If Tammy Palazzo had been Don Draper’s mom, Sterling Cooper would be a golden place for women to advance.
When President Obama stood up in front of our country last week raising his feminist flag, condemning the U.S. for unequal treatment of women in the workplace, millions of us cheered—while millions more sighed, because we know the problem is far too complex to be corrected with an executive order. As long as we remain the only gender able to give birth to children, and as long as men continue to fraternize in an exclusive and excluding culture, not much is going to change. But there is something we can do. And we can start now. The solution to the challenges women face in the workplace rests in the hands of the young boys and men who are sitting in classrooms around our country, the very same ones we are raising in our own families. Our sons are the ones who will open up the gates, allow their sisters into the inner circles, and support them in their desire to be both mothers and leaders (because, remember guys, without us, there ain’t no future).
So, after we’re done bitching about the President’s lip service, parents like me—the mother of two sons—need to get to work. Ironically, I didn’t sign up for this job. I never wanted boys in the first place. I worried from the outset that I lacked the proper tools to raise them effectively. I never played sports and didn’t have much interest. I was a liberal arts major who barely passed geometry and earth science. I had little interest in tools, cars, or beer. Stereotyping aside, I was terrified of the idea of parenting offspring who felt like they belonged to a foreign species, and it was hard enough to be married to one! But then the first one showed up, and I knew I had to up my game. I could still watch chick flicks with his little sister, right, because my second child had to be a girl. When I got pregnant a second time, I prayed for my little Caroline or Abigail, as I wasn’t prepared to live like a prisoner in a frat house where I understood neither language nor culture. Alas, when my husband and I held hands in that dark room as they performed the amnio and we saw yet another penis on the monitor, he screamed for joy as tears streamed down my cheeks. I was done after two, so there would be no daughters. My fantasies of mother/daughter dates and dress shopping and makeup messes in the bathroom were blown away by that ever-present protuberance. The die was cast. Just boys for me.
It’s been almost 11 years since the harsh reality of being the only woman in my house set in, and with a full-blown teenager and a quickly maturing tween, I thank the universe daily for sparing me the challenges of raising girls. I hear my friends’ stories and watch the endless stream of videos on social media talking about body image, self-esteem, teenage pregnancy, and of course, lack of opportunity in the workplace. I am grateful not to have to face these challenges with my boys (though we have plenty to deal with on our side of the fence), but bringing up future men presents a different responsibility and opportunity, that of molding future egalitarian leaders. Unless I enlighten them, my boys could grow up to be the very men responsible for holding women back. My sons could be the ones to perpetuate a system in which women make $.23 less per dollar forevermore. As both a woman and a mother, I would find that shameful. By helping my sons understand sexism and inequality, I can participate in positive outcomes for many girls—even though I was denied the chance to raise one.
But motherhood is only a part of my picture. As a woman in the workplace with a career heavily focused on helping women advance, I recognized early on that I had an important role to play in the conversation. Rather than continuing to advise women and empower them in their careers and personal lives, I needed to speak out publicly and help men build their own awareness of the role they play in holding women back. And, even more important, this conversation had to reach the men of the future. I needed to teach my sons, through example, how to be emotionally evolved men who will respect, support and advance the women in their personal and professional lives. From the time they could understand, I talked to my kids about what it means to be a working woman. I brought my boys into my workplaces and showed them what I did. I showed them how capable I was of being both successful in my career and effective as a mother without diminishing either role.
About a month ago, I asked my 13-year-old son if he had the choice, would he prefer that his wife work or stay home with the kids. I worried that being the child of a working mother, he would opt for the latter, because he felt some sort of deprivation by not having me around full-time. In our household the traditional roles are reversed, and my husband has taken on many of the critical household tasks including cooking, transporting the kids to and from sports practices, and being home while I am often traveling for business. As a result, it has always been my fear that my children would see me in the same way that many in my generation saw their fathers—absent parents. My son surprised me when he told me that he expected his wife would work. He didn’t see his childhood or my mothering as lacking, and he appreciated that I had modeled for him what women are capable of. I make an effort to show up at my sons’ sporting events, I’m involved with their school, and I’m the go-to resource for homework help and studying. And, I talk to them. I help my Don Drapers of the future understand that it is OK to have strong women in their lives and crucial for them to see women as equals.
Just the other day, I was driving my son to school and I noticed he was engaged in a serious texting sesson. I asked him which of his friends he was chatting with, and he told me it was two girls. “We’re like best friends and we can help each other see other perspectives.” I beamed quietly on the inside because, while we’re still a long way from the end zone, I knew in that moment I was moving the ball down the field.