“this is not just a mother’s issue”
As a work life flexibility advocate and pundit and I have the occasional opportunity to attend forums where employers, academics and organizations gather to advance innovative work place solutions. Without exception, the mantra of “this is just not a mother’s issue.” is proclaimed.
Seems so obvious – of course work place flexibility is not solely for mothers. Work place flexibility needs arise for fathers. They arise for non-parents. They arise for children as their own parents age and deteriorate. They arise for those pursuing further education, volunteer opportunities or personal growth and development. But the movement’s history and success owes it’s DNA to mothers who want to nurture and provide for their families. Last month, Working Mother Magazine held their annual 100 Best Companies Work Life Congress in new York. It is always refreshing to attend these events, because the conversation is unabashedly mother-centric and no one has to pretend otherwise.
One of the things I’ve noticed at most work life reform gatherings is the one topic that is rarely discussed. We talk about about part-time work, flex time, compressed work weeks, telecommuting, parental leave and breastfeeding. We talk about business cases, strategic imperatives and global cultures.
What we hate talking about is opting out (such a clinical term for this most important of times). In other words, mothers leaving the workforce for a period to be at home with their children. I figured at a Working Mother Magazine gathering, it would be a safe ask.
Elephants in the room
Some women stay home with their children for a season. It is often a long season; a hard season and one with its own deeply gorgeous rewards. A portion of mothers want and need and desire and choose to stay home with their children and mother in a traditional way. And yet, the “punishment” meted out for this choice is substantial. It is notoriously difficult to get back on track and penalties in terms of seniority and salary seem vastly greater than the actual time out.
I asked magazine Founder Carol Evans, and Ernst & Young’s Inclusiveness Officer, Billie Williamson, what companies are doing to address this disproportionate penalty to mothers seeking to re-enter the workplace . What shocked me was not the answers these two experienced women offered; including minimizing or avoiding all together opting out of the workplace, and the real pain of receiving resumes from returning mothers and turning them down for complex reasons.
Rather, it was the round of applause from the packed ballroom of several hundred professional women, as I voiced one of the greatest challenges mothers face. I was right. It was the perfect venue in which to ask my question. Each one of us hits this same wall. For those who do mother at home, it can feel like an insurmountable wall is blocking the path back.
Telling mothers “don’t opt out” isn’t a viable solution
We need mothers in our Board rooms and in our legislatures. We need mothers in our homes and communities, nurturing and teaching children in partnership with fathers. We need to allow mothers the opportunity to step in and out of these pivotal roles as it makes sense for them and their families. How to navigate this impasse?
The linear, hierarchical career that commentators keep telling us is dead, needs to actually die. Organizations and mothers bear equal responsibility to make these shifts a reality. This post is the first of three tackling this topic.
- Part two of this post will talk about what mothers can to do to stay gently connected whilst mothering full time.
- Part three of this post will address what companies can do better to close the gap.
Meanwhile, have a look at the survey data collected by Working Mother on what mothers want and choose. Flexibility, flexibility, flexibility. In other words, treat us like adults, and we’ll behave as such. And if we cannot find that flexibility in corporate structures, we will keep on opting out and rarely heading back in, because we are busily creating it on our own terms in our own way. To work the way we need to work. And to mother the way we need to mother.
Comment below if you have ever faced the opt out impasse. What worked or didn’t work for you?
On related issues, these fabulous posts from two of my favorite work life writers caught my eye last week:
Morra Aarons-Mele: What Women Are Teaching Men About Work-Life Balance
Katherine Lewis: How flexible work actually works
I will also be blogging in a future post about a couple of key sessions from the Work Life Congress that I can’t stop thinking about. Researcher Peter Linkow led a fascinating conversation on what work life policy means to those in emerging markets like China, India and Brazil. His colleague Debbie Phillips and Cindy Martinangelo from Merck took it further with a fabulous workshop on work life strategies for global organizations. I am intrigued by the relevance (or irrelevance) of Western thoughts on work life balance to other extraordinarily different cultural approaches.
Disclaimer: Labels that divide women frustrate me. I use the terms "working mother" (what mother does not work?) and "full-time mother" (what mother ceases to be so, simply because her children are not present?) for ease of reference and clarity. The terms are what they are. Disclosure: I attended Working Mother Media's Worklife Congress 2011 as a press attendee. The opinions expressed here are mine alone and no compensation has been provided for my coverage of the conference. Image Credit: iStockphoto.com
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