Seema Kumar is CMO of New Relic, an observability platform built to help engineers create more perfect software.
Ten months into the pandemic, my husband and I were on the hunt for child care: We both work full-time, and our kids are too young for school. We recently moved across the border into a new country, and so with no connections to local resources for child care, I posted in a Facebook group for American expats in Canada to ask for suggestions. I was shocked by some of the responses; among many that tried to shame me for wanting to both be a mother and have a career, one stood out:
“Do what families have done for thousands of years and raise your own kids!”
Does looking for child care imply that I’m not raising my kids?
How Disparities Persist
In 1988, my newly widowed mother of three was interviewing for a job. Her manager-to-be asked her if she planned on having more children — as if that had anything to do with her qualifications for the position. Today, it is illegal in the U.S. to discriminate based on the answer to that question, but for many women, those on-paper policies likely don’t stand up to the reality of probing questions, missed opportunities and pressure from managers. Some women still feel the need to hide their pregnancies. When it’s no longer possible to hide it, the strategy shifts from distraction to deflection as we try to reassure our employers that we are committed to our work and will take minimal time off to avoid being cast aside.
We know that working moms are vitally important to the workplace, yet we’ve been hit disproportionately by pandemic-related job loss. According to a July 2020 McKinsey article, women accounted for 55% of the total job loss despite making up 39% of global employment. The situation was even worse for women of color in December 2020: 8.4% and 9.4% of Black women and Latinas, respectively, were unemployed, according to BLS data reported by the National Women’s Law Center; the same figure for white men was just 5.8%. Between the inequity in job loss and the pull of increased caregiving at home, I’ve heard of many women who dropped out of the workforce altogether. Dr. C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, has referred to this phenomenon as the “shecession.”
Dispelling The Myths Of The Working Mom
Too often, I’ve found that working moms are viewed by their employers as a liability: less committed to their careers, uninterested in taking on challenging assignments and always unwilling to prioritize work over family. But instead of liabilities, I believe working moms should be seen as the superheroes that they are: agile, plate-spinning and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. My own immigrant mother was one of these superheroes. She was widowed unexpectedly at 35 with children aged 13, 10 and 4, but she somehow managed to work full-time, earn her MBA at night, and put all three of us through college despite not being a high earner. She rejected the notion that a mother should have to choose between work and family, and she found ways to integrate the two while being a prized employee. Whenever she was working long weekend hours to close the quarter as an accountant, she would take me with her and assign me an hourly paid job filling invoices for accounts receivable. That experience taught me a strong work ethic and the value of money. Who could view that kind of dedication and leadership as a liability?
My mother-in-law has a similar story. She was also an immigrant, and her husband suffered the first of three heart attacks only a month before she gave birth to her first child. Even while caring for a sick husband and raising two successful children, she worked as a computer engineer, writing software for F-22 fighter jets. She escaped a civil war in her native country, attended university abroad and came out of those experiences as a successful mother and engineer. A liability? Hardly.
Changing The Reputation Of Working Moms
We need to shift how we view working moms. Instead of seeing women as a liability, see us as talented individuals with unique life experiences and viewpoints. Instead of considering the compromises we’ll have to make, consider the skills inherent in raising a family while pursuing a career. How can business leaders combat bias against working mothers in their own companies?
• Train managers to ask each working mom what they need. Some moms need flexible hours, but others don’t. Some would prefer not to travel, while others simply need a bit more lead time and support to make it happen. Each working mom needs something different based on the age of their children, whether they have a partner and what that partner’s work situation looks like. Don’t assume what a working mother needs — just ask.
• Normalize working parenthood for mothers and fathers. I believe part of the problem is the expectation that mothers will shoulder the burden of raising children. Encouraging all parents to share how they are integrating work and family will help ensure your employees that they don’t need to hide their experiences, whether they’re challenging or joyful.
• Dig into the data. Intentions are one thing, but facts are another. Keep track of the rate at which your employees are advancing; if working mothers aren’t being promoted at the same rate as others, that’s a sign that your thoughts are not in line with your actions.
• Be vulnerable with your own experiences. When leaders share how they or one of their family members struggled to integrate family and work, it can make others feel more comfortable asking for what they need. An approachable leader may not only see improved retention of talented employees but also better enable each employee to reach their full potential.
Choosing to have children is completely normal, and so is wanting to have a successful career. Let’s stop shaming working moms. Instead, let’s celebrate them.