Five years ago, when Katharine Zaleski was a hard-charging manager in the media industry with no kids, she routinely found herself assuming working mothers were less reliable, less focused. Then, she had a child of her own and realized what a dick she was being.
In a piece at Forbes, Zaleski owns up to some of her worst assumptions, and it's not pretty. In one instance a few years ago, she attended a partnership pitch meeting where she took one look at the many photos of another woman's kids in her workspace and concluded she was way too into mothering to follow up with. While working at HuffPo and The Washington Post in her mid-twenties, there were more instances. Zaleski writes:
- I secretly rolled my eyes at a mother who couldn't make it to last minute drinks with me and my team. I questioned her "commitment" even though she arrived two hours earlier to work than me and my hungover colleagues the next day.
- I didn't disagree when another female editor said we should hurry up and fire another woman before she "got pregnant."
- I sat in a job interview where a male boss grilled a mother of three and asked her, "How in the world are you going to be able to commit to this job and all your kids at the same time?" I didn't give her any visual encouragement when the mother – who was a top cable news producer at the time – looked at him and said, "Believe it or not, I like being away from my kids during the workday… just like you."
- I scheduled last minute meetings at 4:30pm all of the time. It didn't dawn on me that parents might need to pick up their kids at daycare. I was obsessed with the idea of showing my commitment to the job by staying in the office "late" even though I wouldn't start working until 10:30 am while parents would come in at 8:30 am.
Then, in what you might enjoy as a delicious comeuppance, she had a kid of her own, a daughter, and found herself in the age-old conundrum that stops every new mother in her tracks for at least a moment: How will I be a good mother without shortchanging my career? How will I be a good worker without shortchanging my child?
I was now a woman with two choices: go back to work like before and never see my baby; or pull back on my hours and give up the career I'd built over the last ten years. When I looked at my little girl, I knew I didn't want her to feel trapped like me.
She consulted the existing literature, from Lean In to you-can-never-have-it-all missives, but soon found out neither was super helpful in her situation. Zaleski didn't want to have to simply adhere to the existing status-quo of a male-dominated work culture to get by now that she had a child—ironically the very thing she expected other mothers to do, and yet still assumed they weren't doing well enough. She wanted the rules to change to meet her needs and those of other mothers.
While this is, of course, a bit ironic, there is no education quite like experiencing the problem first hand. And who better to get shit done then a new recruit from the dark side? While I was never in a position of power to do anything about whether other mothers I worked with had the resources they needed, I could see how the workplace didn't exactly do anything to help the misperceptions of them as less reliable, or less ambitious. If you're the parent who will leave work with a sick child, for instance—and that is often the mother—you may very well seem like someone who will drop your responsibilities at a moment's notice.
Alternately, if you're a single person working in an office that expects 150 percent, you'll often feel that exceptions are made for the moms and dads in the office while single people are treated as if they have no good excuse for not taking on extra work. After all, you don't have a family to get home to. This builds resentment. It happened to me many times as a twentysomething, where it was treated as inconceivable that I had any reason not to want to work constantly or overtime. As if time off, vacations, or sick days should not be needed until I was older or had a family of my own.
To be clear, just like plenty of men, some women are not that ambitious, and it has nothing to do with pregnancy. Some women do become less interested in the rewards of a career after having children, and who could blame them. Others remain equally invested in both, and are no doubt busting their asses, but are still perceived as less committed anyway.
There is a lot of conflicting information out there about how women can succeed in the workplace, but underneath all of it still lies the unspoken refrain that in order to appear driven and capable, you must forego a family until you've moved up enough to command the sort of flexibility it requires. Because trying to ask for it before you've snagged the corner office is a fool's errand.
Most women internalize this thinking, not realizing it puts you at odds with the woman in the cubicle next to you whose walls are covered with smiling babies and kid birthday parties. That's where the biased assumptions come from. If you're telling yourself you can't afford to have kids right now, it's not unfathomable that you would apply the same scrutiny to her: What are her priorities? She must not want to get very far if she has kids already. Doesn't she know she's had kids too soon to get ahead?
Zaleski was once part of the problem, but admitting that is important, even if, on some level, it's in the service of promoting her new company, Power2Fly, which seeks to place women and mothers in tech fields with jobs they can do remotely. But it speaks to something kind of remarkable about bias. One, women can undermine each other and internalize the patriarchal values that work against all of us. No surprise there, but it's a reminder that we must identify and examine these types of prejudices within ourselves.
Two, in the same way feminism is often said to need better PR, I think motherhood does too, because there is still only one instance where having kids helps your career: If you're a man.
Zaleski is trying to change that. She now hires and looks for mothers to work for and with her. Zaleski writes:
For that, I'm sorry to all the mothers I used to work with. Which brings me back to that managing editor I dissed at Time. Her name is Cathy Sharick and she has three kids. The deal never went through for a variety of reasons that included editorial fit, but we started talking six months ago. Cathy recently joined PowerToFly as our Executive Editor. She has taught me a lot about how to be more productive than I was before motherhood. I'm now looking for more Cathys to join PowerToFly because I know they can manage households, multiple schedules and very high business goals.
Zaleski offers some tips to basically not treat mothers in your offices the way she did. Instead of meeting over drinks, suggest lunch. Defend mothers who are working odd hours to stay on top of things, even if they don't appear to be working late at the office. Don't schedule meetings with anyone at 4:30 p.m., for the love of all that is good and decent.
Zaleski hopes that women can be valued for their productivity rather than their ability to schmooze at bars or on the golf course, thus giving them a "third option" that lets them stay in the workforce without having to comply with hostile standards toward mothers. I applaud her efforts. Because who better than the Zaleskis of the world to prove that changing outdated assumptions is damn near impossible. As long as that's the case, that third option may be the best we've got.
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