Power Moms: Advice for Professional Women, Their Families, and Their Employers

Joann Lublin is the author of Power Moms: How Executive Mothers Navigate Work and Life, which came out this month. She is also the author of Earning It: Hard-Won Lessons From Trailblazing Women at the Top of the Business World.

Joann is the former Management News Editor of The Wall Street Journal where she created its first career advice column which she wrote up until May 2020. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 and she won the Gerald Loeb Lifetime Achievement Award, the highest accolade in business journalism, in 2018.

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Over the past few decades we have made greater strides in workplace gender equality and we have seen more and more women step into leadership roles, but we still have a ways to go. There are still stereotypes and mindsets set in the past that give the notion that women have to choose between a career and having a family, they can’t have both.

But as Joann has found in her conversations with female senior level executives, not only can women have both, they can thrive and succeed at both at the same time.

While interviewing one executive and mother for the book, Joann found out that the woman had felt it necessary to not put up photos of her children on her desk at work until they were of high school age and she had proved herself at the company. She knew that having pictures up of small children some people might question her conflicting priorities.

Another woman shared that when she returned to work after a couple of years at home with her kids she was asked by male and female coworkers “how do you do it all?” and she said she was very offended by that. Because people wouldn’t have questioned her husband’s ability to do it all even though they are equal partners in parenting. People have these set mindsets that women are the ones doing 100% of the parenting while the men are 100% focused on work, but that is not the case.

What is the motherhood penalty?

Joann has a section in her book called The Motherhood Penalty, which reflects decades of research that highlights the bias against women with children. Research suggests that when hiring managers are going through resumes and it is clear from what they can see which people have kids and which ones do not have kids, the managers are more likely to give the interviews and the jobs to the women without kids.

The other aspect of the motherhood penalty has to do with pay. Either because of the breaks women have after having children or the fact that they choose to go back to work at reduced schedules the earning power of moms suffers. Yet this issue does not happen with men.

Joann does add a bit about how men can suffer when it comes to parenting biases. She says, “Men have other problems being effective parents and effective members of the workplace, but the fatherhood penalty is more of if they want to be involved. Fathers, they feel like they’re penalized, that their career is going to suffer, that they’re not going to be a guy’s guy. And so they’re reluctant to take the parental leave, even if it’s generous and paid, that their employer is offering because somehow they won’t look like they themselves are committed to their career. So we need to change our image of what makes for a good parent and what makes for a good worker. From a gender and parenting standpoint.”

The good thing that we are seeing now is Millennials and Gen Xers have more employment choices now. Where past generations may have learned to live with companies that had cultures that penalized parents, nowadays there are so many employment options that people can vote with their feet and move to a company that will treat them equally.

The work/life balance myth

Joann believes we need to give up on the notion of work/life balance. As she shares it is an ideal that can never be realized. In her book she compares balance to maintaining a yoga pose for 24 hours, you can’t do it.

The concept that she talks about in her book is work/life sway. “The idea of work life sway is that you accept the belief that there is no such thing as balance. And you recognize that there are going to be moments in your day and in your life when you have to be 110% there for your job, for your company, for your work. But family needs may intrude without warning, and you have to be prepared and willing and able — thanks to technology — you can sway the other way.”

One example of work/life sway Joann gives from an executive that was interviewed for her book is from a woman who had returned to work after having a child and one day she got a live video call while she was in her office. The call was from her nanny who knew that the mother wanted to see her child take his first steps. The executive obviously stopped what she was doing and watched her son take his first steps. Instead of having to partition her life off into personal life and work life, they sway together, happening simultaneously.

Our current situation with the pandemic is further proof that we don’t have to be locked in an office away from family for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week in order to get things done. Most of us have been forced into living work and life simultaneously at home. And we’ve made it work.

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Flexibility can’t just be a policy, it has to be a way of life

One important piece to being able to live in a work/life sway is the organization you work for and the managers you have. It is important to find a place to work where flexibility and maternity/paternity leave is not only a policy, but it is also something that is lived out in the culture.

It is so critical for leaders inside of organizations to live out these types of core values. If you want your people to believe that it is okay to take 3 or 4 months of parental leave after having a new child, you have to be willing to set the example. People are going to look to senior level executives to see that they practice what they preach. Employees want to know they won’t be reprimanded or looked down on for taking time off, or for leaving early to watch their child’s soccer game, or to go home to take care of a sick kid.

Joann has a story about a woman who was the head of HR at a tech company who decided to make an example of what the company viewed as flexibility and leaving work early. She had a son who was in his last year of high school and she knew he would be leaving home the following year to go to college. So she decided that every Thursday she was going to leave by 5pm — no matter what was happening at work — so that she could take her son out to dinner for bonding time.

Not only did she leave at 5 pm every single Thursday for the full year of his senior year, she posted about it on the company’s internal website so that employees worldwide saw her example. She showed that the company policies weren’t just lip service or words on a page, they were meant to be lived out by everyone.

When it comes to finding a place to work, this is something to really consider. Is the senior level leadership living out the values and the professed culture of the company?

Women can’t be afraid to set expectations and ask for what they want at work

One of the senior leaders I interviewed for the podcast awhile back spoke of having two phones, a smartphone and a flip phone in order to disconnect from work. While at work she would have her smartphone with her and people could call, text, or email and she would respond.

But once she went home the smartphone was put away and she only had her flip phone with her. Only a select few people had the number to the flip phone so that she would know if it rang, it was an emergency or something very important. Aside from that she wouldn’t check emails, social media, text messages, etc…while she was at home with family.

The same was true when she went to work, her family knew that if there was an emergency or something important they could call that flip phone and she would answer, but otherwise they would wait until she got home. And her coworkers and her boss knew if that phone rang she was leaving the room, no matter what was happening. She set those expectations up from the beginning so that everybody was on the same page and knew what was happening.

Joann says women are not as good at setting up expectations as men are. They tend to be more afraid to ask for what they need. But putting up boundaries and letting people know what it is you want is a critical part of having a successful work/life sway.

When it comes to asking for what you want Joann suggests not doing it as a solo act. Connect with other working moms in your company, figure out the main issues you are all dealing with and come up with some solutions together that you can take to your leaders.

Joann’s advice for working dads

When it comes to “power dads” Joann says her biggest advice is not to just try to be supportive of their wives or life partners, but to be an equal partner. What women who want to be successful in their careers and have children want is co-parenting.

And this is something to talk about early in relationships. Joann says, “Frankly, the time to talk about that is not when you’ve gone 24 hours straight, with not much sleep, because you’re at each other’s throat. And Gosh, darn it, I changed the diaper the last time the newborn woke up. You need to kind of come to some meeting of the minds, frankly, at the start of your commitment to a long term relationship. If you want to have children, you should talk about that. We should also talk about who’s going to stay home when the kid is born, who’s going to stay home when the kid is sick, whose career is going to take priority, as these kids are growing up is one of us willing to be a stay at home parent for a couple of years, is the other one willing to be the stay at home parent the next couple years.”

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