By Jaleh Bisharat, VP Marketing at oDesk
I was one of the countless women who inhaled Anne-Marie Slaughter’s now-viral article in The Atlantic, titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.”
My first reaction was this: “It is not a coincidence that my first full-time job in 11 years is at oDesk.”
My story goes back to the year 2000 when I thought I had it all. Except that apparently I didn’t.
My children were 8 and 5. My husband was (and is) an extraordinary father who shouldered more than 50% of the child rearing. I was the Vice President of Marketing at Amazon.com. I loved every minute of those heady days when the company was an emerging leader in e-commerce and I worked with some of the smartest, most dynamic people on earth.
In the mornings, my husband would drop off the kids at school and a babysitter would pick them up in the afternoons. In a high-wire act, my husband commuted from Seattle to his teaching job in San Francisco several days a week.
Most evenings, I would leave the office at 6:30 PM or 7:00 PM with a churning stomach. I felt awful skulking out past a team toiling at their desks, yet I knew I would go home to children who had already had their day, their dinner and their baths and who were gently preparing to be tucked in.
Even then, my workday continued. I’d get home and make scheduled calls to employees. My daughter would beg me to make the calls from her bedside. I’d hold her soft little hand, and she’d drift off to sleep to the sound of my voice—not reading or talking to her, but conversing with someone else about the day’s business.
And so it went, until one day I looked into my husband’s tired eyes and said, “Do you think I should quit?” To my immense surprise, the same man who had encouraged and supported me through a satisfying career with many intense moments, said simply, “Yes. I think you should.”
It was a wrenching moment.
I had thought I had it all. But the three people I loved the most in the world felt differently. They wanted a wife and mother at the dinner table, in their conversations, at their bedside—with full attention focused on them.
Did I need to try harder to make it all work?
I was offered one more chance to “have it all.” I almost took it. Our CEO, quite possibly the most inspiring leader a person could work for, offered me shorter work hours. Charismatic and persuasive, he was not an easy person to turn down.
But I concluded that even if I accepted the shorter hours, there were other women at the company with families. Being the exception at a place with an in-office work culture—which all companies were, before the advent of high-bandwidth collaboration and communication technologies—did not feel like the right solution.
So I stared into the future, trying to imagine what it would be like to wake up each day without the professional identity I had built up over more than a decade. What would it be like to be a mom moving anonymously in the crowd, without important people to meet and things to accomplish?
For the next 11 years, I found out. While other women advanced their careers, I worked part time. I passed on opportunities. I cooked and ate with my family. I picked up my children from school. I watched my daughter turn into a young dancer and writer and my son turn into a young magician and mathematician.
I was not the perfect mother, but I was there.
Some of my jobs turned into four days per week or even five short days. But I had stopped believing I could officially sign on full time and maintain a happy family life.
Until the oDesk opportunity presented itself.
For me, a pivotal point in Slaughter’s piece is this: “Our work culture still remains more office-centered than it needs to be, especially in light of technological advances … One way to change is by changing the ‘default rules’ that govern office work—the baseline expectations about when, where and how work will be done.”
At oDesk, the business premise is that people should be free to work whenever they want and wherever they want, and that they will succeed or fail based on the quality of their work—not the number of hours they sit at their desks in the office.
This caught my attention. I decided to explore whether the oDesk culture reflects its business values. I learned that oDesk evaluates employees purely on the excellence of their work product.
So I took my first full-time VP of Marketing job since my Amazon.com days.
Now, I drive to the oDesk offices at the crack of dawn, but I am back for dinner with my family. Tuesday is work-from-home day for everyone at oDesk.
Some days I wrap up work in time for dinner and a few late-night emails; others I am cranking for many hours. But there is little stress involved in hard work when I know I can do it any time and from anywhere.
Almost every oDesk meeting starts with the same question: “Who is participating remotely?” Most conference rooms are equipped with large TV screens, hooked up to Skype, for remote participants. oDesk meeting etiquette gives priority to remote participants who would like to speak.
We are far from perfect in our approach to the “work anywhere” model. We are still learning how to capture and measure excellence, to build thriving remote relationships and to embrace all meeting participants—local and remote—equally.
For me, however, working at a company whose very mission is to offer an alternative to the traditional office-centered culture has made all the difference. It has moved me closer to “having it all” than at any other time in my life.