by Dr. Amy C. Novak
President, Dakota Wesleyan University
for the Mitchell Republic, March 27, 2021
I enjoy amusement park rides. Each year, my youngest children beg and plead with me to join them on the midway rides during Corn Palace Week. I hop on the scrambler with my two youngest boys who persuade me to sit on the side that gets “squished.” We spin around in various directions, getting pulled this way and that way. I experience the “scrambler squeeze” and enjoy the laughter of my children.
As we celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, recent reports about women attempting to balance their personal and professional lives have me reflecting on the “scrambler squeeze.” During the past decade, a parade of successful women have come forward with “recipes” for women in leadership. Sheryl Sandberg encouraged us to “lean in” to professional opportunities. Former state department leader Anne-Marie Slaughter told us “we can’t have it all.” Others have suggested that we “recline,” and still others have warned, ominously, of the dangers of leaving the workforce to stay home with children. The advice feels akin to the sensation of the scrambler ride, with one opinion pushing women in one direction and the next opinion yanking them abruptly in another. This dynamic leads, understandably, to feelings of anxiety and frustration among many women, and can fuel a sense of inadequacy regarding the challenge of every truly living up to these ever changing and shifting pieces of advice. Allow me to offer a different perspective.
Women are good. We have good to give. We are all different. We have different gifts and different callings. We must resist the temptation to measure ourselves against terms like “professional” and “domestic,” or some ideal combination of the two. We must resist the temptation to measure ourselves against others. We must simply seek to be the best version of what we have been called to be. This may mean very different things from day to day and even hour to hour. We were not created to be perfect. We were created to be “present.” Being “present” allows us to manifest our gifts in different ways and different contexts. When Senator Mike Braun described Amy Coney Barrett as a “legal titan who drives a minivan,” he was, on the one hand simply seeking to document Coney Barrett’s adherence to traditional values. On the other hand, however, he was marveling publicly at the near incomprehensibility of these two roles being simultaneously and successfully executed by the same woman. These sorts of comments reinforce the “scrambler ride” dynamic.
Women were not created to be alone. We are part of community, a community that complements our strengths and compensates for our weaknesses, but toward which we must be open if we are to receive its support.
Living out a vocation of motherhood is not incompatible with living out our calling to serve as a leader in the workplace. Our workplace is a part of our community. We must support one another in both our homes and our workplaces by creating policies and opportunities that enable one another to embrace the multiple roles they are asked to play at varying points in their lives. As a leader in an organization that employs many women and men, I recognize the importance of ensuring that our staff can take time to attend a child’s school play or care for an aging relative. I also recognize that performance in our organization needs to routinely meet or exceed expectations. I have found that supporting flexibility and honoring the myriad roles played by women and men yields higher rates of job satisfaction, employee retention, and overall productivity.
Women will not do everything right, and that should not be the standard to which we are held. For women, it is not, ultimately, about striking a perfect, mythical balance between the professional and domestic spheres. It is about being present wherever you are and bringing your gifts to bear in that space. Shirley Chisolm, the first African American woman elected to Congress said, “If they don’t offer you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Be present. Bring your gifts. Nurture yourself and share your goodness. Sometimes it will make sense to take the promotion. Sometimes it will make sense to be in the bleachers cheering for your child. Sometimes it will make sense to do both on the same day. Wherever you are, show up. Eventually no one will care whether you got there in a minivan or, or in my case, a twelve-passenger one.