If You Want Women to Move Up, You Have to Accommodate Mothers
I got mixed reactions when I brought my 6-month-old daughter to a recent professional conference. Several people pointedly ignored us. One person asked if I was the speaker’s wife; another rushed over to me in the plenary session to say she was “proud” of me for being so “brave” as to take my baby to a conference. Many stared, and I heard a couple of comments about the need for better maternity leave and conference day care.
As someone fairly senior in my organization, I have been encouraged, supported and welcomed as a mother. It was surprising to have people react to my daughter as if she were an alien in this similar professional space.
Between panels, I did what I have done thousands of times—sent a quick tweet commenting on my day: “At a massive professional conference. Brought the baby. People seem astounded. Here’s the thing: If you want women in positions of authority, you have to get comfortable with motherhood. You’re welcome.”
The tweet went viral. In the first day, it received roughly 1,000 “likes” an hour. I was inundated with comments from women and men who shared stories about how their mom brought them to conferences, the lab, class or on rounds at the hospital, helping to spark a passion for their current profession and shape their adult lives. Women also told of being turned away from professional settings because they brought their still-nursing infants with them.
In subsequent discussions with women concerning what it would mean for organizations to “get comfortable with motherhood,” two themes emerged: Working moms need flexibility in how they get their job done, and they want recognition of their professional commitment and abilities. To the extent organizations can meet these two needs, they are well-positioned to retain female talent and enjoy the advantages of a diverse leadership team.
Hands down, the greatest need working mothers articulate is for increased flexibility at work. People, particularly women, lose significant control over their daily lives when they become parents. Day care won’t take kids with fevers. Children with chronic health issues or developmental challenges can spend a lot of time at appointments. Snow days, teacher work days, a sick babysitter—any of these can require a quick change in a working mom’s day.
Working mothers recognize their responsibility to meet their organization’s mission. “Flexibility” does not mean absolution from responsibility. It may mean having the ability to work from home, video-conference to a meeting, work fewer but longer days each week, or another arrangement that allows the mom to get the job done without needing to be in the office during business hours every day.
Companies can make organizational shifts to support flexibility—using a project-based, as opposed to hours-based, system of personnel accounting; providing child care on-site to reduce commute time; providing hospital-grade pumps in lactation rooms with locking doors at multiple points across the organization.
More ambitiously, companies could allow employees to “job share” for a time—for example, one employee assumes the local responsibilities for a position, while a different employee covers the travel requirements for that job. Companies might also allow working mothers to “ramp down” at reduced pay. Instead of working on five projects simultaneously, a working mom could work on three until her child enters preschool (or over the summer), then return to her normal load.
As more millennials enter the workforce, corporations might consider how flexible work plans could benefit employees beyond working mothers. Adopting these alternative work arrangements for working mothers today can allow managers to figure out which options fit the culture and tempo of their organization, in order to roll them out to wider groups of workers over time. This would enable not only working moms but anyone who doesn’t perform optimally in an 8-to-5 desk job to thrive professionally.
Women I talked to also noted the desire for recognition. Every working mom knows she has to carry her weight. If that were the only requirement, working mothers would be likelier to stay in the workforce and continue to advance. Unfortunately, they also have to fight well-documented bias that automatically identifies working mothers as less committed and less capable than their peers who are fathers.
Leaders who counter that prejudice by providing clear, practical acknowledgment of those women’s accomplishments—in staff meetings, company newsletters, team lead selection, annual performance reviews and bonuses—are likely to retain and promote motivated, effective women.
Mothers who work in environments that maintain a gender- and parent-neutral culture of recognition are cultivated professionally in reinforcing ways—by managers who publicly acknowledge their talent and performance, and over time by peers who are made aware of these women’s accomplishments by leadership. Over time, public recognition erodes the biases working mothers face. This motivates mothers to stay in the workforce for longer periods of time, to continue to push themselves professionally in anticipation of future recognition, and ultimately to be in a position to advance to more-senior levels.
Flexibility and recognition are the keys to working mothers’ ability to thrive. While these insights are hardly revolutionary, they could bring significant change to organizations that take them seriously. The greatest change will be more highly qualified, high-performing women in positions of authority—and a more welcoming environment for my daughter when she reaches working age.
Ms. Johnson is dean of academics at the Marine Corps War College.