I want to discuss a dramatic incident that occurred recently at work. If I hadn’t known it already, it demonstrated very clearly what American corporate values are about the importance of family.

For two days I did mock job interviews with MBA students at an Ivy League business school, sponsored by their Career Center. This was to prepare them for the real job interviews they will have soon afterwards with the biggest, hottest, most competitive companies today: McKinsey, Bain, Google, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, and others. Each student got a turn in the "Hot Seat" Needless to say, these MBAs are extremely bright, ambitious, hard-working and, for the most part, personable. The majority of them were men, from all over the world.

My job was to play the toughest interviewer these students could possibly face. I had a group of four students for two hours, during which time each student got a turn in the "Hot Seat." I grilled each one in front of their peers, asking them tough questions designed to make them look bad (e.g., "What is your most significant weakness?", "Tell me about a time when you made a mistake", etc.) Most of the time, they stumbled, digressed, and gave basically awkward answers. Afterwards, the other students and I coached the "Hot Seat" person on how they could improve.

John was fairly typical except that he was a native of the U.S. He was 30 years old, single, and, as he proudly told me, a 9th generation North Carolinian. He was also a nice guy — polite, soft-spoken, and respectful.

After college, John had worked as a supervisor for big U.S. construction projects — urban skyscrapers, massive retail stores, and sprawling suburban housing developments. Now, John told us, he wanted to go into investment banking ("IB.") Investment bankers have interesting work, make starting salaries in the six figures, and are generally expected to work 15 hours a day, 6 days a week.

Accordingly, during the interview I asked John, "Imagine you were deeply involved in a big-numbers deal, with a client you have been courting for a long time. It was the 11th hour, at a critical point in the negotiations. Precisely at that moment, you needed to leave if you were going to make it to your sister's wedding in North Carolina. What would you do?" There was a sudden spike of tension in the room. Without even glancing over, I could tell that all of John’s colleagues were intensely focused on his reply, wondering, "What is he going to say? What would I say if I was asked the same question?"

John hemmed and hawed, then tentatively ventured that he would try to find some kind of compromise. I immediately rejected that, saying there could be no compromise — he was the one who had courted the client and now he had to be the one there to finish the deal. The tension in the room was palpably higher now, and it was increasing as his stalling continued. Finally, he reluctantly said, "Well, in that case, I would stay and finish the deal."

Dead silence.

I even wrote "Ouch!" in my notes

You could feel the shock in the room – wow, he actually said it. Although everyone knew that he gave the "correct" answer, we all flinched. I even wrote "Ouch!" in my notes. After a deep breath, I went on with the mock interview.

After the interview, it was time for feedback. No one out-and-out condemned his decision, but the discomfort was lurking in the background. When it was my turn, he sheepishly admitted, "I do have three sisters but they’re all married already so I’m safe." To that bit of short-sighted thinking, I replied, "OK, so what if it was the birth of your first child? Or your child’s school graduation?" He replied, "My family will have to understand that my work comes first."

Again, wow. I was floored. We all knew that this was what he was supposed to say, according to the dictates of American business culture. But still. What kind of family life does he think he will have? What woman would want to be married to a guy who will rarely be there, will certainly be unreliable and will explicitly make her and his own children second-fiddle to his job? And what will his kids think and feel about their own father and family life in general as they grow up?

By the way, lest you think I posed a purely fictional scenario to John, during John’s feedback session another student reported a real event he knew of: A woman in IB who was in the middle of a deal did indeed leave for personal reasons, in her case to go to a funeral. In the middle of the funeral, she got an email telling her to return immediately (which of course means that she was checking her Blackberry during the funeral, which already tells you something about the competing priorities and ambivalence in her life.) However, she chose not return to work right away — and lost her job.

This whole interaction dramatized a few things to me. First, I believe that John as a man felt more able, perhaps entitled, to state that he expects his family or other roles to be completely subordinated to his work role. That traditional gender-role expectation is alive and well — he expects his wife to fully cover the home front while he earns the (excellent) living, which will be his primary contribution to his home. Because he therefore plans to be able to conform to American business expectations, he can freely and clearly state what those expectations are, of work-family balance.

He expects his wife to fully cover the home front while he earns the (excellent) living

I think only a man could declare his complete, primary commitment to work this plainly, even though women at this level also have to face and deal with the same workplace expectations. He expects that his wife would take care of any children fulltime — most women I know do not start out expecting the same role from their husbands, and certainly not on a fulltime, permanent basis. I personally cannot imagine a woman making similar declarations as clearly or as relatively conflict-free as John did.

We women generally are more conscious of and attuned to our current and future relationships, and the impact of our choices on them, even if work is a primary responsibility. Rightly or wrongly, I would have been much more shocked to have heard this decision and expectation from a woman, probably because I cannot imagine a woman so blithely committing herself to a life without children, or without children that she would see much of. Regardless, any man or woman who wants this kind of job and also wants a family life would always feel pulled in two incompatible directions.

Of course, it’s one thing for these young-ish women and men to say that’s what they will do, and another for them to actually live it out. Who knows what they will really do when faced with a sick child? An elderly parent who needs surgery? The wedding or funeral of someone close to them?

Most of us choose a solution in advance: We do not put ourselves in this kind of work/life situation. Regardless though, there is a trickle-down effect of these extreme work expectations onto the rest of us.

The drama of how some MBAs choose to subvert their personal life to work forced me to think yet again about my own work/life choices. It has fed my ongoing pondering about the fit of work and the rest of life for women, especially Jewish women. For mothers (or anyone), the potential options are to work full-time, part-time, or not work for pay at all. Of course, all of these options require other lifestyle choices – a lot of women must work to stay afloat financially and provide on the most basic levels for their children. Others that do not work full-time for pay, pare their living expenses down to the bone in order to make their choice work. That said, there are some gray areas with the women I know, who could do the latter but don’t choose to, for a variety of reasons. I therefore know working mothers who work fulltime, who work part-time, and who do not work for pay at all. And few are entirely satisfied with their lot.

I tried to explain that I didn’t mean anything negative about her working full-time

From what I’ve seen, the working mothers feel guilty, because the large amount of time and attention they devote to work do not go to their families. I recently spoke with the full-time working mother of one of my daughter’s classmates, to make an after-school play-date for the girls. The conversation drifted into the number of after-school activities in which her four children are enrolled. I exclaimed, with both admiration and bafflement, "Wow, how do you get everyone everywhere, especially when you work full-time?" (Thinking to myself, "Gosh, I only have two kids that have one extra-curricular activity each per week, and it’s a struggle for me to get each of them there and back!") To what I thought was an innocent question, the other mother retorted, "Why? Just because I work full-time, does that mean that my children don’t get to do after-school activities?!" Oops! I tried to explain that I didn’t mean anything negative about her working full-time, but I don’t know if I was successful. I do know that I inadvertently treaded on a nerve.

The full-time moms, on the other hand, have different issues. I have heard them wonder if they ever could go back to work. Primarily this is because they fear they could not get a job in something they would want because their professional skills have atrophied or were not well-developed to begin with. They also often feel financial pressure, and feel out of touch, undervalued, and even invisible in terms of the "larger" world. No wonder, given the American values discussed above.

A former public relations executive I’ll call Michelle is just now finding a way to work part-time after being a fulltime mom for five years. She used to do international PR – as an example, had she been working, she might have been active in talking to the media to try to bolster the world’s perception of Israel during the recent Lebanon war. Michelle recently said to me, "How do you go back and forth, between being a Mommy and the corporate world?" She’s having a lot of trouble figuring out how to play both roles, and her self-confidence was initially shaky about making the part-time role work. Her confidence built quickly, however, as she got more "hits" (e.g., successes in getting journalists to write positively about her clients in various news outlets.)

Michelle’s situation fits with the majority of working mom’s I know. They tend to work part-time and/or from home in some fashion, often in jobs oriented to children. I know women who run home-based playgroups, teach, work as some kind of therapist (mental health, occupational, physical, speech, etc.), coach kids in drama, serve as summer camp directors or counselors, and do computer programming.

Her self-confidence was initially shaky about making the part-time role work

I myself work part-time. That’s how I choose to solve the work/family equation, even though my profession is not really set up to be part-time and is less friendly than others to parenting. As a person who likes to do everything (I care about) well, it is hard to do anything part-time when that means doing it part-way. This means that I do a good job on what I undertake for work, but what I undertake overall is generally speaking far less in quantity or challenge than my professional capabilities. Because my qualifications fit the needs of the corporate world, I also would make a lot more money if I worked full-time. But given the values of American business today, and the lack of esteem for time or energy given to anything but work, there are no job structures that fit my values, so therefore, visiting that world for a short time and then going home, like my trip last week, feels like the best decision I can make at this time.

Clearly, most working mothers (and fathers) do not and have not made John’s choice. In fact, we turn ourselves inside-out, into pretzels, trying to structure our lives so that we can work AND participate in our family lives the way we’d want to, at least for the most part. But we need to remember what the pressures are out there... and hope that in time things shift for the better, for our children.