We Are More Than The Mommy Track

There are a lot of people explaining the “can’ts” and “don’ts” of women in the workplace, but is all this negativity taking us anywhere?

Last week the Economist magazine purported to explain “why more women don’t rise to the top of companies.” Two months ago, Ann-Marie Slaughter broke records at the Atlantic with her popular article entitled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”

Both are part of an important public discourse about women today balancing work and family. But for me, there’s altogether too much “can’t” in this conversation.

The Economist article paints an unapologetically bleak picture of the situation for women (especially mothers) in the workplace:

“Several factors hold women back at work. Too few study science, engineering, computing, or maths.  Too few push hard for promotion. Some old-fashioned sexism persists, even in hip, liberal industries. But the biggest obstacle (at least in most rich countries) is children.”

The article also references recent research by McKinsey & Company, finding the few women who do make it to the executive level are disproportionately childless and/or unmarried. The author points to new Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer as one bright (but not too bright) spot for working women today, concluding that “If she can turn around the internet’s biggest basket case while dandling a newborn on her knee it will be the greatest triumph for working women since winning the right to wear trousers to the office…”

I’m rooting hard for Marissa Mayer, but she’s just one woman trying to make her life work. It’s not fair or accurate to paint her as the only hope for a generation of women looking to gracefully strike some balance between career ambition and family life.

Is the situation ideal for working women today? Maybe not. But it’s not hopeless either. It’s easy to dwell on the negatives here, but it gets us nowhere. We can spend our time lamenting the challenges we face, or we can take charge and start trying to make some changes.

We’re not mere victims of some set-in-stone corporate culture, waiting for the Marissa Mayers of the world to set us free.  The world is changing. Corporate culture is changing, and we each have a role to play.

Let's recognize that progress is progress, big or small. No one thing (or person) is going to change corporate policy and culture overnight. Meaningful cultural change is built on gradual and incremental shifts in the right direction. So, celebrate even the smallest victory, and look for opportunities to champion progress.

Not only is a positive approach more productive for women overall, it’s going to serve you better personally. Your attitude on this point will affect how you approach pretty much every aspect of your job. And frankly, those who strive to advance their company and the culture around them tend to be rewarded more often than those who don’t.

Choose to look for opportunities instead of obstacles. In a lot of cases, what’s good for women is good for the company too.

It begins with the very basics: where do you choose to work?  To the extent that you can, choose a company with a more progressive, family-friendly culture. Employers who find themselves losing out on the best talent will eventually be forced to reassess what they’re offering.

Many companies today are discouraging travel and investing in telepresence technologies like video conferencing, due in part to the down economy. Advocate for such changes where you can, pointing to legitimate costs savings, and do your part to show that video conferencing can work.

Another way some companies are cutting back is to explore part-time schedules or work-from home arrangements. If such offerings are right for you, don’t hesitate to take advantage. If you do, take the opportunity to excel. At least one recent study concluded that employees who work from home may be more productive than those in the office. Show your peers and supervisors that non-traditional work arrangements can be a win-win for companies and employees.

Your opportunities to advocate for change don’t depend solely on your company’s policies either. Do you play a supervisory role at work? Make a point to de-emphasize “face-time” in your department, especially when you’re filling out employee reviews.

I’m not saying that all of this is easy. It’s not. Change is slow, and it’s hard, and there will be ups and downs. That’s why we need each other.  And that’s what 4word is all about! When I see professional women coming together to support and lead one another, I know that our future is bright.

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Have you encountered a “mommy track” culture at work?
What gives you hope for the future?