Take a minute to slowly read the following statements, and pay attention to your reaction:
- “I am a mother, and I sometimes put my career before my family.”
- “I am a mother, and I sometimes put my family before my career.”
- “I am a father, and I sometimes put my family before my career.”
- “I am a father, and I sometimes put my career before my family.”
Chances are for 2 and 4 you were more likely to think “of course.” But for 1 and 3, perhaps your answers were more along the lines of “I’m not sure that’s a good idea?”
Now consider the following:
- What is the impact of our collective judgments about women who admit that they sometimes put their career before their family? Personally, I’ve experienced it, and it’s painful.
- And if we don’t allow ambitious women to comfortably admit that, yes, sometimes they do put their career before their children (and aging parents) without the fear of being branded a bad mother (or daughter), will they ever ascend to the highest levels of business and government in representative numbers?
- Conversely, if we don’t let men comfortably admit that, yes, sometimes they put their children (and aging parents) ahead of their career without the fear of being seen as less committed, will women continue to have to make the major and minor care giving concessions? This includes not attending after-hours networking events, or volunteering for special assignments. These compromises accumulate over time and impact pay and level.
A powerful post by CareerDiva.com’s Eve Tahminicioglu, entitled “Women need keys to executive bathrooms, not lactation rooms,” following the release of the Working Mother list of Top 100 Companies got me thinking. She pointed out, “What I found was pretty pathetic. Women leaders are few and far between at these so-called ‘best’ companies. Among many of these ‘best’ companies, women represent anywhere from zero percent to 30 percent of top executives.” In other words, the best of the best “family-friendly” programs aren’t translating into greater female representation in the upper ranks.
I agree with the Your (Wo)man in Washington blogger that this is due in large part to the low level of utilization of these corporate supports. This is because most are feel good HR benefits and perks that aren’t part of the business operating model (a subject for many other posts). But something more is going on.
I realized what it could be when I read two terrific articles in More Magazine about two high profile leaders in their fields who also happen to be mothers. One of the many things I love about More, is the “been there, done that” wisdom of the over 40 year old women they profile. Mika Brzezinski, of Morning Joe fame, and Vivian Schiller, CEO of NPR, didn’t disappoint. In both cases, these high-ranking working mothers candidly admitted, directly and indirectly, that to get where they are today required making certain decisions that put their careers before their children. Choices they were very comfortable with.
I was shocked to realize that as I read each of their stories I momentarily winced and ever-so-briefly thought, “Was that a good idea?” I did this even though:
- I am someone who freely admits that there have been times I’ve put my career ahead of my family. (As well as times I’ve put my family ahead of my career.)
- I know that the best research says children are not negatively impacted by maternal employment.
- I’ve been a parent long enough to have met plenty of great kids with mothers who have all sorts of different work+life fit realities, and
- I have four close women friends who are very senior executives with huge jobs who have wonderful relationships with their terrific, well-adjusted kids. (Note: in all cases, they do have male partners who willingly sometimes put their family before career.)
Then I thought, if I’m having this reaction, how is everyone else responding? (Read the comments under the Mika Brzezinski article to see the judgment her candor unleashed). How does this collective recoil at the thought of a working mother ever placing the demands of her job before her kids affect the ability of women to compete for top, high-profile positions with men? Because, let’s face it, men get the “of course” response when they sometimes put job before family.
Here’s the reality: If you want to be a senior leader in a large corporation, or you want to be the co-host of a national morning show, then there are going to be times that your job has to come before your care giving. I didn’t say all the time, but some times. Sometimes an out of town client meeting falls on your son’s birthday. (This actually happened to a member of my team two years in a row! It just couldn’t be avoided). Sometimes there’s an end of the day fire drill or breaking story and you need to stay late. Sometimes you have to catch an early train for a meeting and you can’t kiss your child good morning. Sometimes, like NPRs Schiller, you may even choose to commute to another city every week for two years so you don’t have to relocate your family. It’s not that everyone is going to make these choices, but these are the compromises top people, men and women, make to get to where they are.
There are those who would argue that the solution is to make the workload required to ascend the ranks less demanding and time-consuming. Unfortunately, in today’s 24/7, always on, global, competitive environment you will never be able to engineer all of the extra time and energy requirements of senior level work out of the system. Therefore, how do we support, and not condemn, the women who do what they feel they need to do to for themselves and their families to achieve their professional goals? Here are some thoughts:
- Like me, consciously catch yourself when you start judging the work+life fit decisions of anyone (men and women), because we really don’t know anything about their lives and their work.
- When talking to women and men with responsibilities at work and at home, ask them about both! It shows that both aspects of their lives have value. I find a tendency to ask women about their kids, and men about their jobs.
- Ladies, let’s celebrate all of the unique work+life fit choices we all make! Cheer on a sister who has ambitiously climbed to the top rung of their chosen profession while caring for their children and/or aging relatives in the best way that works for them. Recent research proves that when women advance to top levels it makes it better for all women. But we must stop the defensive judgment of each other! It hurts and it keeps us stuck.
I applaud Brzezinski and Schiller for ascending to the highest ranks of their fields by making choices that worked for their circumstances and not letting the collective recoil get in the way. However, I can’t help but wonder how many capable, ambitious women are held back, no matter how generous the work-life supports in their organizations, by the judgment that limits their ability to periodically and comfortably put their career before care giving.
Oh by the way, today I didn’t bring the gym clothes my 6th grader forgot to school because I had too much work to do (including writing this post). Was she mad? Yup. Am I am bad mom?…careful how you answer that.