The argument over women – as workers, mothers, partners and wives – “having it all,” “opting out” or “leaning in” distracts and detracts from the fact that we’re squabbling over a failed economic system that doesn’t work for the majority of people.
As an employed mother, I keep coming back to this question: Why are we scrambling to figure out how to bend ourselves into the right shape to fit into a business culture that is inherently flawed?
Instead of having women change to fit the workplace, we need to overhaul the current system to fit the needs of women and their families. Working mothers need to have an equal voice in directing their workplaces and creating the mission, values and ethos of their organizations.
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Such workplaces already exist: In my experience, democratic businesses have the potential to be some of the best environments for working mothers. Indeed, for working families. Many already are, as illustrated by Women’s Action to Gain Economic Security (WAGES), based in San Francisco, an organization that assists new and ongoing cooperatives start and run their businesses.
In traditional businesses, families interfere with the bottom line. Therefore, being human, having a life outside your job, interferes. We’re told to suck it up, work harder, put in more hours, be more competitive and keep clamoring for the top.
This might be the ideal life for some people, but it’s absurd to say that is what we all should strive for. And it places a heavy burden on working families, many of which already are struggling with how to balance parenting, working, having a life and having relationships.
Furthermore, most people overwork themselves to turn a profit for a faceless group of investors. In the past 20 years, worker productivity is up roughly 80 percent, but wages have stagnated, so people are working harder for less money. Yet, CEOs at the largest companies make 380 times more than the average worker. Our work has been devalued along with our family life, leaving too many of us struggling to make ends meet at work and home.
Democratic workplaces offer a serious economic alternative to top-down models. For example, the businesses that WAGES has incubated have brought in more than $3 million per year in sales – a huge impact for their community.
Meche Sansores, WAGES executive director, cites the following statistics: “The women who join our co-ops face extremely high barriers to employment: One-third had no employment in the 12 months preceding. And those who were working made a median of $12,000 per year. After joining, new co-op members see their median personal incomes increase by 158 percent, and members access benefits well above industry standards, engage in profit sharing, and receive stable, family-friendly schedules.”
In democratic workplaces, every worker has an equal vote. The workplaces can have different structures for those votes – consensus, representative, etc. – but what matters most is that each person is a stakeholder in the business. Workers are involved in decisions from schedules to wages to business mission and values.
What this means for employed mothers is that they have a say in setting priorities and goals for their businesses. Therefore, women have the chance to shape their organizations to meet their familial, community and economic needs.
“One of the aspects of co-op membership that the members cite time and time again as their favorite is having a voz y voto – or a voice and a vote – in key decisions,” Sansores said. “Additionally, having a workplace where members build their professional and leadership skills is something that is not only valued but also encouraged.”
However, Sansores points out that creating democratic workplaces is a time- and resource-intensive endeavor – and, as a member of a worker-owned business, I can attest to this. In my organization, we have had many conversations about balancing business priorities with personal needs, particularly after the birth of my child. I am directly involved in setting and achieving organizational goals, so I get to play a direct role in ensuring my work and home life are in alignment.
I’m not advocating for kumbaya circles or communism (some of the misguided critiques thrown at democratic businesses). I am advocating for creating thriving businesses that invest in their communities and support their workers – businesses that recognize that the best ideas come from within and that people don’t check their backgrounds at the workplace door.
Democratic workplaces will not solve all of our problems. Not everyone is well-suited to them, and removing or reducing hierarchy won’t address all the issues women face at work. But creating more democratically owned enterprises – or transitioning traditional businesses into them – would have a huge impact on working families and the economy.
Within our current economic system, there’s not enough space in the winners’ circle for all of us. This system works best when the majority of us fail, but continue striving. Telling women to lean into such a system is flawed and will not lead to our empowerment. Building workplaces with structures directly controlled by workers will strengthen women, and in turn, their families.