In the lead-up to Super Bowl LV, Detroit’s own General Motors released a highly-produced homage to the American competitive spirit. The ad features Will Ferrell in flannel and a t-shirt, standing in his decked-out suburban man cave of a garage, livid over the suggestion that Norway, of all places, might have beat the United States to the punch on electric vehicles. He vows to “crush those lugers” with GM’s new battery. The response from the lugers (ie: the Norwegian government)? “Shh, don’t tell them where else we’re winning.”
Sure, the past 12 months have been a hard slap in the face for US foreign and domestic policy. Wildfires ripped across the west and later, extreme cold across the south and midwest exposed America’s decaying infrastructure. A botched pandemic response left over 500,000 dead and many more hungry. Sharp political divides grew to a fever pitch, leading ultimately to an insurrection in the nation’s capital on Jan. 6, 2021. And America’s adversaries did not relent, unleashing waves of disinformation on a vulnerable populace and carrying out “the largest and most sophisticated [cyber] attack ever,” according to Microsoft President Brad Smith — also known as the SolarWinds attack. But Norway didn’t refer to those 12 months in its response to GM. No, Norway simply cited policies that are deeply embedded in America’s status quo, including its failure to provide real support to women, and mothers.
IS AMERICA ANTI-MOM?
The US is the only country among 41 nations surveyed by Pew Research Center in 2019 that does not mandate any paid leave for new parents. Moms had reported burnout, condescension, and disproportionate hurdles to advancement at work long before the straw that broke many backs, the pandemic, drove them out of the workforce. And today many pregnant women are still struggling with the decision to return to the office after having been left out of clinical trials for the COVID-19 vaccine.
In the absence of national support, some private companies have stepped in to fill the gap. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, offers 18 weeks of paid parental leave. American Express offers 20. While Netflix, famously, offers 52. Others, such as Merck & Co., offer to pay fees associated with adoption or surrogacy, and provide perks like flexible work arrangements and backup childcare. Most of these policies (those that include 18-20 weeks of leave) still place employees of these companies in the bottom 35% of those 41 countries surveyed by Pew, but at least moms don’t have to return to the office before they are physically ready.
My role as a mom is not holding me back, it is allowing me to live the fullest version of my own reality.
Unfortunately, as has been noted prominently throughout Inkstick’s series on the future of work, the national security community lags far behind even the minimal family standards set by much of corporate America. This is reflected in the numbers at the top. While the Biden administration has embarked on an admirable effort to rectify these numbers, women have traditionally made up less than half of senior leadership at the Departments of State and Defense, and still hover at a woefully low percentage among lawmakers. Women published and quoted in the field also make up a smaller percentage than men. While there are many factors that contribute to this type of disparity, there is some evidence that policies, such as paid leave and flexible work arrangements, have an impact on women’s participation in the workforce, which would help address at least some of the existing constraints.
THE BLESSING OF REMOTE WORK
Prior to having children, I lived with what felt like an ax hanging over my head. The decision to have children was fraught with consequences not just for my career, but for my sanity. At the time, I returned home from my desk most evenings well after bedtime and left around the time I knew they’d wake. I didn’t want to have kids if they were kids I knew I’d never see. So I calculated that if I chose to have a family, I would have to engage in a race to achieve as much as I could before the “pause” that seemed inevitable during those early years of childhood.
I’m almost embarrassed to say now that the impacts of pregnancy discrimination never crossed my mind. So they hit as an even harder slap in the face, when they did hit.
While pregnant with my first, I was taken off of travel, had a contract broken, had pay withheld while I was out, and when I did return, had my commitment to the role questioned, along with a suggestion that perhaps I’d rather refocus so I could spend more time at home. I pumped in a closet for years at my place of employment — in places worse than this elsewhere. (Train and plane bathrooms were definitely the grossest. My moving car was the most dangerous, but the commute could be long.) I was shamed at nearly every TSA checkpoint I tried to carry milk through. Once I was asked, incredulously, where the baby was. Why did I have milk and not a baby? The TSA agent in question informed me, “He also has a kid, he knows how this works.”
Everything changed with my second son. My leave, of course, was still atrocious. I had founded Inkstick and was deeply enmeshed in a startup life that didn’t allow breaks. Fortuitously, he was born at the start of a long holiday weekend. I took the weekend and got back to work. This isn’t a life I’d wish on any mom, but the only thing — and, I repeat, the only thing — that made it possible, was remote work. Over the course of my two babies’ short lives, I have birthed and built this business into a growing and, dare I say, thriving publication. I’ve worked long hours, traveled, accepted awards, and survived a pandemic. And I can honestly say the only difference my children have made is that they’ve managed to pull me back from the brink of burnout on my very worst days. My role as a mom is not holding me back, it is allowing me to live the fullest version of my own reality.
That would not be the case if I had to go into the office. Those days of long commutes, pumping in closets and bathrooms, sneaking into my kids’ rooms to kiss them goodnight as they slept: Those are done. The freedom to succeed both at work and at home has been afforded to me by remote work. True support for working families, however, won’t come without a broader shift. 4.2 million women dropped out of the labor force between February and April of 2020. Nearly 2 million have yet to return. There is no denying the role that childcare has played, both in pushing women out of the workforce and in keeping them there.
We cannot afford to turn qualified people away from national security work simply because of outdated practices. And we cannot stand up to our enemies, let alone tackle our own internal divide, without first repairing the broken system that undergirds all that we do.
But working families aren’t the only Americans who’ve suffered under the status quo. If there is one thing Inkstick’s series has made clear, it’s that the decisions we make now regarding the future of work are not a matter of personal preference. Yes, many of us are more efficient at home. Others find greater inspiration at the office. Employers should make an effort to accommodate these differences, but they should not lose sight of the fact that the future of work is first and foremost a question of inclusivity.
THIS IS HOW WE BREAK DOWN BARRIERS
As a kid growing up in Coos Bay, OR — a small, coastal town with, according to Urban Dictionary, “a lot of meth and a sweet Super Walmart” — my path to national security work was not exactly clear. I stumbled my way into George Washington University, and the DC intern class, by strength of sheer will and tips at TGI Fridays. It’s rare, in this space, that I come across a peer from a similar rural, working class background. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Remote work opens the door to national security and foreign policy work like few immediate changes can. Quite physically, it breaks down barriers for those with disabilities, chronic illness, and yes, those with kids. It also allows a seat at the table for those who grow up outside the confines of the mostly-white, mostly-upper class pool of Americans this space has traditionally drawn from.
The Biden administration has put much emphasis on the idea that foreign policy begins at home. That the projection of American values is nothing if we don’t reflect those values ourselves. Addressing the myriad challenges that face our country today will require the best minds we have, and the most diverse representation of lived experience. We cannot afford to turn qualified people away from national security work simply because of outdated practices. And we cannot stand up to our enemies, let alone tackle our own internal divide, without first repairing the broken system that undergirds all that we do.
Shifting the status quo will require more than lip service and temporary change. It will require a shift in priorities. One that enables greater investment in those who’ve traditionally been left behind by our system: Immigrants, people of color, women, and yes, those from a wider range of socioeconomic backgrounds. It will mean talking about class, and recognizing that transformational change in the future of work will, in fact, yield transformational change in the future of foreign and national security policy.
If we want to walk our talk, that walk starts here. But the chance for change is fleeting. My greatest post-pandemic hope is that we won’t be so shortsighted as to allow it to pass us by.
Laicie Heeley is the founder and editor of Inkstick and the host and executive producer of the PRX- and Inkstick-produced podcast, Things That Go Boom.
The Future of National Security Work is a series of articles that examine the experience of work during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the future of work once the pandemic has gone. For a look at the rest of the series, see here.