I recently saw a program about mothers being discriminated against in the workforce–particularly when interviewing for jobs. The discussion certainly brought back some of my working nightmares. There’s no doubt working moms is a tough issue. I well remember the tension it created with my colleagues when I still had kids at home. The perception existed the boss was less demanding on me than my colleagues who were single or had no kids. They felt I was favored when requests were made to work late, or to work on the weekends or to take long business trips.
I can appreciate why they felt that way. In retrospect I’m sure our boss was too accommodating to my competing demands with childcare and related issues. She knew the responsibility of caring for the kids fell on me far more than their father. But in all fairness to my colleague it shouldn’t have been them who picked up the pieces at work because of the unequal balance of the home responsibility between me and my ex-husband. Even though I never asked for special treatment I have to admit I certainly wasn’t out there protesting her sensitivity and responsiveness to my personal home situation.
I can well remember my own internal conflict over this and asking myself if it was my responsibility to force her to treat us all the same. I put in my hours, did what was asked of me. I certainly didn’t burn the midnight oil staying up to get promoted or assigned to the more demanding (and possibly exciting) tasks. I was just trying to survive juggling my multiple roles. But they were taking on extra work, burning the midnight oil, going way more than the extra mile to get ahead. From that vantage point I can appreciate their take on the way things at work played out and why they felt as they did.
I think my role as a mother helped me bring a different perspective to our work place–a perspective which was BADLY needed at times. I think I was better at navigating our team dynamics which could almost cripple our work at times. The team was composed of highly competent, very skilled professionals. Not surprisingly they were also a very ambitious bunch. Consequently, their personal, professional and career goals fostered a lot of competition among the group. Unfortunately, their desire to get ahead of other team members sometimes lead to counterproductive behavior when they didn’t want to collaborate and share the stage with their colleagues.
At times I saw in our team interaction and dynamics what I often saw in my kids sibling rivalry. I believe my parenting recognition that great stuff came in all kinds of different packages (and you love ’em all the same despite these differences) helped navigate the team dynamics a bit better. That “mother-skill” to realize not everything is and must be created equal helped me to avoid the flawed belief all members of a work team must be near clones to qualify for the same job title or equivalent pay scale. But there’s still the issue of the workload.
But they weren’t unique in this behavior. Over the years I’ve observed this kind of jockeying and work scenario being played out a great deal. It is just not that uncommon. However, too often gender and “mommyhood” gets caught up in all these forces at play when it comes to assignments and promotions and perceptions about people carrying their fair share of the workload. And that’s where the workload issue gets very dicey.
I had a no-kids colleague who used to talk about the “militant mommies.” There was a lot of resentment on her part that she was being hit with the double whammy of having to pick up the slack because of family-friendly policies favoring women (and men) with kids. At the same time she was perceived as being anti-kid because she would complain when she had to work the extra time and was forced to do “their” work–at least that’s how she saw it. She certainly had a point and I can’t fault her for feeling taken advantage of and feeling like SHE was the one who was truly being discriminated against.
But I can’t help but wonder if the “high speed elevator to success syndrome” that drove the working decisions of many of my colleagues wasn’t somewhat at play too. At the time I was not (and still am not) highly ambitious. Don’t get me wrong, I want to do a good job and be successful at what I do. But I don’t necessarily want to be THE BOSS OR THE PENULTIMATE EXPERT. Work is not my life–wasn’t then and isn’t now. I try to do a good job and meet my employer’s expectations. But I also try to keep balance in my life.
However expectations for acceptable job performance can be driven by the goals and objectives of colleagues who want to take a high speed elevator to the top of an organization. Their willingness to go the extra 1000 miles creates a difficult if not hostile working environment making it almost impossible for colleagues who want to have and enjoy a family and life outside of the office. There’s no sense talking about fairness in the workplace in this kind of situation. There is no fairness for anyone–not for the person who wants to be the superstar or for the person who wants to do a good job but have a relatively normal life as well.
Many years ago I read a book called “When Work is Home and Home is Work.” It highlighted some of the difficult issues facing employees particularly those in the mid- and top management jobs working in an ever escalating and demanding work environment. There’s no such thing as a 40, 50 or 60 hour work week. If you want to succeed in today’s demanding workplace you have to be willing to put in the extra hours, the late nights, the weekends.
Here’s where the crunch comes for working moms–they can’t. They can’t because they’ll burn out or bomb. The days and dreams of believing “you can have it all and do it all baby” violently crashed around the women who grew up with that as their mantra. Sadly, many who did try to have it all are now paying the price in failed relationships with their significant others and with their kids.
My area of professional expertise is gender–girls’ education. I know the research and the literature about discrimination against women—–and I believe we have to create working environments and policies that try to level the playing field. One of the pieces of advice I’ve seen around all the debate of mommy profiling is that women shouldn’t have pictures of their kids on the wall, they shouldn’t have key chains featuring photos of their children, they shouldn’t let people know they are a mother. I’m very uneasy about all of this.
I don’t have the key chain with the kids photos but I certainly have pictures of my grandkids on my bulletin board in my office. And I think about my own daughter with four kids of her own. Any company would be extremely lucky to get her as an employee. She’s hard working, responsible, highly creative, smart, a solid team player, ethical and goes the extra mile in everything she does.
But I know she’ll have photos of her kids somewhere out for view in her office. And even though she probably won’t have the key chain of kid photos I know her camera won’t be far away. I’m sure she’d be more than willing to share with you her photo of the day of one of her treasures. And I also know if something happened to one of her kids and she got a call from the school she was needed—she’d be out of her office in a nanosecond. And I am really saddened to think that there are employers out there who believe that makes her less desirable despite all the incredible things she brings to the workforce.
I’m going through our performance review process at work right now. I’m in charge of a team of about 40 people. I am directly responsible for the performance evaluation of four of my key advisors. I had five but the fifth is a woman and mother who resigned about a month ago. She’s taken a part-time job closer to home with fewer hours that let’s her spend more time with her 9 year old boy and 4 year old girl.
I’m glad I won’t have to deal with the “mommy issue” this year. She had to take a lot of sick days off with H1N1 closings at her kids’ schools, chicken pox, several bouts of the flu and some school programs she was required to attend. Only one of the three men working under my direct supervision has asked for a day off work because of child care issues and then only once as I recall. What’s the level playing field here?
There’s nothing easy about about this question. And there’s lots of women who lose out because of the discrimination that continues to exist. But any organization that can’t find a way to work around women (and men) with children and create a working environment with family-friendly policies that builds on those skills and experiences is the ultimate loser in the end.