Moms At Work

Happy Mother’s Day

On this Mother’s Day, I thought would I write about women at work. I grew up not only with a mother who worked outside the home, but with a grandmother who always had as well (starting when she was thirteen).  It never occurred to me not to work.  And while I knew I would work, it didn’t occur to me to take what was considered a “woman’s” job at the time–nurse, teacher, secretary.  My best friend, who wanted to be an art or music historian became a teacher (and a good one) because her parents would only support her going to college if she went into a career that was “suitable for a woman.” When I started working in a corporation, I could look all the way to the top and see women only one level above me.

What’s Holding You Back?

Twenty years after I started (10 years ago–so this is old data), a Harvard Business Review article, What’s Holding Women Back, by Sheila Wellington, Marcia, Brumit Kropf, and Paulette R. Gerkovich published a discussion of a survey citing reasons for women’s slowness to reach top positions:

Female executives believed it was caused by:

  • Lack of line management experience (79%)
  • Exclusion from informal networks (77%)
  • Stereotypes about women (72%)
  • Failure of top leaders to assume responsibility for women’s advancement (68%)
  • Lack of role model (68%)
  • Commitment to personal or family responsibilities (67%)
  • Lack of mentoring (63%)
  • Lack of awareness of organization politics (57%)
  • Different behavior style from organization’s norm (51%)
  • Lack of opportunity for visibility (51%)
  • Inhospitable corporate culture (50%)

CEOs believed it was caused by:

  • Lack of line management experience (90%)
  • Failure of top leaders to assume responsibility for women’s advancement (58%)
  • Stereotypes about women (51%)
  • Lack of role model (49%)
  • Lack of mentoring (49%)

Obviously looking through different lenses!  Before I talk about the relevance/importance of these findings, let me tell you why I think that data this old is still relevant.  Look at the numbers for women in leadership roles in 2002 (when the above survey was done):

Statistics on women in leadership 2002

Similar statistics from 2009-2011:

Statistics for women in leadership 2009-2011

Not quite an apples to apples comparison, but close.  The big news here is that the numbers haven’t moved very much, especially when you factor in that women represent 53% of entry-level workers.  The question is why?  Really, the question is WHY!!!?!!!?!!!?!!!?!!!?


I don’t believe that it is because women aren’t every bit as capable as running corporations (or governments) as men.  Obviously, though, there are things in the way.  A recent Wall Street Journal article, The XX Factor: What’s Holding Women Back? by Sue Shellenbarger, lists pretty much the same reasons (from the CEOs perspective) that appeared in the 2002 survey (above).  From an organizational perspective it is tremendously wasteful–look at all the talent that is left on the table until they take themselves away!

From my perspective, the ways leaders of organizations and the ways women think about women in the work place, in particular– in other words, the mental mind sets and stereotypes they have about women, are the biggest barriers to women reaching the top positions in organizations.

How much does motherhood have to do with this?  Lots.  Eighty three percent of the successful senior leaders documented in the Wall Street Journal article above are mothers–so it can be done.  On the other hand, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg in a Ted Ideas Worth on Spreading video Why Few Women at Top discusses the phenomenon of women dialing back on their career intensity even when they start thinking about having children.  There are two sides of that:  CEOs say–“see, they aren’t committed.”  Women say–“it isn’t fair to get more involved and then leave the organization high and dry.”  You can see how both mind sets are in the way of women breaking the glass ceiling barriers that are just as real today as when I started.  The reality is that mothers work, whether by choice or not, and are good, talented, capable employees.  That is true whether they are entry-level or CEOs.  Perceptions about the impact of being a mother on a women’s ability to be a successful senior leader have a huge impact on women’s promotability.  Perceptions.  Mental models.  Not reality.  It isn’t reasonable to blame this continuing glass ceiling on that fact that women become mothers.  It is much more complicated than that.  Single, childless mothers aren’t finding it any easier to get to the top, or else all the ones identified as successful would be childless.  That isn’t the case.

There is a new, HUGE difference, though, with the young women entering the workforce now.  These women have very different expectations.  The women joining the workforce today fully expect to be treated as an equal.  Their development experiences include a whole lot more time of being treated as an equal.  They played sports.  They got into grueling college programs.  They don’t see any reason that they shouldn’t be treated equally–as entry-level employees and as directors and as CEOs.  They are waiting to have children until their career is on track.  They have not had any exposure to the “reasons” that women aren’t at the top (listed in the survey above).  They will not sit still for this.  They will leave the organizations and start their own.  There needs to be a wake up call across organizations.  This is HALF of the talent in the workforce.

I have recently dealt with young women who have been exposed not just to subtle discrimination, but to out-and-out double standards.  Women who have been told that their “legs” are a problem.  That is crazy.  What man’s legs have ever been a “problem” in an organization????  Women who have been sidelined for doing EXACTLY what their male peers and superiors have done.  They are being held to different standards than their male counterparts.  This isn’t something new.  The difference is that I expected it.  These young women don’t.  They don’t have any of the baggage that exists in both senior leader’s minds and in the minds of women who’ve risen through the ranks.  They are used to being equal.

It is Time!

And they are right.  It is time.  So . . . look at that list again.  Which of the beliefs that senior women believe in the survey —lack of line management experience, lack of role model,  exclusion from informal networks, lack of awareness of organizational politics–do you believe?  What are you going to do about it.  For yourself?  For young women in your organization?

Male leaders–what are you going to do about it?  What stereotypes do you believe that it is time to rethink?  What are you doing — being a mentor, role model, advocating for talented women in your organization, including women in your informal networks, hiring women into line management–to begin to build the leadership pipeline in your organization to include and support women?    It is time.

Do it in honor of your mother.  Do it for your daughter. Do it for all of us.

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Filed under Career Development, Diversity, Executive Development, Success

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