On August 25th 2012, The Economist published an article entitled “The Mommy Track”. The subtitle read: The real reason why more women don’t rise to the top of companies.
Several factors hold women back at work. Too few study science, engineering, computing or maths. Too few push hard for promotion. Some old-fashioned sexism persists, even in hip, liberal industries. But the biggest obstacle (at least in most rich countries) is children. However organised you are, it is hard to combine family responsibilities with the ultra-long working hours and the “anytime, anywhere” culture of senior corporate jobs. A McKinsey study in 2010 found that both women and men agreed: it is tough for women to climb the corporate ladder with teeth clamped around their ankles…
I’ve been a mother for exactly 13 months and I can attest to this. The fact that company recruiters already gave me very discouraging looks after mentioning my child, makes it fairly easy to imagine Schumpeter’s points. The article is enlightening and I believe it necessary to tackle the issues concerning hiring women who are on their way to or are already building families.
Normally, my analysis would be oriented towards the redefinition of the metrics of success; proposing various alternatives to feel prosperous other than reaching the “top”. Afterwards, there would automatically be questions about how far each one of us want to go and whether it’s worth the sacrifice. The methodology is valid but this time, I shall take the article’s context as a hard given: some working mothers want managerial positions and dream of being part of the C-suite someday. This is a very real premise and one that is highly admirable, because to nurture such ambition takes a strong character and the tenacity of an ant soldier.
Theory versus practice
In theory, recruiters (at least in rich countries) are legally prohibited to inquire whether a female candidate is pregnant or if she has plans to get pregnant in the short-term*. But there are ways to go around the subject, de facto: they make inquiries about how important family is to the candidate, they ask how they would define commitment to work, et cetera… It has come to such extremes where in some countries, a gestating woman’s chances of getting hired is so low that lying about it has become common practice.
Other indicators used are the female candidate’s age and the information about our civil status. The hiring team adds one with the other and they draw estimations regarding: how long it would take for the female candidate/future employee to want to have a baby, whether someone who already has a child would want another, how many years from now would that be, and so forth. Of course, the logic does not always apply. And chances are if you ask any HR personnel, they would deny even imagining doing this sort of thing. I suppose that would remain something for them to know and for us to find out.
I’ll never get tired of mentioning that one time where I was being interviewed for the position I’ve dreamed of ever since college. Everything was going well, the manager and the direct supervisor of the post seemed to be impressed with my resumé, my answers, my proposed solutions and immediate actions… until I told them that I have a son.
He was still 6 months old by that time and barely a month had passed since he was checked out of the hospital**. I had to be transparent about my personal situation because that is part of what I am- my ethics dictate that I be honest and offer alternatives so that my professional commitment would not be affected. They didn’t consider it, though. The two of them- males in their early 40’s to be exact- just stared at each other and awkwardly tried to regain their composure long enough to finish the interview.
Equal opportunities mean nothing as long as we encourage unequal conditions
Men and women are now offered equal opportunities to enter in the profession of their choice. It took centuries, but universities have opened up to give women the chance to get full university degrees on whichever field they want. However, it’s the post-Uni life that sets all the difference.
Albeit the fact that more women are hired in companies, there is also the glaring reality that not many women make it to the top. Those who do, appear to have achieved it in exchange for huge sacrifices in their personal lives. Thus, from what I have seen, heard and experienced it would seem that the path towards corporate success has been molded for men workers. At least, it seems to be an easier hike for men than for women, especially for the latter who have children. Schumpeter cites a perfect example of this:
Schumpeter sat down with a mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer who says that, before starting a family, she was prepared to “give blood” to meet deadlines. After the anklebiters appeared, she took a job in corporate strategy at an engineering firm in Paris. She found it infuriating. Her male colleagues wasted time during the day—taking long lunches, gossiping over café au lait—but stayed late every evening. She packed her work into fewer hours, but because she did not put in enough “face time” the firm felt she lacked commitment. She soon quit.
In many cultures, “face time” is still being used as the most important indicator of a worker’s commitment to his job (very sadly so). This could be necessary for certain jobs where giving clients more time means higher revenues. Yet for others, it just doesn’t make sense to follow suit. Still, it is a common practice. It wouldn’t matter if those who stayed late in the office were working or surfing the internet- remaining in the office and keeping your boss company is a statement. A statement which (very wrongly) says, “Look at me, boss! I’ll be here in case you need me, while all my uncommitted colleagues have gone home avoiding work.” This is a very twisted way of getting the message across, but unfortunately that’s how things work. Changes in corporate culture might mean overcoming this mentality but even in firms where change is already being applied, people’s habits still get the best of them.
Simultaneously, it could also be observed how society encourages this one-track street to professional advancement. Notice how some of your friends and family members automatically suppose that it’s the mother’s role to stay and take care of the baby after birth. It is true that legally, paternity leaves are only recently starting to gain more importance. But that just shows how much society is still very biased against professional women, doesn’t it?
Thankfully, several countries are already implementing the “shared parental leave” system. This scheme gives both father and mother the chance to stay home and care for the baby according to what arrangement suits them best. However, we should also be very honest and ask ourselves: are we ready for this?
Many people who knew me as a workaholic went aghast when I told them how long I’ve gone without working. Or better said, how long I’ve gone without a paid job. Because I always say the same thing to anybody who cares to listen: It’s been a year since my last employment contract but I have never been busier, more active, more loaded and more swamped with tasks, responsibilities and projects. If I were being paid for all that I am doing right now, I’d be swimming in Chanel bags while editing this post.
The problem is, the current system does not recognize all the work done. As far as recruiters are concerned, there is a gaping one year hole in my resumé. And it is up to me to create conditions that would allow me to fill that void, letting them know I’ve not been idle.
Freedom to celebrate our femininity or additional ball and chains?
Women’s rights have come so far as favoring mothers to regain their old jobs after maternity leave. In fact in Europe, there exists a possibility of working less hours a week for proportionally less salary (not exclusive for mothers, but they’re usually the ones requesting this contract modification). What bothers me is that I’ve never met anyone under this working condition to have been promoted to a higher position. Furthermore, it’s troubling to realize the fact that I have never met a father who has even thought of working less hours to be able to share household work/family time with his wife.
The fact of the matter is that once they are mothers, women are usually faced with a conundrum to solve: progress in career or quality time for family? I know not many men bothered by this riddle.
This is almost embarrassing to confess (embarrassing for him, not for me), but I actually met an executive of a company who admittedly “favors” those who on maternity leave check in from time to time in the form of an e-mail or a phone call. Conversely, he is quite critical of those who “can’t even take 5 minutes to check on their teams and reply to urgent messages”. He then proceeded by saying that it all comes down to the person’s interest towards growth and their commitment to their jobs, of course
(I’m leaving you this space for any type of reaction you might have)
While there are such bosses possessing this outlook and the corresponding attitude, the fact is that mothers on-leave are far from turning into obsolete workers. They are actually expanding their skill set while taking care of a newborn! the new experience has just undoubtedly enriched her as a human being. Likewise, it has most probably given her a chance to improve competences that would make her a better professional.
Need I mention the requirement for strict time management***? That is only one of the many abilities parents could either acquire or develop when cohabiting with a baby. It doesn’t even matter whether they are first-timers or not. Every baby is different, their needs are different, therefore the solutions should also be different. Not to mention, babies change as they grow. The schedule they keep at 8 months old would look very different from when they were 5 months.
As for the subject of commitment: this includes an important legal topic worthy to be discussed in a separate article. For the time being, suffice it to say that an employee’s performance should be judged by the outcome of his or her work. If the person delivers, then for all intents and purposes, he has shown dedication to his job.
Admittedly, working conditions are now allowing females to celebrate their femininity in the workplace. Adaptable tools have also been set so that the female worker could regain her career if she wishes to, without sacrificing her role as a mother. Be that as it may, current circumstances dictate it not enough to get one’s job done anymore. It looks as though working mothers should be willing to take on more and more responsibilities at work so her performance could stand out- never mind that the extra effort surpasses any legal bind so that the companies don’t have any obligation to compensate her. The point is she has to prove her worth: as a worker (so as not to be wrongly judged by her bosses and colleagues) and as a mother (so as not to be criticized by society). So much for women’s rights and women’s freedom.
Most of the friends I met from work are just as workaholic as I am/was (we’ll never know until I get back to work). Just the other day, I was supposed to have a nice and long phone conversation with one of them. But we cancelled because she had to work during THE WHOLE WEEKEND. With a kid, that scenario is just going to be near impossible if there’s no one else to help husband and wife out. Especially if the other half of the couple is just as ambitious.
This made me think about a regular worker’s goals: a promotion? a raise? recognition? a learning experience? professional excellence? I would like to believe that all of those objectives are not impossible to reach for anyone- yes, even for mothers.
While it is true that priorities change once people have children, for some it means a deeper need to be better at what they are currently doing. For others, it may mean working 10 times harder to give their family a better future, and as for the rest it may signify one of the many aspects of becoming a more “complete” person.
How many times have you heard a mother say, “I adore my kids but I need something I could call my own- a career, a business, a venture that I built myself, FOR MYSELF”?
Hence on this matter, several questions circle my head like hungry vultures out for carrion:
- If both men and women are absolutely necessary to make a baby, then how come only the woman is expected to carry the corresponding responsibilities of caring for an infant?
- At least in rich countries where hiring household help is a luxury: can women who are building a family (whether with child or not) honestly say that there is a fair division of household chores between her and her husband? If not, then what good is it to us women to be free to enter any profession we desire, if at the end of the day we would be chained to the iron-ball of housework?
- Companies exist for profits. Without a sumptuous bottom line, they would cease to operate. While some big firms are already adapting their corporate culture to this change in the workforce, what other actions can be done to balance opportunities between working mothers and fathers?
- What is the role of the Human Resource department in arbitrating the interest of the company, who clearly doesn’t want to see its profits diminish, and of the workers (both males and females) who at some point in their lives would wish to work part-time? The solution that suggests for employees to move into “less demanding fields” does not count.
- Could entrepreneurship in the form of microbusinesses or self-employment as a freelancer provide a solution to the problem of mothers’ “wasted” talent in the corporate world? (Regarding those who have shifted jobs or have changed jobs where hours are more flexible, or those who have gone part-time, or even those who have completely dropped out of the work force.)
- What is the government’s role to ensure equality of opportunities gender-wise? Do they have a valuable “say” in this on the first place, and not just use the issue to serve political agenda?
* Before coming to France, I hired a coach to do mock interviews with me. I was very strictly instructed NEVER to mention ANYTHING about my personal life. Additionally, my coach advised to directly interrupt the interviewer should I feel the interview veer towards a more personal terrain.
** Due to a genetic condition, he was under observation in a children’s hospital for 8 days.
*** Here is a sample schedule of a typical day with my son now that he’s 13 months old:
7am: Baby wakes up. Breakfast consists of a big bottle of milk and a loaf of bread. Playtime.
9am: First nap. I get the chance to catch up on some sleep.
10am: I shower, arrange the house, spend 40 minutes scanning LinkedIn for job opportunities. On slow days at LinkedIn, either I do research for my blog or I write.
11am: Baby wakes up. Sponge bath follows, and then lunch time. We go out for a walk, run errands, hang around.
1pm: Go back home. Playtime. Baby drinks a bottle of milk and then takes his afternoon nap. I have lunch, nap for 15 minutes and resume to job hunting, CV-tweaking, cover letter-writing, LinkedIn surfing, researching, reading and self-studying about a couple of projects I’ve been considering…
4pm: Baby wakes up. Playtime. Snacks on a piece of fruit and a yogurt. Playtime (or a walk outside if not too cold).
7pm: Dinner. Sponge bath/Real bath. Downtime, relaxed playtime. Bottle of milk. Baby goes to bed. I get the chance to continue job seeking, researching, self-studying, finishing errands and scheduling the following day according to priorities.
1. “The Mommy Track”, Schumpeter Blog, The Economist, available at: http://www.economist.com/node/21560856
2. Author’s memories and notes