Doctor’s Prescription for Work-Life Misses the Point For Young Women Lawyers

I have read much about this book TORN:  True Stories of Kids, Careers and the Conflict of Modern Motherhood over the past few weeks.  The book includes an essay by Dr. Karen Sibert that challenges the concept  of work-life balance and the compromise that is sometimes necessary—although Dr. Sibert would contend that it is neither necessary nor appropriate in the medical world.  The analogy to the work-life struggle in the legal profession is just too close, so I call this book and Dr. Sibert’s essay to your attention.  However, calling it to your attention is not the same as endorsing it, as you will see.

Dr. Sibert is an anethesiologist somewhere in California.  She contends that some jobs, like medicine, are just too important to multitask.  To quote Dr. Sibert, “My patients can count on the fact that when I am at work, my full attention is with them, and the rest of the time—well, I do my best, and luckily I never set my sights on the award for ‘Mother of the Year.'”  She is more expansive in her opinions on this subject in “Don’t Quit This Day Job” in the Op-Ed section in the NY Times on June 11th.  In the opinion piece, Dr. Sibert argues that all of the things that proponents of flexible work and alternative schedules herald are really bad for the profession of medicine.  She concludes that what seem like personal decisions have serious consequences for patients and the public.  Not surprisingly, she finds that the popular trends for work-life balance is OK for mere mortals like lawyers but not OK for doctors who must take care of their patients.  In all of this, she is sounding like the elitist spokeswoman for the AMA.  She even posits that women who may need extended leave to deal with work-life issues should think twice about entering the field of medicine in the first place, and she resorts to the hackneyed attitude that women who do not pursue their professions full time are taking opportunities away from those who will.  (Surely you have heard of the age old challenges to women law students about why they should be taking up a seat that could be occupied by a male student when they will just quit to have babies.)

It should not surprise you that Dr. Sibert’s opinions have been highly criticized.  In short, her detractors think that she has it backwards, and I quite agree.  She misses the point entirely.  She is so caught up in the way things have been handled in the workplace for generations that she is overlooking an opportunity for change that does not have to be a threat to medicine or the public.  As one commentor put it, “The problem is not that workers–mostly women at at this point—are demanding too much, but rather that professions are archaically structured.  Also, that the push for change still comes mostly from women.  The answer is neither to shut up, nor to buck up.  The answer is to recalibrate the hours and expectations of professions so that they can be done by the “new worker”—not a man with a wife at home (which is the assumption of the old structures) but rather a mother or a father with a working partner and responsibilities at home…Where Dr. Sibert sees slacking, I see a new norm.  One that requires fewer hours of more workers, perhaps.  One that should be embraced by men and women.”  Hear, hear.

This topic was discussed at length on the Motherlode Book Club parenting blog in the NY Times.  One contributor to the blog hit is on the head.  She pointed out that intolerance toward women who are comfortable scaling back their ambition for a period of time in order to achieve balance does a real disservice to women and undermines women supporting women—-a pet theme of mine, as you know.  This contributor concludes, “All professions have people like Dr. Sibert who feel that women can only be successful on men’s terms [and] I sincerely hope that my 17-year-old daughter finds better role models in whatever career she chooses.” Again, I hear myself telling young women lawyers to have a personal definition of success and not to be confined by the definitions of success that have been developed by predominately male practitioners.

Another contributor, a female doctor, states, “The movement of more women working and more women choosing to work part-time so that they have additional time for their families is not a failure of the women’s movement but an evolution that is both necessary for society and at its core, entirely about being a woman.”  She, like me, wonders whether Dr. Sibert would consider the possibility that the traditional practice of working at a profession around the clock is just old-fashioned.  The proof of that seems to be that men, not just women, are seeking more flexibility to spend additional time at home and with family and that looking for that kind of balance does not have to mean a lack of commitment to a profession.  She even dares to suggest that having balance in your life can make you a better professional.   Imagine that!  And, she concludes by suggesting that wanting and needing to be with family is the ultimate feminist movement.

These comments are music to my ears, as you can imagine, and I play that music here for you.  Memorize the notes and remember the musical themes so that it will be an old favorite when your time comes.

 

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