“Why are you still here? I thought all the moms cut out early.”
…. Boom went the dynamite for me sitting at my desk one evening at five when a colleague walked by looking for his manager, my male counterpart. For a while I had felt like I was in one of those old Looney Tunes bits. Like Wile E. Coyote, I had sensed the dynamite had been lit and that the fuse was getting shorter but I couldn’t see it. By the time you see it, it’s too late anyway. Just ask Wile E. Coyote.
On our team of four Directors, all of us had kids under three. The three moms worked a flex schedule of 8:00 or 8:15 to 4:00 or 4:15 to pick up our kids in the afternoon. We also all worked from home one day a week. The extra time to power through work without interruption or my 40-minute-commute each way made a huge impact on my productivity. Our male colleague worked 9am-5pm. No pick ups or drop offs required because all three of his kids went to school with their mom, the principal of the school (author’s note: male or female we should all be so lucky for such a set up!).
I had often wondered how people viewed my flex schedule. What that colleague had said was factually correct. We did all leave early. We also typically worked at night and in the mornings. Work that made us successful but which was largely invisible to the people around us.
I tried to play down the in-office vs. out-of-office visibility dynamic. Working in sales there is a unique luxury in having results that speak for themselves. I was kicking butt, taking names, and changing diapers. Still, even when I logged back on at night or had live email exchanges with the other three women as early at 6am (a regular occurrence), I couldn’t shake the feeling that people viewed me as less committed. The comment, while innocuous, felt like confirmation of what I had feared about how my work and commitment were perceived.
The more I started to talk to other women about this subject, the more I learned I wasn’t alone. Here’s what Jane, who asked I use a pseudonym and who just left her job as Vice President of one of the east coast’s most reputable universities, shared with me about her experiences around in-office-culture and flex time:
Although I was a senior executive at a prestigious university with a stellar performance record, my boss made it a point to say that I left the office at 5pm (which is not accurate -and I have the nanny and babysitter bills to prove it). Even when I regularly stayed past 5 or 6, what my boss frequently dismissed was the work I did at 5am, my early arrivals in the office, and the many projects completed between 8pm and 10pm, once my son was asleep. Instead of being judged on my work - which was excellent - there was a perception that I left early just because I left earlier than she did and therefore wasn't as committed.
Stories like Jane’s are why when I started my new job about five months ago, even though I was coming off a maternity leave, I didn’t request a flex schedule similar to the one I had in my last job. I actually feel pretty confident my company would approve it if I asked. My new company is a tech company and flex schedules just aren’t the culture. On top that, unlike my previous job where I had built up a strong brand and lots of capital pre-baby, I was brand new. As proud as I am of the work and family life I’m building, I just didn’t want to start off by being the new woman who leaves early.
Five months in I actually feel really mixed about it. Right now my husband is trying to flex his hours to pick up the kids daily and at 5pm I’m racing home every night to catch the tail end of dinner. It’s hardly working and though we pay for care from 7:30am-5:00pm, my husband is under scrutiny from his managers about his billable hours (none of which may be billed from home).
About a month ago I left early to pick up my kids from school when my husband was sick and couldn’t get them. They had changed the code to the keypad at the school’s entrance … “three months ago,” the new director told me when she buzzed me in for what would be our first meeting, “who are you here to see?” Ouch.
I also feel bad about the message I’m sending to other aspiring working moms who may want those flex hours to pick up their kids from school, and those messages matter. Part of what made it easy to ask for a flex schedule after my first was born was that other women on the team already had the same hours. In fact, when I had coffee with my boss during my first maternity leave she just assumed I was going to flex like the two other working moms on the team.
A flex schedule wasn’t a question, it was a given, and I’m grateful because going back to work the first time was hard. I looked forward to that moment at the end of the day when my daughter would crawl (then later run) into my arms. Looking forward to pick up really eased my transition back to work the first time around, especially during the first few months. As my daughter got older I built meaningful relationships with her teachers. This year at Christmas I had to text her old teacher to confirm the spelling of her new teacher’s name. Ouch again.
I recently attended a Ladies Get Paid panel discussion on closing the gender pay gap. When asked by the moderator what we can do to help alleviate the pay gap for working moms, there was an enthusiastic response about flex time and remote work as the cornerstone of a corporate D&I (diversity and inclusion) solution for working moms. Many in the crowd nodded their heads in agreement but when the time came for questions I was practically bursting out of my seat. I wanted to know why they thought that was the answer.
The way I see it, I shared, we’re getting it wrong. Corporate America is so close to getting it right but is still getting it wrong: when we only give those benefits to certain employees we highlight that they are “different”... and not always in a good way. There are negative optics around leaving early if only some people get to do it. Period. Aside from optics, there can also be resentment from non-parents in the workplace for what they perceive as picking up the slack. After the panel other caregivers (working moms and some non-parents caring for elderly parents) sought me out. They shared stories with me about their experiences and they sounded a lot like mine.
That’s why working moms will benefit the most when everyone in the company can have the same access to flex hours and remote time to fulfill their own passions and commitments.
I know this can work because I’ve seen it work. When I was at a company called The Advisory Board, a large segment of the employees (including me) travelled frequently. Remote work was expected as a way to encourage work-life-balance (and maybe mitigate a shortage of desks). Relationship building with colleagues was expected and valued, but what mattered more was results, not just face-time.
On top of that there was a policy of fitness hours and volunteer hours, to be used on a weekly (not annual) basis. People actually used them. The whole company was flexing time and using remote hours, so the optics divide between parents and non-parents didn’t really exist. Nor did resentment from non-parents for picking up the slack… at least from my vantage point, as someone in the non-parent camp at the time. Yet the culture also stayed really strong. To this day, I find that whenever I meet someone who has worked at The Advisory Board or its sister company The Corporate Executive Board there is an immediate connection and understanding. “We are cut from the same cloth,” a senior executive from one of these companies once told me when we first met... he would later become my boss down the road at another company.
Don’t just take my word for it. In March 2017 Gallup did a study called How Engaged Is Your Remote Workforce by AnnaMarie Mann and Amy Adkins. They assessed the impact of remote hours on employee engagement. For all the fear that time out of the office (i.e. flex time or work from home days) can kill culture and engagement with the loss of face-time in the office, the Gallup study concluded just the opposite. Employees with some (though not exclusively) remote time were “the most likely of all employees to strongly agree that someone at work cares about them as a person, encourages their development and has talked to them about their progress. They are also the most likely of all employees to strongly agree that they have a best friend at work and opportunities to learn and grow.”
So where do we go from here?
We’re finally having a mainstream conversation about remote work and flex time for working moms and we’re so close to getting it right… but we’re still getting it wrong. When we think about a diversity and inclusion strategy for working moms we need both elements: let’s not only make working moms feel accommodated for their different needs. Let’s also make them feel included instead of people who just “cut out early.”