Women, Work, and the Gospel: An Interview with Beth Kawasaki

By Dan Clendenin

Beth went from the marketing and advertising management of big brands at P&G, Apple Computer, and Levi Strauss to raising a family, earning her Masters degree in Theology, and engaging in advocacy work on behalf of marginalized girls and women through several non-profit posts. She is currently VP of Marketing at ReBoot Career Accelerator for Women, and serves on the board of Live in Peace in East Palo Alto. Beth lives in Northern California with her husband, three of her four kids, eight chickens, a couple dogs, and an assortment of other small critters. She is a member of and periodically preaches at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, and writes a weekly blog on women and work. For more about Beth, see here.

Dan: Reading your bio-blurb makes me feel lazy.

Beth: Reading my bio-blurb makes me feel crazy. Weird seeing it laid out that way.

Joking aside, it all adds up to the manic multi-tasking that many women experience.

Throw in the alpha role that women play in elder care, household management, or simply staying home with a sick child; and this reality raises very serious barriers to a woman’s ability to rise to and stay in leadership roles in corporate, political, and religious life. Positions of power and influence that could be positive game changers worldwide for many more.

Can you unpack that for us?

In February 2016, Melinda Gates wrote in The Atlantic about the gender gap in unpaid labor and how it hurts the global economy. Her article is titled, “The Scourge of the Female Chore Burden,” and begins with this cautionary note, “Unless things change, girls today will spend hundreds of thousands more hours than boys doing unpaid work simply because society assumes it’s their responsibility.”

And it’s even worse in the two-thirds world.

Yes. It’s better in North America than in some developing countries, yet in the U.S., women work 50% more hours than men on house hold chores each day, and the gender chore gap has barely budged in over a decade.

Can you share any personal experiences here?

I’d love to say that we have this solved in our household. I am married to a bona fide feminist, but unconscious bias and bad habits exist everywhere, even in the best of us; and if I don’t point it out, slippage occurs and inequities build. I don’t want this future for my daughter or for my sons, so this very important work starts with me in my own home.

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I’d like to follow the lead of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her new book My Own Words (2016). She has a whole chapter honoring “waypavers” and “pathmakers” — all the women of earlier generations, and even today in many parts of the world, who never had the opportunity for a discussion like this, and yet who by word and deed pushed our cultural norms — women like my mother (a home maker who raised six kids) or the little girl firewood carriers that you and I met in Ethiopia a few years ago. Compared to our own time and place, they lived and worked with severe cultural constraints, little recognition, and typically for zero pay.

I am very fortunate to have had a mother who was college educated and a full-time career pioneer as she raised her family. She would be 94 years old this year and worked as a registered nurse, then, after earning her Masters in Nursing, taught in a college RN program, before joining a home health care start-up in management. I remember my mother pulling night shifts at the local teaching hospital with her students, and all-nighters thrashing out her thesis in the extra bedroom on a manual typewriter. What I don’t remember is any sense of neglect or missing out.

As my parents aged, it was my mother’s career that stabilized our family economically. My father battled cancer and more twice over, and if my mother had not had her education and career, our own educations and futures would have been at risk. This lived experience solidified my commitment to working on behalf of girls so that more of them can access quality education and their own income streams.

It’s a new day for women, but there are still significant challenges. Women today have more opportunities, but they still work for less pay than men, experience all sorts of sexisms, and face difficult choices about career and family. As you think about our culture, what are the pros and cons of our new day?

Yes, there has been progress for women in many parts of the world, yet the idea that this progress costs men, that this is a zero sum game, persists in the minds of many. The U.S. election results were a major disappointment to me. Not just because of the individual who is now our President-Elect, but because of some of the sentiments and ‘isms’ that placed him there. The list of allowable offenses against women (and people of color) gained ground this last election cycle, with many women and Christians choosing to look the other way — including the majority of my own evangelical faith heritage.

Yet, statistics show that change is inevitable. Women with college degrees now outnumber men. In the U.S., women now control over 51% of personal wealth (and growing), fill 52% of management and related professional positions, and own 30% of businesses. And our young people learned a hard lesson about the costs of opting out. I doubt that will happen again in 2020.

The church bears its own faults, too.

Yes, sadly, I see sexism and racism in the U.S. as a crisis of the Church and its representatives (including myself) to place the Way of Jesus before nation, party, privilege, and agenda; and a failure to recognize that what Church leaders say and do, and what they don’t say and do, are equally important to God and have impact on all humans. The sin of omission receives significant attention from Jesus in the Gospels (Mt. 25:31–46, Luke 10:30–37), and later from Paul (Romans 7:14–20) and the author of James (James 4:17).

And, much of Jesus’ ministry is about the hard work of healing. Will we have the will to heal and be healed in Jesus’ Way? Meaning, will we take the personal risk to see things as they are rather than how we are? Richard Rohr observes in this week’s Advent meditation that so many of Jesus’ healings had to do with blindness, chosen blindness (John 9:41), the gradual healing of blindness (Mark 8:22–26), and the distorted worldviews that come from chosen blindness (Luke 6:39–42).

My prayer is that we the Church acknowledge this wake-up call as an opportunity to courageously grapple with the Gospel and see the justice teachings of Jesus, listen deeply to one another’s pain points, seek understanding and solutions for more, even at our own expense, and fight the injustices of sexism, racism, and disdain for the immigrant, displaced, and the poor.

What did you think of the book Lean In by the COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg?

I read many reviews and articles about Lean In, but didn’t read much of the book. Instead, I read Tara Mohr’s book Playing Big. Tara expands our notions of what qualifies as ‘important tables’ and what ‘leaning in’ might look like for a broader group of people and their life circumstances.

What’s more interesting to me is where Sheryl has moved since publishing Lean In as a result of the sudden loss of her beloved husband, Dave Goldberg, and her new experience as a single mom. I was lucky to hear her speak at my son’s UC Berkeley commencement last May. There were 30,000 people in the stadium and you could have heard a pin drop. Her words, “But I am not here to tell you all the things I’ve learned in life. Today I will try to tell you what I learned in death,” united 100% of us for 30 minutes as human beings who have and will grapple with this too. I’ll never forget it.

Sandberg is writing a new book about resilience called Option B, in the wake of her husband’s sudden death at the age of 47, her subsequent grief, and the shock that she was now a single mother.

Yes. I look forward to reading this book. If Sheryl’s moving Mother’s Day essay is any indication, this book will appeal to many women and men. Through this essay, she became an influential new voice for single mothers and fathers when she wrote, “Today, almost 30 percent of families with children are headed by a single parent, and 84 percent of those are led by a single mother. And yet our attitudes and our policies do not reflect this shift.” She continues, “The United States is the only developed economy in the world that does not provide paid maternity leave. Almost a third of working mothers don’t have access to any kind of paid leave to care for themselves or their families if someone gets sick. Instead of providing support, we all too often leave the families who are struggling the most to fend for themselves. The odds are stacked against single mothers in this country. Yet so many give everything they have and go on to raise incredible children.”

Except for people of privilege, most families today depend upon two incomes, which means that for some women work is not even a choice, it’s a necessity.

Yes, and we need to celebrate a woman’s ‘right to work’ and better support her ‘necessity to work.’ Through more humane maternity and paternity leave policies, and ‘family leave’ policies for elder care. Not to ‘be nice,’ but because it makes economic sense.

I wrote a blog post in July called “The Policies and Politics of Parenting” in response to a NYT article by Tara Siegal Bernard about companies reshaping their parental leave policies and programs to better retain valuable talent Why? Because, as Ernst & Young found, it costs “1.5 times an employee’s salary to replace them.”

The majority of US family households are dual income households, and to support moms, we need equal parental leave programs for dads. Let’s face it. Men are still the dominant influencers in corporate life, so we welcome them as partners in this venture. It will take both women and men to permanently change company cultures, and we need both to feel safe about taking their leave. A majority of men taking parental leave will reduce any residual stigma and stabilize a healthier norm for all.

A mutual friend of ours who’s a corporate attorney says she wants to write a book called “Lean Out.” What do you think?!

I think the election changed that. If we learned anything on November 8, it was that leaning out costs something BIG. And that the Gospel message itself is at risk within the U.S. Church. Every one of us needs to find the table we can influence and contribute positively to it. At work, our schools and places of worship, and in our local governments and neighborhoods. Especially women. We need to raise our good girls to be brave girls and, as Tara Mohr writes, get over our “attachment to praise and avoidance of criticism (that) keeps us from doing innovative, controversial work and, more simply, from following the paths we feel called toward, whether or not those around us understand or approve.”

Tell us about your work as one of the founders at ReBoot Career Accelerator for Women. What is ReBoot, and what do you do?

At ReBoot, we believe in the lifelong career and social impact potential of women, and are committed to equipping them to return to paid work and positions of influence following a career pause. Many of our women, aged 35–65, have been caring for family members, weathering their own health issues, or are recovering from unwelcome life changes like divorce, early widowhood, and lay-offs. Through our 32-hour career accelerator programs, we help get them current in workplace and job search technologies, connected to professional networks, and confident to pursue their next stage goals. We are in Silicon Valley, Seattle, LA, Chicago, and piloting in NYC.

This is an untapped talent pool for smart, progressive companies, and many have started return-to-work onramp programs to attract these women back. Yet, there is still a lot of work to be done. We need to change the corporate mind about the economic and ethos value of diversities, women who have paused careers and gained valuable skills while doing so, and anyone over the age of 26 in Silicon Valley. But we, and many others who share our vision, are gaining traction with hiring companies and building sustainable businesses at the same time.

What have you learned from all the many stories from women that you’ve encountered there?

The women in our program are street smart, motivated, talented, resilient, extremely focused, loyal, and excel at communication, negotiation and collaboration. All skills corporations say they need. Employers also note that their (still) sharp job skills combine with a life perspective that contributes “calm” to the decision making table, and that they get “twice the shit done” during a work day because they have to. There is a ‘second shift’ awaiting most at home.

In addition, these women have heart. The majority of them state they want to work in an environment where they can have impact for good in terms meaningful to them. While a third return to the corporate world for career and financial reasons, about one-third are pivoting to non-profit organizations, and another third are starting their own businesses.

Any recurring themes? Any surprises?

First, and it doesn’t matter whether the woman has a degree from Harvard or no college degree at all, a lack of confidence is a larger barrier to successful career reentry than mastering today’s tech skills. Research has shown that non-digital natives are quick studies and have little problem mastering the new technologies in the workplace. Especially since everyone is constantly learning. It’s all about having a growth mindset and a willingness to fail on the way to success.

Once we prove that “achieving perfection” in our rapidly changing world is no longer a viable goal for anyone, participants feel freed up. They try new things with a sense of fun and then wind up proving to themselves that they can rock the latest digital platforms as much or more than their kids. Two of our recent ‘grads’ reported back that they have become the go to experts for tech support in their new workplaces. That gives us great satisfaction.

Second, face-to-face community still counts. We may live in the digital age, but the women we serve want to learn with and lean on each other while going through transition. So much so that we started Club ReBoot, an ongoing membership and career development program that meets up to three times a month to learn new skills and practice others, together. Think of it like a gym membership and support group for your professional development.

What are you reading these days?

I’ve got three books going right now. Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Lily King’s Euphoria, and I’m self-medicating with Mary Oliver’s poetry collection, Thirst.

Here is an excerpt I’m marinating in from “In the Storm”…

Belief isn’t always easy.
But this much I have learned —
if not enough else —
to live with my eyes open.

I know what everyone wants
is a miracle.
This wasn’t a miracle,
Unless, of course, kindness —
as now and again some rare person has suggested —
is a miracle.
As surely it is.

Thank you, Beth, and keep up the good work!

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