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Open up a browser to pretty much any news site and you’re likely to find a number of articles examining the state of women in the work force.
Many of these stories offer nuanced, persuasive arguments for the way women should approach their careers and create balance in their lives. These articles should make me feel empowered. Is it shameful to admit that I’m often paralyzed by them instead?
I’m Stephanie Chan, a digital editor in The Globe’s commercial content studio.
I still remember when foreign-policy analyst Anne-Marie Slaughter dropped her bombshell in The Atlantic in 2012. With a headline like Why women still can’t have it all, how could I not click? Like a lot of other young women on the verge of launching their careers, I keenly felt the expectation to rise through the ranks while balancing a pristine home life.
In her piece, Slaughter admitted that for years she had told younger women it was perfectly possible to juggle family, work and relationships. But the tables turned when she left her high-powered foreign-policy role and started receiving the same comments she might have once made to other women. She began to realize that the encouragement she doled out could instead come across as admonishment. The recognition that I wasn’t the only young woman interpreting advice this way helped take some of the pressure off.
The relief didn’t last long. The next year, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s call to arms dropped in the form of her book Lean In, and once again I felt the familiar push to try to do it all. My reaction may not have been quite as strong as this rebuttal in the Washington Post – headlined ‘Recline, don’t “Lean In” (Why I hate Sheryl Sandberg)’ – but I could all too easily relate.
More recently, the conversation about women at work has expanded, thanks to #MeToo. One story that stands out is this piece from The Globe’s Tavia Grant and Dawn Calleja, featuring eight executive women’s stories of sexism, harassment and assault at work. These stories remind me that navigating my way through the workplace is more complicated than ever, and I’m in awe at the bravery and determination these women have displayed. If I don’t do my part and fight to rise up in the workplace, will all of their stories be in vain?
Meanwhile, Slaughter’s piece still rings true in my mind, as do her more recent thoughts on not underestimating the value of work at home in her 2015 book, Unfinished Business. In it, she writes, “When we stop talking about work-life balance and start talking about discrimination against care and caregiving, we see the world differently.”
Even Sandberg has since softened some of the views she expressed in 2013. Two years after Lean In, she lost her husband. The following year, she wrote a Facebook post about her time as a single mom: “Before, I did not quite get it. I did not really get how hard it is to succeed at work when you are overwhelmed at home.”
Is it any wonder that I feel pulled in a lot of different directions?
I am thankful to the women who came before me. My desire to succeed is in part inspired by the many women who have already succeeded. And when I think about the possibility that I may never achieve my full “potential,” I am comforted by this piece in The Atlantic, where two women asked the question: What happened to all their smart, ambitious female friends from their college days?
In it, the writers found that “while everyone may have started out with lofty career goals, many also had lofty personal goals; ambition doesn’t stay in a neatly contained career-goals-only box.”
Ultimately, I know I have to find the right balance in my life, just as every other woman does. No article or book is going to be the perfect road map, even if they do sometimes inform and help guide me along the way. There are many women’s perspectives, but the only one that can help me navigate my life is my own.
What else we’re reading:
I think a lot about relationships – what they mean to me and how to form better ones. This piece in last month’s issue of The New Yorker, about companies in Japan that rent out replacement relatives, has stayed with me. The voyeuristic look at people searching to fill an emotional or physical void got me thinking: Is a relationship less meaningful when it’s paid for? Before reading this piece, my answer would have been a resounding yes. After, my answer became a little more nuanced. – SC
In February, 2017, Jana Girdauskas was stopped at a busy Toronto intersection when a panhandler approached her car. She wanted to offer the woman something – extra change, something to eat, maybe some toiletries – but she didn't have anything. She gave the woman an apologetic look and went on her way.
When she got home, Girdauskas thought about that woman, and it made her wonder how homeless people get access to basic toiletries. She went into her linen closet and pulled out extra shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant and an old scarf to make a care package. And then she saw her menstrual products – what does a person experiencing homelessness do about their period?
This is how Girdauskas came up with the Period Purse, a recycled handbag filled with menstrual and hygiene products. She, her two sons and a group of volunteers began to work together to assemble the purses and now they deliver them to about 50 homeless shelters in the GTA, supporting more than 500 people a month. To gather supplies, the group runs two blitzes a year, where members of the community can drop off spare purses, toiletries and menstruation essentials. “They never have to worry about their period products,” Girdauskas says of the people living in shelters and on the streets that the Period Purse strives to help. As a full-time teacher, she balances her day job with an average of 30 volunteer hours at the Period Purse each week. The operation has grown to include 14 core volunteers helping with day-to-day tasks, as well as five board members and another 100 volunteers who help pack purses.
The support from the community has been “astonishing,” Girdauskas says. On the downside, some people are confused when she and her volunteers refer to people who get their periods as “menstruators” (because not everyone identifies as a woman). This can lead to disparaging comments, but “they are still learning,” she says.
Next up for the Period Purse is moving its efforts north to support an Indigenous community in rural Ontario, where products can be up to three times the price and less accessible. “The people who have gotten our products, hearing from them … giving a little dignity back to them has been really special.” – Shelby Blackley
Inspired by something in this newsletter? If so, we hope you’ll amplify it by passing it on. And if there’s a woman you think our readers should know about, tell us about her. Send us an e-mail at email@example.com.