Integrating Motherhood & Professionalism at Work

By Sasha McDowell '09SIPA, '09SW of the Columbia Career Coaches Network

All employees benefit when they're able to be their whole selves at work. For women, this means being allowed to integrate their identities as mothers and professionals. Mothers should be able to express their commitment to raising happy, healthy, engaged children while at work, without their commitment to their careers being questioned.

While men often face even harsher penalties than women do for taking time out of the workforce to focus on parenting, men who remain fully employed are freer to talk about parenting at work. For women, many assumptions still underlie motherhood, which makes it difficult to integrate the identities of mother and professional in the workplace. Concealing these different parts of ourselves causes stress for individual women, and makes it difficult to advocate for policies and practices that support work-life integration.

The key to maximizing productivity in both professional and personal life is integrating our responsibilities throughout the various parts of our lives; this begins with honest disclosures of who we are.

All Employees Want Authenticity

It is well known that both businesses and individuals benefit when employees are authentic. Research by Dan Cable, of the London Business School, shows employees who feel comfortable expressing their authentic selves at work demonstrate higher levels of organizational commitment, better individual performance, and more often help others. When employees can be themselves and create authentic connections with their colleagues and managers, they are typically more committed to their companies, leading to longer employee retention.

Employees are also more likely to follow authentic leaders, and in fact, won't mobilize around leaders they perceive as inauthentic. In Harvard Business Review's 2013 article on creating the best workplaces, executives made it clear that in order to be authentic, they needed to work for an authentic organization. To encourage authenticity in mothers, those in leadership positions need to create a workplace culture that invites women to talk about their experiences as parents in addition to their work-centered conversations. Culture is the culmination of hundreds of day-to-day interactions, and leaders need to be deliberate about behaving in ways that open the door for employees to be themselves.

Brene Brown, PhD, LMSW, a researcher and storyteller who has extensively studied courage, vulnerability, and empathy, says our capacity to lead is based on our ability to own our stories, including those that may make us feel vulnerable—professionally, personally or emotionally. This means being in touch with who we really are, and using our core selves to forge connections with others. It also means that mothers reach the pinnacle of their own leadership abilities when they do not have to siphon off their responsibilities around their children as they galvanize their teams at work.

It is striking, when creating a new relationship, how sharing things outside of the realm of "traditional professionalism" results in a more candid conversation and forming a genuine connection. Honesty and authenticity open the door for others to share their stories as well. This leads to working together more effectively and creatively, and it creates a deeper bond that enriches the work.

Assumptions About Motherhood & Black-and-White Thinking

Women often intuitively curtail talking about their children because of long-standing negative assumptions about motherhood. A key assumption is that women may be less committed to their jobs if they have children. In 2016, the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for gender equality, ran a poll; 46 percent of respondents believed a woman becomes less committed to her job after having a baby. The corresponding figure for men was 11 percent. Another assumption is the work of motherhood is devoid of intellectual challenges, or any of the skills that matter on the job. Mothers cannot be their full selves at work when they are busy trying to disprove these assumptions, or are not mentioning their children or lessons learned through parenting for fear of facing discrimination.

Black-and-white thinking, a cognitive fallacy where we engage in polarized thinking and don't recognize middle ground, undergirds both of these assumptions. Each of us engages in cognitive fallacies from time-to-time, and in our better moments we recognize this and shift our thinking patterns to be more realistic. But when we engage in black-and-white thinking in aggregate, we create societal beliefs that are as widely shared as they are inaccurate.

The assumption that motherhood makes women less committed to their careers divides careers and parenting into an "either/or" dichotomy. Ironically, it is the workplace that forces women into an all-or-nothing choice when the work options that exist are full-time office work or becoming a stay-at-home mom, with no middle ground. The choice between a 45-60 hour week and staying home full time is a stark one. Both of these extremes present many women with a choice that leads to loss, stress, and fears no matter their decision. Women who choose to be stay-at-home moms for a period of time may not be less committed to their careers, but when faced with such a severe choice, will often choose their children during important times in their development. This decision often comes at a high cost, including lost career potential and decreased wages.

When we offer flexible work options, women can integrate their responsibilities at work and at home without having to navigate polarized choices. They may spend more time on work or on parenting in a given week or a year, depending on the particular demands of their job or their children. But long-term flexibility and recognizing the need for integration retains women in the workforce and allows everyone to benefit from their skills, education, and experience. When this integration extends past schedules and where we work, and into dialogues happening inside the workplace, women can fluidly and openly move back and forth between identities and activities that are typically kept discrete and separate.

Similarly, black-and-white thinking is what allows us to hold perceptions that sharply divide the skills needed at work and in parenting. Success at work requires many talents and behaviors, including organizational skills, sustained focus and listening, the ability to execute effectively, and specific knowledge in our field. Many behaviors that drive success at work are also necessary to raise a family, yet we traditionally think of parenting as using less sophisticated skills, or skills that are feminine and devalued, such as nurturing, making meals, or playing with children. Parenting skills are often deemed as less intellectual. The truth is that to parent well, parents need excellent self-regulation skills, as patience is tested daily just as it is at work with challenging politics or a difficult client. Parents also need communication skills and empathy to build a bond that supports the child’s development, just as these skills help us manage people and build partnerships at work.

Also analogous, when parenting there are times things hum along smoothly. At other times, children's behavior becomes troubling or frustrating. Parents need to decide on the best plan of action, which includes educating themselves about their child's developmental phase, better understanding an issue their child is facing, and generating potential solutions. At times, we seek the perspectives of specialists such as therapists, doctors, or educators to devise better strategies and to learn more when we are dealing with a tough, unfamiliar problem. This is comparable with times at work when we are faced with a new project where we need to get up to speed quickly, engage team support, and use our mentors or peers to support us as we navigate uncharted territory. This list of similarities between skills required to excel in both of these public and private spheres is long.

Parenting and its corollary, running a home, are shrouded in privacy and considered relevant only to the family sphere. Parenting is personal, isolating, and often invisible and unrecognized and as a result, women keep this part of themselves quiet, downplaying the skills required to do the job well. Work outside the home has always been public, and its visibility allows achievements to be well known and highly regarded. Allowing mothers to integrate these parts of themselves, by letting them openly speak about their varied skills that have been strengthened in a private sphere, begins the process of recognizing the importance and transferability of these skills. Encouraging mothers to speak about parenting lessons in a conversation about solving a problem at work will show what has been private and invisible work is becoming publicly acknowledged and valued.

Mothers Must Integrate: Hiding Parts of Ourselves

Mothers carry the "mental load," which is the "business" of ensuring a family system is successful. The relevant strategies and lists of tasks are with them whether they are in the office, mid-commute, actively mothering, or running the house.

On our lunch hour we schedule our children's dentist appointments, we take quick breaks from work to get an update on a sick child, and we print out summer camp applications. Some of these tasks must be done during business hours, and so we are forced to pretend we're not doing them, not thinking about our children and families, not sneaking out a bit early to pick up from childcare. The reality is that some of parenting cannot be compartmentalized to only weekend and evening hours, nor can all parenting issues be compartmentalized emotionally. When we’re in an inclusive workplace, we feel relief in disclosing that our lunch hour will be spent on parenting activities, simply because of the toll secrecy takes.

A 2013 study by Deloitte's Leadership Center for Inclusion found that more than half of employees "cover," or hide some aspect of their identity to fit in, and underrepresented groups feel the most pressure to conceal different parts of themselves. The study specifically mentions women with the example, "A woman might avoid talking about being a mother because she does not want her colleagues to think she is less committed to her work." Covering is damaging to morale, sense of self, and decreases commitment to one's organization. Fear and stress, aspects of covering, also dwarf our creativity. By asking employees to hide parts of who they are, we lessen their chances of producing their best work. It is difficult to be expansive, a key aspect of creativity, when assuming a protective stance.

Of course, clear boundaries between the different aspects of our lives are necessary and helpful. Losing oneself in a work project and being completely immersed in flow and creativity, allows us to produce high quality-work and to grow professionally. Time must be protected to get things done, and many parents enjoy and feel relieved at the opportunity to throw themselves into meaningful work projects. Many engaged parents relish time away from their children, and the experience of being their intellectual and creative selves, away from the obligations of family. At the same time, the opportunity to acknowledge other parts of our lives, in this case the needs of our children, can be a quick way to offload stress originating in our personal lives, to regain focus and concentration. Speaking honestly about other parts of our lives can be a way to feel more connected to colleagues, and to make connections between the seemingly disparate worlds of parenting and the work world that when intertwined, result in fresh discoveries. The opportunities to acknowledge thoughts and experiences from all aspects of our lives makes us better workers, and often better parents as well.

Increasing Integration

Leaders create and reinforce culture. What can women and men in leadership positions do to allow mothers to better integrate their professional and maternal identities at work?

Senior leaders should normalize the integration of work and family within the organizational culture through day-to-day interactions and behaviors, including talking about their own children and family commitments at work and frequently voicing organizational values around inclusion for women and mothers.

Businesses can create policies to retain parents, including paid maternity/paternity leaves—helpful in the short-term—and offer long-term options, like working non-traditional hours, remote work, and part-time opportunities.

All employees—men and women, parents and non-parents—should be encouraged to take advantage of flexible work options. This destigmatizes the practice, so it's no longer a women's issue or problem. Leaders should work from home themselves to encourage the practice.

Create opportunities for employees to share other aspects of their lives, whether it's through team-building or weekly lunches. Senior leaders must model consistently across the board to create a culture that truly embraces women being their full selves.

Wholeness means bringing all of the parts of ourselves to work—all employees need this to thrive. For mothers, and the long-term retention of women, it's essential that we can integrate our identities and our task lists, and be both engaged parents and high-achieving professionals at work.

Sasha McDowell is the founder of Epicycle Group, which supports mothers and fathers striving to integrate meaningful careers and engaged parenthood, and the organizations working to develop and retain them. She is a coach, facilitator, and consultant. She coaches parents in leadership roles, career changers, professionals negotiating for more flexibility, and mothers and fathers re-entering the workforce after full-time parenting. She also works with entrepreneurs as a strategy and operations consultant and runs year-long mastermind groups to help founders build their businesses faster in a cohort than they would working alone. She consults with organizations to create family-friendly work cultures that incorporate flexible policies to retain women in the workforce. McDowell received her BA in women's studies from Trinity College, and an MPA and MSW from Columbia. She lives in South Orange, NJ, with her husband and two children. Learn more about McDowell here.

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