I had always heard that Silicon Valley was the ultimate flexible workplace. When I visited, successful women executives there told me stories that would make jealous anyone struggling to manage a job and a life.
As a mother of three, Katie Stanton had found her job at the White House a nightmare. One night at 8pm, her boss called her at home to ask what she was doing out of the office. “Tucking my kids into bed,” she answered.
“Why, is there an emergency?” her boss asked.
Soon after, she quit and went to work for Twitter. As head of international strategy, Stanton asked her new boss if she could leave at five every day – she lives an hour away – and pick up on email again after eight. No problem. “I consider myself incredibly lucky,” Stanton says, “because I can do this job really well and have a family.”
Life for the women I talked to is not exactly perfect; in fact, it sounds exhausting. Stanton works every single week night, and never gets to the gym or goes out with her husband. These women work flexibly, but they work all the time.
As Emily White, a Facebook executive, put it to me, “Forget the balance, this is the merge”, meaning that work and play and kids and sleep are all jumbled up in the same 24-hour period. (White came up with this term after she finally managed a night out alone with her husband, and they spent half the dinner staring at their iPhones.)
But the work culture is still a revelation. Without a lot of official committees and HR red tape, Silicon Valley is figuring out the single most vexing problem for ambitious working women, one everyone thought was unsolvable: how to let them spend time with their children without ruining their careers.
women and men both benefit
The industry has by no means solved the ultimate problem, meaning that there are just as few female heads of companies as there are in any other elite sector. But it gives us a glimpse of the work culture of the future, where face time isn’t so relevant and people take it for granted that women – and men – can be really ambitious and manage a life, too.
“Your reputation is based on what you’ve done,” White said. “It doesn’t really matter what’s in your pants.” In a chart comparing the “career cost of family” in elite workplaces – meaning the price people pay for taking time off – the economist Claudia Goldin floats the tech companies high above the rest. Women and men there can take time off and not take a big salary hit.
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