I turned on the computer today to see this from cnn.com. 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 cnn.com 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 cnn.com 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 cnn.com 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.