Breaking Down Stereotype #2–It’s a Mothers’ Issue

We start the off the new year by examining the belief that work+life challenges are a “mothers’ issue.” If a stereotype is a “standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion,” then this is a perfect example. It’s true that working mothers can struggle with how to combine work and motherhood (I know, because I am one), but that is only one piece of a much bigger, and more complex reality.

Motherhood is one of the biggest and most visible work+life choice points. You see that a woman is pregnant. You are aware that she has the baby. And her subsequent decisions related to caring for the baby and working are also very visible; therefore, it’s easy to assume that this is an issue that primarily affects moms. However, if we want to create new, innovative models for combining work and life in today’s 24/7, high-tech, global work environment, businesses, the media, and the government, as well as individuals must use facts to expand their focus beyond limiting stereotypes.

Otherwise, we will continue to ask the wrong questions that keep us running is circles on this issue

Here’s the Proof

The Work+Life Fit Reality Check Survey asked respondents: “Which of the following would you say that work-life balance typically is?” Here are the responses from a representative sample of full-time employees:

A mom’s issue: 4% (Men, 1%; Women 7%)
A married person’s issue: 2% (Men, 4%; Women 1%)
An issue for everyone: 93% (Men, 95%; Women 90%)

Further evidence can be found in a New Year’s survey of global consumers in 46 countries conducted by ACNielsen, a global research group, “Striking a better balance between work and play, taking more time for exercise, and avoiding disastrous relationships top resolution lists around the work this year.” That’s for both men and women—not just women.

Consider the experience of one of my corporate clients. Initially, the development of this organization’s flexibility strategy was to be part of its women’s initiative. (This is not unusual). But when employee survey data uncovered that women were not the only ones struggling with how to combine work and life, it quickly became a company-wide initiative. In fact the survey found that men, single people, and those with over 11 hours of eldercare a week were having even more trouble than the women!

What’s the problem?

What would have happened if my client had continued to isolate workplace flexibility within their women’s initiative? They would have rolled out a strategy that helped women, but excluded individuals with other challenges who were also struggling. It would be like having half of your employees in life boats and then rescuing only the women.

Thankfully, my client let the facts move them beyond their stereotypical thinking to create a strategy based on the right questions that will encompass all work+life transitions:

• What does “work” look like in today’s reality?
• How can we expand the definition of “best and brightest” to include all sorts of different work+life choices?
• What’s the employee’s role in setting mutually-beneficial boundaries when they experience a work+life transition?
• What’s the employer’s role?
• How do we capture and scale the best practices of managers and employees who intuitively “get it,” who have moved beyond the short-term “just do it or leave” mentality too many people still operate under?
• How do we reward managers who take a long-term approach to employee career management, and employees who take the initiative to propose thoughtful work+life alternatives as needed?

While the degree of challenge depends upon the magnitude of each person’s unique work and personal circumstances, we all face work+life transitions. Whether you are a new mother or father, a son or daughter facing the care of an aging parent, a baby boomer hoping to work in retirement, or a new graduate wanting to get to the gym periodically or go out on a date, these changes in circumstance require a new way of thinking and behaving. But, as was the case with my corporate client, we won’t get there if we don’t expand our scope.

Why does it matter?

Not only will workplace flexibility innovations fall short, but the “mothers’ issue” stereotype is hurting women. Why? It creates an expectation that unnecessarily undermines the hiring and advancement of women. (Cornell study).

Becoming a mother is a huge transition (again, I know), and it does cause you to reevaluate your work+life fit equation. But the same can be said for the younger generation of fathers. Not to mention the men and women experiencing all of the other transitions I mentioned above. In fact, the employees who stayed to talk with me following a recent corporate seminar were three men under 25 years old who had no family responsibilities but were glad to know that flexibility existed for them if they needed it in future. No one is immune, so to penalize women as the only ones who will require support is wrong.

What’s the new stereotype?

Effectively responding to work+life transitions in a 24/7, high-tech global work reality is an issue for everyone. Some transitions, including parenthood, will be bigger than others. But they all require a new approach, by both individuals and organizations.

When developing new models for work+life success, we all need to resist the temptation to analyze this issue through the outdated “mothers’ only” lens. Not only does it represent a small slice of a much bigger pie, it’s inadvertently hurts the same women it’s intended to help, while ignoring the work+life challenges faced by countless others.