Let's start with a story:
I'll tell you a story that happened when my daughter went to Catholic school… Every Wednesday morning, they had class coffee with the mothers. Class coffee with mothers for a working woman—how is it going to work? How am I going to take off 9 o'clock on Wednesday mornings to go for class coffee? So, I missed most class coffees.
My daughter would come home, and she would list off all the mothers that were there and say, “You were not there, Mom.” The first few times, I would die with guilt. But I developed coping mechanisms. I called the school and I said, “Give me a list of mothers who were not there.” [audience laughs] So when she came home in the evening, she said, “You were not there, you were not there.” And I said, “Ah-ha, Mrs. Rag wasn't there, Mrs. So-and-So wasn't there. So, I'm not the only bad mother.” You know, you have to cope, because you die with guilt. You just die with guilt.
- Indra Nooyi
Former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi shared this story with a live audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival nearly ten years ago. The topic at hand was whether women could “have it all,” as the popular debate runs. Can women succeed professionally and have a family life? At the same time? Is it possible to simultaneously meet their competing demands?
At the time, Nooyi said no. Anne-Marie Slaughter—who threw gasoline on this debate—said no. Michelle Obama said no. Serena Williams said no. These and other hyper-successful women have asserted that because of the rigid demands of both work and motherhood, it is not possible to throw oneself into both. One side will suffer.
These and other hyper-successful women have also observed something reflected in numerous studies on the motherhood penalty/fatherhood premium: working men are not disadvantaged in the same ways for trying to get ahead professionally and have a family. Mothers continue to be punished at work, (studies show they are perceived to be less competent and committed than their peers without children), while men get a bump in wages, promotions, and are generally seen more positively once they become fathers. As Williams wrote in Vogue, “If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be writing this because I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labor of expanding our family. Maybe I’d be more of a Tom Brady if I had that opportunity.”
This is not about being a working parent: this is about being a working mother.
What’s going on at your workplace?
These facts are published year after year. And still, advances are negligible.
Now, here is the point:
Many organizations just celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8, and many US companies and the federal government recognize Women’s History Month in March. The nice messages, social media posts, and themed office parties are appreciated, but without taking real steps to address the motherhood penalty, the stagnant wage gap, upper management “boys’ clubs,” and other barriers to women’s progress, what are most companies really accomplishing on behalf of women?
Stop trying to change women; change the game instead.
This excellent piece on “masculine defaults” makes us reflect on the norms we accept as the ways we have to work, rather than just ways we have always worked. So much has changed in our world and in our lives, but most workplaces haven’t fully updated. From the conformity bind to power dressing, women still jump through hoops to succeed that have little-to-nothing to do with the quality of their work.
If we truly want women’s contributions—if we believe them to be fully equal members of the workforce and entrust them with the responsibilities that build our very organizations—can’t we put our money where our mouth is and take steps to address inequalities and workplace cultures that suppress their potential and just plain burn them out?
More recently, Nooyi released a memoir where she revisited the struggles she navigated as a female CEO and mother. Among her insights, she told the Wall Street Journal that having had the opportunity to work from home sometimes would have been a game-changer, and that having male co-workers and managers speak up when they saw unfair or disrespectful behavior determined whether she stayed or left the company.
While there is some value to the push for female employees to ask for the pay they deserve, Nooyi pushes back that the onus should not be on those employees to ensure pay equity. “In today’s world, people shouldn’t have to ask for pay parity. I hope we have now progressed to a point where there’s enough sensitivity about equal pay for the same jobs that HR departments and companies are looking at this metric regularly and calibrating to make sure that they’re paying every person the same for the same job.”
Starting anywhere is very good. Authentic, targeted efforts do pay off.
If you’re celebrating women this month, here’s your sign to take a sincere look at what could be better—more equitable—for the women at your organization, and to start doing something about it.
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