A Mother’s (and Father’s!) Day Call-to-Action

By: Maja Egnell

This is the third of a four-part series examining patterns of gender bias affecting female executives, and how “bias interrupters” can be used to challenge them.

“I don’t do meetings after 4:00 p.m. on Tuesdays,” my new boss told me. “That’s when I coach my son’s soccer team.” He was the CHRO of the Fortune 500 company I had just joined, and his words made a huge impression on me. I was at a life stage where everything seemed to happen at once; with the first big corporate job plus a toddler at home, I was trying to figure out how to make things work. By conveying an unapologetic focus on his family, my boss let me know that it was going to be okay. More than a decade later, I remain grateful for him role modeling the possibility—and the expectation—to be a high-level executive as well as an active, engaged parent.

In our day and age, most organizations recognize the need for employees to balance work and personal lives, and they offer some kind of flexible work arrangements to make this happen. These initiatives, however, are not always taken advantage of to the extent envisioned. The varying uptake can almost always be traced back to cultural factors, not uncommonly linked to gender bias affecting both men and women. This “flexibility stigma” becomes problematic as it creates the perception that people who take advantage of flexible work arrangements are less committed to work. While initiatives lay a foundation for an inclusive work environment, it is the day-to-day behaviors of people—especially of those at the top—that makes the culture follow suit. When senior executives are deliberate about the behaviors they showcase, they become powerful role models that can shift culture in ways few initiatives can. In the spirit of Mother’s (and Father’s!) Day, then, let’s look at how that can be done.

As a first step, it is helpful to know something about the pressures more junior employees experience when it comes to combining work and family life. Dr. Joan C. Williams, whose research we are exploring in this series on gender bias, talks about especially female leaders sometimes feeling the need to engage in yet another difficult balancing act. This time, it is about avoiding being seen as a bad worker (by putting her kids first), or a bad mother (for seeming overcommitted to work). To manage perceptions, parents of both genders can feel forced to describe their kids’ soccer game as an “out-of-office meeting” in their automatic email replies or calendar entries, or to be overly explicit about “traveling for business” to avoid the assumption of being home with kids. Here, senior executives can make a huge impact by simply showing an interest in their report’s family lives, asking about their kids’ activities, encouraging them to take part in them, and being outspoken when they themselves leave the office to spend time with their families.

Especially for women, parenthood can lead to fewer opportunities for promotion and career development. Anyone who has been part of a talent review meeting has likely heard the “it is probably not a good time for her” comment at the suggestion of combining family life, including young children, with a challenging new assignment. Because of this assumption, female leaders who wish to continue pursuing their careers after having children benefit from being very explicit about their willingness to travel, relocate, etc. By the same token, if you are the manager of a person just coming back from parental leave, make a point of scheduling a meeting where the individual’s short and long-term career goals can be discussed, and offer plum assignments as you normally would.

As with all kinds of advocacy, senior executives have a unique role to play when it comes to managing the organizational narrative about their reports. With that in mind, make sure to openly challenge sentiments such as, “I worry about her kids”, “pregnancy brain”, or “part-time work” (for when an employee leaves work at the formal end of the work day).

A work environment where people can be committed parents as well as workers not only harnesses but leverages their ability to contribute. By understanding the realities of working parents, and by being willing to challenge convention and be a role model, senior executives can become the true agents of cultural and organizational change.

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