible schedule, that it's the rule not the exception for doctors there to work from home a couple days per week, and that, importantly, my boss-to-be had not only been persuaded to make the position part-time for me but had continued to advocate for me in that regard over the ensuing six years, spontaneously reminding people to be sure to schedule meetings on one of my three work days and asking that they be moved when they had been inadvertently scheduled on one of my "mom" days, etc. I had a chance to stand up at a major medical center, where I had been invited to speak because I have achieved some degree of expertise and respect in my field, and out myself as a working mother doing what it takes to make it all work for my career and family. And I blew it. When someone made a comment to the effect that I had two full-time jobs (because my appointment is a joint ones that spans two institutions), I smiled politely and accepted the obvious unspoken kudos. I didn't say, "No, actually I have two part-time jobs that still add up to less than a full-time job." Why not?

Like most part-timers, I have busted my tail at my job for the last 6 years. This is probably the result of some combination of typical doctorly compulsiveness, genuine career aspirations, work ethic, and desire to "prove" to my boss that letting me start and remain part-time was a good choice, both for myself and for future employees. But the truth is that it also allowed me to remain productive enough that colleagues in my field at other institutions never questioned whether I was full-time, and I was just fine with that. I had a sense, rightly or wrongly, that if they knew I was part-time, I would be in some way discounted as not as serious or not as dedicated as the almost exclusively full-time male doctors, or even the full-time female doctors. I'd be in a class all my own, and not in a good way. To this day, many of the people I work with at my own institution have no idea that I work part-time! Almost none of my colleagues at other institutions know.

With the publication of the article today, I had a realization that, although I am not now and will presumably never be the COO of a large corporation, I have to some degree arrived in medicine. Whether it's my age or my productivity or ideally both, I am officially mid-career. And I owe it to my colleagues, both those at similar places in their careers, but more importantly those who will follow in our footsteps, to talk explicitly about work/life balance and physician/parenting challenges and solutions so that we can finally walk out the main entrance and call out a cheerful goodbye to all we encounter. It's time to end the stigma of working parenthood. I have decided, it's time.


  1. I too feel sensitive about the hours I work. I only work four days a week, and when someone says to me, "Enjoy your day off," I am always scanning their comment for bitterness. I feel like everyone is watching me and thinking I don't work hard enough. Yesterday I finished my work for the day at 4:30 (not usual), and instead of running out to see my kids early, I messed around for a little bit, so I wouldn't get judged for leaving so early.

  2. I too have a 3 day/wk job as an anesthesiologist, which I love. It's perfect for me, but I don't leap to assume that it's right for everyone. Thus, I would hope that the full-timers don't jump to judge me. We are all different in the amount of work and life we can juggle in balance, for various physical, social, and psychological reasons. While I hope the paradigm is shifting (there was a post on KevinMD just the other day about part-time MDs and the "new normal"), we have to be confident enough in our choice and not care about those who might judge.

  3. I love this post, and I agree with you - and I hope there are also some men out there doing the same thing, because until there are, this will continue to be seen as a "woman's issue" rather than a workplace issue.

  4. Great post, and yes, totally agree that it is up to us to advocate for balance in our profession and supporting those -men and women - who are seeking this. You are a fabulous role model and many would benefit from learning how you have crafted your schedule and managed to "arrive" in your career. This also reminds me of the post "Hold your head up high" on this blog by MomT.

  5. The two links that you put in go to the same page--is this a mistake? Enjoyed this article. Can't wait to graduate from residency to start my 3 day a week job!!

  6. You really have it good. Most of us would agree to work harder at part time job for this very chance of having a part-time job. In my area I could not find 32 hour/week job. I am afraid to ask my current employer to move my schedule 30 min early so I can finish 30 min early - imperative for my 2 kids homework hustles. Plus I am a primary breadwinner in my family, and cannot afford to cut back a lot. So you are fortunate all the way around - you do not need paycheck, and you found the niche where you work (gasp for rest of us!) 3 days a week. I am not sure I understand your worry in this whole post/rant. Enjoy your stellar schedule. Yes, be prepared to do more than part-time. But may I gently suggest, be respectful to full timers:some of us need a paychekc and were not offered part-time job and that does not make my heart ache less when I worry about my kids'post-school hours and I am at work. Yes, some full-timers may feel resentful. If you do not step on anybodies toes and they do not have to "cover" you on your off days, then you are clear. But understand you have the rarest opportunity in the whole field of medicine, not just in your specialty.

  7. Anyone who thinks Ms. Sandberg's day ends at 5:30 when she leaves the office needs a reality check. Most likely she is staying up late into the night preparing documents and communicating via email. One doesn't get or stay where she is in a career by working 40 hours per week, male or female. With that in mind, I'm not surprised she doesn't feel guilty when she leaves work.

    Not that anyone else should feel guilty either. If you have a part time job, then by all means take advantage of it! Enough of the self flagellation already! Try to enjoy what you've got!

  8. Anon above - exactly !
    When I worked my factory-like job in a major institution, I left at 5:30-5:45 pm. Was home at 6 pm, picked up kids to drive 3 min to the ocean and swam for an hour, or took them to the playground/Basketball court in winter months. Put them to bed at 8 pm and ... went on computer to complete notes, check lab results, messages till 10-11 pm. Never felt guilty about leaving at 5:30, I was number one productivity doc in my whole practice. So, WHEN anyone leaves is deceptive. If you are truly productive at your job, you feel secure enough to not care what someone thinks. Like one of the docs in my office who stayed till 10 pm in the office WITHOUT leaving the job since 8 am that day. Felt bad for the person though, always.

  9. Actually, VC's generally don't work very hard at all. For instance, every August, Sand Hill Road (ground zero of global tech venture capital) is more shuttered than France. You're right about corporate lawyers, though. They have crummy schedules and many women unfortunately leave the profession because of it.

    You might want to check to see how late she's up working at home and how much time she's working on the weekend, though.

  10. Bless you. As a young MD who aspires both to a good mother and physician I appreciate so much the mothers in medicine who are willing to be truthful and honest about their choices and paths. There are many paths, all right, but I think if we don't all start being honest--and by honest I mean presenting all of the facts--then others may not know those paths exist.


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