Among the candidates President Obama may nominate for the next defense secretary is Michele Flournoy, formerly the highest-ranking woman in the Pentagon.
Flournoy is a mother of three, and in February, she stunned her colleagues when she stepped down from her job as undersecretary of defense for policy to spend more time with her children.
It wasn't an easy decision, but it's a dilemma that many working mothers face. While some call for changes in workplace policy to make caring for families and working easier, others argue women ultimately have to make a choice — and do so willingly.
Leaving Work For The Kids
When Flournoy was working at the Pentagon, she says her hours were long and intense. She would work starting at 7 a.m. for about 12 hours, "pretty much non-stop." Then she would have maybe two hours with her family at home before being available to work again around 9 p.m.
She did that for three years. During that time, both she and her husband were in senior government positions (her husband, W. Scott Gould, is deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs).
"There was a point in time when my older kids were reaching the teenage years that they really needed more of a parent," she tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered.
So after a number of long discussions with her husband, Flournoy says, they decided it was time for one of them to step out.
She hadn't expected a positive reaction, but her decision resonated with women around the country. And it prompted a new national discussion about whether mothers can reach the highest levels of corporate America as easily as men.
In Search Of Balance
Katie Jacobs Stanton, head of international strategy at Twitter and also a mother of three, says "every day is a balance."
Even though she tries to be disciplined about what time she leaves her house and when she leaves work, it doesn't always go according to plan. During a recent intense week at Twitter, she came home late every night.
"And [one] night, I got back, and my daughter said, 'Well, mom, I owe three dozen cookies, and they have to be homemade, and we need to bring them in tomorrow,' " Stanton says.
It was 8:30 p.m. "I felt so bad," she says. So they started baking.
"There's nothing that a quick batch of Toll House can't solve," she says. "You have to take each day in stride and enjoy what you have."
For Flournoy, the decision to leave the Pentagon was agonizing, in part because she didn't want to let down the younger women who looked to her to open doors for them.
The reaction she actually received surprised her. A number of women thanked Flournoy for making it OK to have periods when you "rebalance in favor of family." For Flournoy, that shift happens in waves. She believes it is possible to be a working mom at the highest levels of the workplace.
"I just think ... there's a sequencing," she says. "I mean, I'm one who believes that you can have it all, you just can't always have it at exactly the same time with equal intensity.
"My career has looked like a sine curve in terms of balancing and rebalancing, different periods where I've had more intense career focus versus more of a family focus."
Flournoy knows that's not true for many women, though, since many women don't have the support needed to rebalance while staying competitive.
At this point in her career curve, Flournoy says, either she or her husband still needs to be out of government service for their teenagers.
"But I have certainly had a chance to recharge my batteries, and I am eager for public service in the future," she says. That said, it would be very hard to miss these very precious years where I have ... the last years with my teenagers at home."
Kay Hymowitz, a scholar with the Manhattan Institute, has written for City Journal about this predicament. In an article called "The Plight of the Alpha Female," she says women now outnumber men in the American workforce, but at the top, the gender gap is huge. For example, she says, only 4 percent of the CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are female.
So despite efforts in both the public and private sector, why is there such a wide disparity at the top? Hymowitz tells NPR it's because of children.
She says women work fewer hours, take off more time for maternity leave and are more likely to work part-time than men. She says they seem to want it that way, too.
"Though we have to always make the caveat that yes, there is discrimination," she says. "But the major factor in the gap — both the ... wage gap and the gap at the very top ... is due to children."
She says both the public and private sectors are adapting in some ways to change that, particularly by offering flextime.
"But at a certain point, and this is particularly true at the top, the competition is so keen to get ahead that if you have a young baby at home [and] you're a woman — or, for that matter, a man — who wants to be quite involved with raising that baby, it's just a matter of physics," she says. "You cannot be doing both things."
Glass Ceilings Unbroken
Hymowitz doesn't see having to leave to take care of children as a penalty against women either.
"I think the presumption that this is really what women want — they want this absolute parity with men in the workplace. It really remains to be proven," she says.
The bottom line, she says, is that companies are going to give jobs to the applicant who is the most available and flexible for the sake of their clients.
"So should we change that? I don't see how you can," Hymowitz says.
While many industries in this country are increasingly being dominated by women, there is no evidence that things at the top are changing. In a TED Talk two years ago, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said parity for women at the top may not happen in her generation, but she hopes it will eventually.
"My generation really, sadly, is not going to change the numbers at the top. They're just not moving. ... In my generation, there will not be 50 percent of [women] at the top of any industry," she said. "But I'm hopeful that future generations can. I think a world that was run where half of our countries and half of our companies were run by women, would be a better world."
Broadening The Discussion
Karen Kornbluh, former ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, spent three years looking for ways to close the gender gap. She worries that there is too much focus on the "alpha females," who could run companies or governments.
Diversifying leadership is important, she tells NPR, "but what I also what to pay attention to is the middle-class family, the lower-income family, where the mother doesn't even have the choice of stepping out."
Choice is a funny word, though. Kornbluh says inequality in the workplace in this country is not about women — of any socioeconomic status — choosing family over work.
"I wouldn't call it a 'choice' in the classic sense because I don't think they have a lot of options," she says.
Before serving as ambassador, Kornbluh rose to deputy chief of staff at the Treasury. After the birth of her second child, she quit.
"You're expected to give 100 percent on the home front and 100 percent at the work front and 100 percent to your friends and your community," she says, "and you feel like a complete failure."
She says we simply have not yet adjusted to contemporary family life, which often requires all adults to juggle work and home.
"We still have this idea in our head that the ideal worker is the breadwinner with no responsibilities and the ideal parent is the homemaker with no workplace responsibilities," she says. "And we haven't changed our expectations enough."
Beyond flextime and health insurance, Kornbluh says, quality, affordable child care would make a significant impact, particularly for lower-income and single-parent families. That and economic growth. Lower wages have meant more hours for both parents — and more time away from home.
"If we could get growth again, but broadly shared growth," she says, "that would make a huge difference."