Friday, September 10, 2010

Poor Working Moms

Recently there’s been a fair amount of discussion around gender inequality when it comes to compensation. It turns out that on average, women earn as much as men with one notable exception: working moms, who on average earn less than men and childless women alike.

Now they tell me.

The disparity in earning power has as much to do with career choices as salary. There are several forces at work here:

Availability – Working moms are available at odd times and in an era where promoting work life fit is still pretty cutting edge it makes them stand out. The burden is usually on them to set expectations and find ways to make it work with individual personalities.

Flexibility – Lack of flexibility also plays a starring role when it comes to a working mom’s reduced earning power. Working moms are more likely to have limited ability to travel, relocate or live away from home during the week, all of which may deny them access to higher paying roles.

Time Out – In addition to missing salary raises and bonuses while on maternity leave, working moms lose months or even years of work experience. And not just the actual experience but the whole ‘being there’ factor that forms such an important part of human relationships. It's sad but true that corporate life moves on without you while you’re at home changing diapers and trying to fit back into your skinny jeans.

Perception – People who work long hours may resent people who knock off at 3 to pick up the kids, which is understandable to a point. Working moms also miss out on office social life, which can be even more damaging than missing meetings.

Note that none of these things involve people trying to put working moms at a disadvantage, although I do think there’s a tendency to focus on the superficial rather than the real. The reality is that although working moms have availability constraints, they are also highly efficient. Not all of them, of course, but the ones that were efficient before they had kids tend to be amazingly efficient after.

Now, you’d think in a company where ‘doing more with less’ is important this would bring them lots of success but it can actually have the opposite effect, as we will see below.

There are two kinds of working moms,* the plodder and the work horse. The plodder does her work, has a smile for everyone, and goes home after lunch. She’s well-liked but not on anyone’s radar for advancement. The work horse cranks out high quality work at high speed and could easily take on more responsibility but rubs people the wrong way with her relentless productivity and acting like her time is more valuable than anyone else’s.

Which is OK if you’re an executive but don’t try it with some lame-ass excuse like raising a family.

*There’s actually a third kind, the player, who has a full-time nanny at home and spends as much time networking as doing actual work. However, the player is rarely salary challenged and is therefore irrelevant for this discussion.

The financial disadvantage of working moms is not a legal problem, it’s a mindset problem. Even in Germany, where women can take up to a year of paid leave to have a child and two additional unpaid years, working moms suffer from the missed time. And companies are reluctant to hire women because they can legally go on extended maternity leave at any moment.

But the way we work is changing whether we like it or not. People are focusing more on work life fit, more people work remotely and social media tools are re-defining how we interact and collaborate. Today’s workforce is dominated by people who prefer face-to-face meetings (and lots of them!) but that is already changing on the heels of new technology, new economic reality and a new generation entering the workforce.

In this new world, the focus will be on output and quality rather than 'being there.' Relationships will still be important but they won't be based around the water cooler.

In this new world, the smart money's on the working mom.


  1. Excellent article. I remember being told that I would not be taken seriously at work if I actually took the paternity leave that my law firm bragged so much about during its recruitment efforts. The partner said that it was bad enough that they "had" to let the "moms" take time off. (The "full-time nanny at home" truly is irrelevant to the discussion in most cases. I worked with several moms and dads who had that luxury and it steamed me -- the nanny-less single dad -- when those folks bragged about juggling their work and family lives. Oh yeah -- they usually had maids and gardeners, too.)

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