Here's One Way to Honor Women's Equality Day: Check Your Bias When It Comes to Working Mothers
Five myths about working mothers leaders need to stop perpetuating.
“And who stays with your son in the afternoon?” the nurse had asked, furiously pecking away at the keyboard as she captured all the answers to her questions at that annual physical checkup. What is he eating these days? Does he nap in the afternoon? When is he starting school full time?
“With our nanny,” I had replied, helping him put his shoes back on.
“Not with you?” the nurse had asked, surprised.
“Umm, no, I work and so….”
“Ohhh.” A long pause. Her eyebrows arched high, and a judgmental smile slowly crept across her face.
“The doctor will see you now. You can head into the Dora the Explorer room.”
I felt the steam rising from my face as I managed to gather myself, my child and my bag, which was overflowing with granola bars, fruit snacks, crayons, paper, a water bottle — anything he might need. All the while I was wondering: How is the question of who stays with my child in the afternoons relevant to the annual checkup?
Today, August 26, marks the 100th anniversary of the 1920 adoption of the 19th Amendment. Today is about celebrating women's right to vote (though women of color were not able to vote until much later.) It’s also a reminder of the continued struggle for gender equality — for men and women to enjoy the same rights and opportunities in society. It's about the right to vote, but it's also about education, economic participation and the continued struggle for women (and working mothers) to be as valued for their professional aspirations as men (and working fathers).
Every day, working mothers are faced with verbal and nonverbal snubs, comments and slights known as micro aggressions. They happen during a work presentation, out at dinner with your family or even at the doctor’s office. Like the incident with our nurse, they can be innocent and unintentional. No one means to make us feel that way, but the negative messages make us doubt ourselves and over time shatter our senses of value and worth.
Here are five myths our society to perpetuate about working mothers. These become part of our unconscious bias and help create the story we start to tell about all working mothers we know, and then they become universal truths.
1. Working mothers want to slow down their careers when they first become mothers
“When you see that baby in your arms, your career priorities will change,” a senior leader espoused to me when I revealed I was pregnant with my son. “Don’t worry about the promotion, it will happen when it’s meant to happen,” he kindly reassured me.
"Women want to slow down their careers when they first become mothers." "They need the additional time to heal, to nurse and bond with their children, and to reassess their priorities." First-time working mothers are not a monolith; we don’t all act, think and feel the same way. Let first-time mothers tell you what they want before creating a story of what you think they want.
When former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer took less than a month of maternity leave after she had twins, she was slammed by critics. "I understand I'm the exception," she tweeted, adding that she finds "other ways/times to bond with my kids."
When men become fathers for the first time, are we scrutinizing how much leave they are taking and having conversations with them on slowing down their careers?
2. Working mothers are looking for as much flexibility as possible when it comes their careers
When I first moved from marketing to human resources to lead inclusion efforts, my daughter was nine months old. It was a big promotion, a big job and more responsibility and opportunity to have an impact than I had ever had in my career.
Instead of the usual “Congratulations,” “This is so well deserved,” and “So excited for you!” the biggest response and assumption people had? You must be moving to HR to get more work-life balance and work less, right?
Ironically, working on inclusion in HR has meant I work longer hours (and harder) than I have in past roles. I was unprepared at times for the intense level of emotional exhaustion those jobs bring.
Job-sharing, flexible working and part-time opportunities should be available to all employees. Although this might be an option some working mothers want, it’s not something all working mothers need.
Are we asking working fathers about the level of flexibility they need in their careers?
3. Working mothers don’t need to or want to make as much as money
“You don’t have to worry about money; your husband makes more than enough,” a female colleague once said to me. “You should just stay home with your kids.” This female colleague was also a working mother. We can’t just assume that men are the only ones who perpetuate stereotypes about working mothers — everyone is guilty, even fellow working mothers.
According to the New York Times, men’s earnings increased more than 6 percent when they had children, while women’s decreased 4 percent for each child they had. The argument to support this could be that working mothers take time off from the workforce and slow down their careers, so it’s not that we are purposely punishing women for having children and celebrating working fathers.
Or do we fail to compensate working mothers as fairly as working fathers because we believe that for working mothers it’s optional to work, and therefore we don’t need to work as hard to retain them?
4. Working mothers can’t travel as much or take on big assignments
“Your kids are still young. You don’t want to be accelerating your career now.”
“You can’t take on that assignment. You don’t want to travel and be away from your kids.”
These are things that have been said to me and so many other working mothers during the course of our careers. After all, if I'm traveling for work or working long hours, who will watch my children?
The well-documented phenomenon known as the motherhood penalty was coined by sociologists to describe the systemic bias mothers face in the workplace. The Bright Horizons 2018 Annual Modern Family Index highlights the motherhood penalty in action at organizations around the country, and it reveals that 60 percent of working Americans say that career opportunities are given to less qualified employees instead of mothers who are more skilled.
It takes a village to raise children. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Au pairs, nannies and babysitters. Teachers, neighbors and friends. Day cares and after-school programs. Stay at home spouses. You can’t make any assumptions on who makes up our villages.
Are we asking working fathers about their ability to travel or take on big assignments?
5. Working mothers are superwomen. How do we do it all?
A mentee leaning in to ask me over the video screen: "So, how do you do it all?" (I whispered the secret password over Zoom and express-mailed her my magic cape.)
How do we do it all? None of us can do it alone. Continuing to perpetuate the idea of the superwoman working mother makes all working mothers feel like we have to work harder and faster, especially during the past few months.
Are we asking working fathers how they do it all? Are we celebrating working fathers as supermen?
Finally, all of the above is damaging to the stay-at-home partners and stay-at-home dads. Believing these myths is falling prey to century-old stereotypes and cultural norms of what roles women and men should play when it comes to home and work.
So when you decide to post about Women's Equality Day today on your social channels, please go beyond a cool image, a quote and the same old platitudes. Think about how you can honor today by checking your bias and ask the following: “If this were a working father, would I be asking this question or making this assumption?”
When the answer to the above becomes yes, we are one step closer to equality. Then we can celebrate the progress we have made for working mothers — on Women's Equality Day and every day.
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