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Let’s begin with this stipulation: the term “working mother” is redundant.
It’s typically used innocently enough—like “added bonus,” “each and every,” “difficult dilemma,” and “new innovations.” But those redundant phrases are simply careless use of language. The term “working mother” is not only careless language, it’s potentially insulting. After all, what mother doesn’t work?
Okay, I got that off my chest.
Now let’s consider some issues with moms who, in addition to their at-home parenting roles, are stars in the workplace executive suites.
One woman (yes, she’s also a mother) who has plenty of smart things to say on the subject is Joann Lublin, author of Power Moms: How Executive Mothers Navigate Work and Life.
Until she retired in 2018, Joann was management news editor for the Wall Street Journal, working with reporters in the U.S. and abroad. She created the Journal’s first career advice column in 1993 and wrote its “Your Executive Career” column until May 2020. She shared the Journal’s 2003 Pulitzer Prize for stories about corporate scandals.
For her solutions-oriented book, Joann interviewed dozens of GenX women and Boomers (many recognizable names and brands) to find patterns of possibility. Her findings are both thought-provoking and instructive. Listen in here on our conversation.
Rodger Dean Duncan: In the context of your research, are you using “power” to denote authority and influence in the workplace? Or are you referring to overall exceptional performance in the dual roles of businessperson and parent?
Joann Lublin: Yes, to both. I’m referring to women who are exceptional performers both as business executives and as parents.
Duncan: In the many years that you’ve observed and reported on workplace issues, how has the notion of what constitutes a “power mom” evolved?
Lublin: I don’t think anyone thought much about the issue of “power moms” until fairly recently. In fact, it’s still not something that’s widely accepted in the nomenclature.
We have a lot of information about the increased numbers of women in senior management—it’s now about one in five in the top positions at U.S. companies—but we don’t have much documentation of how many of those have children. However, one reason I wrote this book that in my research for my previous book (Earning It: Hard-Won Lessons from Trailblazing Women at the Top of the Business World) I noticed that about 80% of the top women executives I interviewed were mothers.
What has changed in recent years? We now have more power moms in companies.
Duncan: How do today’s executive moms differ from the trailblazing Baby Boomer generation? What culture shifts have you seen?
Lublin: Because of increased pay and the influence they have with things like work schedules, today’s executive moms may be inclined to devote more time to their families than did their predecessors. Advances in technology have certainly enabled more flexibility. This Covid pandemic required many white collar people to work from home. Working remotely wouldn’t have been possible without Zoom and other video conferencing platforms. That kind of thing was just not an option for the Boomer moms, so many of them either stayed late at work, or came home to eat dinner and put the kids to bed, then drove back to the office.
Also, many GenXer and Millennial women have more supportive spouses. In the past, that was the exception, not the rule.
Another shift is that the workplace itself has changed. Many, many more companies “get it” that it’s important to attract and retain women—including women with children—because it’s simply good for business. And many of the Boomer women serve as role models and mentors for the younger women coming into business.
Duncan: Regardless of gender, leadership skills are of course critical to a person’s success in the modern workplace. Can you identify any skills that are especially important for a woman who’s navigating her career?
Lublin: It’s important to know the “unwritten rules.” When I retired from the Wall Street Journal I was asked to write a personal essay that was essentially a letter to my younger self. When I joined the Journal right out of grad school, I knew nothing about the unwritten rules in the workplace. When I was offered the opportunity to move into management and turned it down on the spot I had no idea that one of the unwritten rules of that workplace was that nobody expected me to decide in the moment. It’s important to know the unwritten rules.
Another thing that can help women navigate their careers is honing their networking skills. They should identify men and women who can serve as mentors and door-openers. And I find that the most successful women leaders are those who mentor others.
Duncan: In what ways can success in the workplace help a woman be a better parent? And on the flip side, what parenting skills can help a woman excel in the workplace?
Lublin: If we become bosses first and then parents, we bring considerable expertise that’s relevant to child-rearing. A boss knows the importance of setting priorities. Parents must do that, and they must teach it to their children. Leaders learn how to multi-task, and that’s one of the biggest challenges of parenting. Good leaders also know how to delegate, a skill that’s especially important in sharing responsibilities with the other parent. All of these skills are transferrable from workplace to parenting or from parenting to workplace.
Duncan: In the American workplace, what can women do to stand out and break through? And do you answer that question any differently today than you might have a decade or so ago?
Lublin: Because the recent work from home phenomenon has had such an impact on the workplace, I would answer differently than I would have only 18 months ago. As a rule, women seem to have a harder time than men at tooting their own horns. I think women often find it difficult to stand up when they’ve been mansplained.
It’s important for women to document their results and to focus on results that are quantifiable. And in today’s world of work, it’s especially important to know how to interact with other people virtually.
Duncan: The pandemic has shed additional light on many issues in our society, including the fact that moms in the workplace still handle most childcare duties in two-parent households. Why does this situation persist?
Lublin: It persists because of the fact that, even today, mothers returning from parental leave are still being asked “How do you do it all?” How many working dads who take parental leave are asked that question when they return? Probably none. So, why is that the case? It’s because we continue to have gender stereotypes about “what is the good mother?” and “what is the good father?” That’s a reflection of our unconscious bias that’s difficult to recognize.
Duncan: You reject the notion of work-life “balance” in favor of what you call work-life “sway.” What exactly is that?
Lublin: The idea behind work-life sway is that when you need to be 110% present at work, you are. You give it your best effort. But you accept and understand that life intrudes. The washing machine may overflow. Or your three-year-old may come screaming into the room during your Zoom call. So, you sway out of the work mode and into the life mode and you just don’t get upset about it.
Work-life balance is an impossible ideal. A chapter in my previous book was titled “Manager Moms Are Not Acrobats.” When I started interviewing Gen Xers and Millennial moms, one of them described the “sway” idea to me. She described how she was at work one day when a text popped up on her phone. It was from her nanny telling her that her toddler was taking his first steps. So, she “swayed” in the moment and rushed home so she could see her child take his next couple of steps. And she didn’t give herself a hard time about it.
Duncan: What are some of the best practices you see in companies that make work more workable for working parents?
Lublin: Practices that recognize just that—it’s not just the women who are parents. It’s the men, too. The more progressive companies set the tone at the top.
Jennifer Hyman, CEO at Rent the Runway, did a couple of things in that regard. In 2018 she took what were already pretty generous family benefits and extended them company-wide to hourly employees as well as to salaried. At the same time, she made sure that men in the company understood that they were expected to take parental leave. When a high-profile man on her team—the company’s chief technology officer—took the multi-month paid parental leave and “broadcast” his experience throughout the company, she saw a marked change. Before, relatively few working dads took the leave. After the CTO’s experience, most men started taking the leave when they were eligible.
Companies need to provide supportive benefits that are both used and seen as socially acceptable—whether it’s parental leave or reduced hours or taking a multi-year break from work. It’s important to send the clear signal that it’s okay to put your family first without suffering huge consequences.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.
For another thoughtful piece on Power Moms, see “In Praise of Maternal Guilt” from the Wall Street Journal.