“They have no kids. They don’t get it and I don’t want to be perceived as using parenthood as an excuse to work less.”
“Failure to meet expectations or raise concerns about the culture will result in lower performance ratings, lessened confidence and fewer opportunities.”
“Fear of retaliation. Lack of understanding by agency leadership. Most managers are men with stay-at-home wives. They have no clue the challenges of single parenting with a high risk chronically ill child with immune deficiencies.”
Over 2,400 parents, mostly Mothers (96%) have shared their work/life needs through the pandemic in our study. And when asked, ‘why don’t you share your concerns with your boss or employer?’ it’s probably no surprise that few (20%) believe they can, without penalty.
The pandemic has only underlined the obstacles Mothers face at work. It’s not new. But caring for kids and homes amidst pandemic overload, is. Almost half (43%) in our most recent survey wave (late June through September 1) are still facing disruptions to childcare. While learning how to live and work differently. Often, in newly hybridized or remote settings.
Flexibility Remains at the Discretion of Your Manager
“My manager is type a, with grown kids and a rich spouse and feels we can all work at the same level.”
“I’ve been told by my supervisor that I should not bring these things up.”
“It feels like I’m beating my head against a wall. My manager smiles apologetically and says “I know….but it’s what the senior management team needs us to do”. And then I have to do the same thing to my direct reports. I think our senior management team expects that we all want to fully dedicate our lives to the firm at the expense of our families and other interests because that’s what they have chosen.”
Flexibility is the new black. Everyone needs it. But who gets to have it? When surveyed Moms were asked ‘what policies or benefits they need implemented at work’ more than half (62%) are for different forms of flexibility: schedules (13%,) hours (14%,) expectations (18%) and the ability to work from home (17%.) They also want raises (19%,) paid leave (16%,) and subsidized childcare (11%.) Although benefits make a big difference, without a supportive manager, many don’t feel free to use them. And express feeling trapped at best. Or muted at worst. So, how do you career without an effective manager or the psychological safety you deserve?
So, Few Risk Asking for it
“Our chief of staff and CEO are both very driven, passionate, and have high expectations and goals. I appreciate those things about them, but showing signs of “weakness” or thinking outside the box of ‘traditional hard work’—e.g. to suggest something like fewer hours or 4-day work weeks—would not go over well. I think it would make me look like I don’t want to work as hard as they do, and I would be viewed in a less-positive light.”
“Fear that I won’t be seen as a dedicated, serious employee interested in growing.”
Across the study, although almost half (46%) cited doing ‘terribly or not as well as usual’ at work. Self-confidence in work performance has steadily improved since the first half of the pandemic. But most surveyed parents still don’t feel comfortable sharing concerns with their boss or leadership. Why? Sadly, the reasons are predictable. The work of culture change is hard, long and often, thankless. And because they have either faced or fear retaliation, many surveyed Moms self-silence. The path of the whistle-blower in any structure is rarely glamorous. Why aren’t leaders more tuned in?
Because Many Managers Lack Empathy
“…Senior management compensation relies on hitting goals set for them by the firm owners and the only way to show they are “trying” is to try to extract blood from a stone.”
“She has worked in the office a handful of days this year and expects us to manage it all. When questioned, I was punished and treated badly.”
“When I have, I know my Director did not advocate for us. It is pointless.”
Surveyed Moms cite elderly, male, affluent or childless leaders that simply couldn’t understand or empathize with their challenges. And that feeling, combined with not having the psychological safety or trust, builds an impassable wall between overwhelmed Moms and their organizations. Worse, despite the lack of support, they push themselves to run an unwinnable race. Why does this harmful cycle persist?
Vulnerability is Still Treated Like a Weakness at Work
“I already feel singled out as a parent of young kids and I don’t want to be the one to stick my head of the sand. I also feel like people think that I would be over exaggerating how difficult it is to juggle kids and a full-time job.”
“They have never asked but is there an avenue for sharing such concerns? I have not met with my supervisor this year.”
You invest a lot in your career. And it often takes years of study and practice to have your expertise recognized. And everyone wants to be excellent at everything. So, when faced with conflicts between the roles at work and home, many will push themselves to the point of burnout. Our society glamorizes self-sacrifice in the workplace. And most expect martyrdom from Mothers and perfectionism from women.
Surveyed parents shared that not only do they blur the work/life distinctions, if they’re working at home, many receive a steady stream of requests, with the implied pressure to respond at all hours. Boundary setting with a manager was uncomfortable for most people pre-Covid. It’s the type of difficult conversation few embrace. But is it possible?
Maybe. it Really Comes down to the ‘Boss Lotto’
Less than 3% in our study believed they could ask for the benefits or policy changes they need. Most don’t feel like their gifts are seen by their managers. Which puts the burden of change onto exhausted Moms. But parents are comparing notes and coming together at work. Both informally, through ad hoc email lists or channels. And more formally, through Employee Resource Groups (ERG’s.) Sarah Johal, the Executive Director of Parents in Tech Alliance and serial ERG Leader said, “With the growing momentum of more ERG’s we’re now seeing collective pressure on companies to say, ‘yes, we care about this.’ And your managers should care about this as well.”
But There are Artful Ways to Set Boundaries at Work
It often means reframing the circumstances and your needs in ways that align with the business goals. Shouldn’t we be at a point where human needs matter? Yes. But not every manager can hear those SOS signals above their own overwhelm or lack of context. And the reality is, if you’re not resourced with the time, people or money to do something well at work, it’s not in the best interest of the organization either.
So, Push for Clear Priorities
For example, you can say, “I’m so excited to work on project X! Thank you. This is exactly the kind of work we should be doing. But wait, last week project Y was the top priority. If I start X, then Y will suffer. Which one is more important?”
And Ask for the Right Resources
An alternative to asking for prioritization is to request the resources the project needs to be successful. You might experiment with saying, “Oh, project X is like a dream project and I’m excited to take it on. What’s your budget? I suspect we’ll need the following types of resources up to half-time. Let me begin working on a project scope once you’ve determined how much you can spend.”
Plug Into the Power of Your Tribe
Reach out to your friends and fabulous professional contacts who may have dealt with similar challenges. Many have found clever ways to tunnel over or under them. There are also industry groups and peer networks online. Or as Sarah shared, tap into the ERG for parents at work. Because the receptivity from organizational leaders to employee groups as a catalyst for change is growing. She said, “There is a little bit more air coverage now for internal advocates, because companies have to care so much more about diversity, equity and inclusion today than they ever have. And it’s helping to solve for what I call the boss lottery. Because we can have a great supportive workplace on paper. But it all comes down to that one-on-one experience where we spend the most of our career time, day-to-day.” Right. But if you’re on the losing end of the boss lotto, don’t settle.
And Remember, You Can Always Upgrade
Although it’s not the majority, some cited positive experiences in the survey. One Mother said, “I am comfortable discussing anything with my boss.” And another found support through formal escalation channels, “Challenges were shared with our union and they helped to mitigate the issues. Thank God for our union.”
So, savvy organizations are paying attention to the rise of employee power in the wake of economic recovery. And more than half of our surveyed Moms aren’t committed to their employers. Leaders who are careless with people or their feelings, will face a reckoning. But until then, you can protect your sanity, wellbeing, and family needs. So, although managers’ individual behaviors don’t always line up with company values, you can still vote with your time. And find better pay, benefits, leaders, flexibility, or policies, like remote work, someplace new.
Many thanks to the talented Sarah Johal for sharing her expertise!
Super grateful to the many amazing parents who have participated in the research study. Have you chimed in yet? Share your pandemic experiences! How are the latest changes affecting your life? It’s quick and the results from this study are used to advocate better support for parents.
Employers, let us help you transform your workplace into an environment where caregivers thrive. Learn about Allies @ Work.
About Sarah Johal:
Sarah Johal (she/her) is a tech marketer who believes building brand means building belonging. And Executive Director of national nonprofit Parents in Tech Alliance. She’s directed award-winning global campaigns, live experiences, and platform integrations with the world’s top brands including Disney, Delta Airlines, Nike, and Spotify.
Along the way, Sarah is redefining inclusive workplaces. Her impact is covered in Fast Company, Forbes, Entrepreneur, Ladies Get Paid, Refinery29, and Slate for providing thousands of Americans with paid family leave. She founded Lyft & Workday’s family ERGs (employee resource groups), and serves as board advisory for several startups & nonprofits. Sarah lives in the East Bay with her husband and daughter.Tags: Career development, manager relationships at work, professional development, psychological safety at work, Work life balance, work life integration for Moms