Thank You To Marissa and Sheryl. Now, Let’s Really Talk.

I’ll begin this post by saying thank you to Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg for touching off a firestorm of national conversation about women in the workplace over the last week.

Sandberg’s messages of “Lean In” — the title of her new book — to work, and work harder to achieve more success, have evoked both strong support (for using her platform to help elevate women in the workplace) and fierce criticism (for telling women to work harder, but saying it from a place of privilege). She’s launching a network of “Lean In Circles” that operate like small salons, with a curriculum for career success and penalties for missing meetings.

Mayer’s ban on all remote work situations for Yahoos was met with an intense reaction in the mom-sphere and beyond, with some bloggers and luminaries calling her actions so last century, and not very Silicon Valley. On the other hand, some hailed her actions as indeed very Silicon Valley (where everyone works all the time), and some Yahoos (anonymously) cheered her move as she leads a corporate underdog turnaround.

Everyone from Maureen Dowd to Jack Welch has weighed in over the past week, and the issue of women in the workplace dominated headlines in a way that we haven’t seen in a long time. Regardless of what side you find yourself on in these debates (Do women simply need to work harder to achieve more career success? Is working remotely good or bad?), the fact that many people are thinking about these issues — and talking out loud about them — is so important.

These are conversations long overdue; every company in this country should be having them.

But there’s a larger, more crucial conversation still to be had in every executive suite, which is how to prevent smart women who have invested years into their educations and careers, and who in turn companies have invested in and trained for years, from leaving when they have small children because the corporate structure isn’t flexible enough — or creative enough — to find ways to help them stay.

The bottom line is that there needs to be a fundamental shift in the way that we approach women with young children in the workplace — when an individual’s need for flexibility and the prospect of losing that individual who the company has invested in are each at its highest point. We need a fundamental shift in the way companies look at and value that person — to understand that even if a smart, educated woman (or man) wants to dial it back for a couple years to focus some time on her small children, this is OK, and it does not mean she does not want to use her brain in a productive way, be a part of a team, or be valuable to the company.

Some companies, like Deloitte, have instituted broad policies to retain female talent. And you’ll find smart, creative managers at every company who make flexibility possible in one-off situations. We all know managers who took one full-time headcount and split the job into two part-time opportunities for two working moms. What if a structure like this were instead simply part of the DNA of all companies, a program that women (and men) could apply to when their flexibility need is high?

After having my first baby, I negotiated my full-time job down to three days, something I am forever grateful for. In turn, I was flexible back. Available always by phone and email, and available to come in during emergency situations. Even part time I was eligible for full-time benefits, but I didn’t use them because I didn’t need them. To keep my foot in the door, I was also willing to go to contract status — another way the company could have benefited financially. What if more companies were willing to discuss these options as a matter of policy versus one-off situations?

The good news is that many satisfying, flexible opportunities do exist – they’re just often difficult to find. They exist at companies that have instituted flex work policies. They exist at small companies and startups and nonprofits that often scale up and down with contractors or that are more open to part-time arrangements because it is beneficial to them financially. We see these opportunities come across the listservs we’re on, in the industry or parenting groups we belong to, within our social media networks, and even at our own companies.

And now, it’s easy to share them. We’ve built a tool where women can share links to job openings they see come through elsewhere in their networks — jobs they know are well-suited for another smart, working mom. This idea of women helping each other — by sharing links to jobs — is fundamental to not just the success of our site, but to the message it sends to all employers–that this is a viable, work-ready, smart, loyal, vast talent pool that will help take a company and the nation in the direction it must go: Forward.

So how can you help? Introduce us to a company you know in your area.

The more we call attention to these opportunities and the companies providing them, the more powerful the momentum behind real change becomes. Together, we can prevent big brains from leaving the workforce because they don’t find the flexibility that works for them. Together we can put some of the big brains sitting on the sidelines back to work. And together we can change the landscape for all working moms.