Friday, March 8, 2013

Killing the Working Mother

Since it is International Women’s Day, I thought it would be the perfect time to post up something I have been researching lately. With the prospect of being a mother no longer years away from me, I have been doing some in-depth research into the difficulties that a female professional faces when she decides to become a parent. (For my family and friends, I am not pregnant. I am simply preparing for when I am.) The two things that concern me the most are:

  1. Why do women who are parents tend to hit a glass ceiling in upward movement?
  2. What factors affect a women’s decision to leave the workforce when they start having children?
Before I go further, let me point out that in the paragraph above, I did not say “working mother”. I am not a fan of this term because I feel that it limits women. Seriously, just think about the fact that you never hear a man referred to as a “working father”. Why is that?

To prevent confusion, let me point out that I am not against women being stay at home parents. However, let me also say that I have seen successful women leave their jobs after having children and that I have seen successful women (who continue to work) struggle with their careers after having children – and I would like to know what causes this to happen!

I have found some articles and even a few books about this topic. Unfortunately for young professionals like myself, there is very little all-encompassing information about it, and even less information about how to prevent it.

Opting Out?
One of the books that came across my path is Opting Out by Pamela Stone. In her book, Pamela speaks with over 50 women (most with a great college education) who had very successful professional careers before parenthood. However, at some point, each of these women left their amazing careers to be full-time mothers.

When the author began asking the women why they decided to stay home, the overall answer was “family reasons”. Not satisfied with this quick answer, Pamela began asking them more pointed questions and learned that there were many more factors involved. Some of the more specific reasons were:
  • The desire to be a full-time mom from the beginning
  • A strong pull to be with children after they were born
  • The cultural/media norm implying that a good mother is a very involved mother (one who carefully plans each detail of their child’s development and education)
  • Medical complications in children
  • Becoming worn out from working two full-time jobs (professional and parent)
  • Husbands who were ‘supportive’ of women’s choices yet did not step up to split the parenting/house work load.
  • The wife’s/husbands’ careers started to grow and take more time away from home
  • Lack of flexibility in work schedule
  • Being overlooked for new positions when management learned they were pregnant
  • Receiving the boring, bottom of the barrel work after they had children

Apart from the women who always wanted to be full-time mothers, Pamela found that more than one of the reasons listed above contributed to the women’s’ decisions to leave their jobs. Most women found themselves in a double-bind situation where their work was pushing them away and their home life was pulling them away.

Reading through the book, it seemed that, eventually, the trouble for these women started in the home. Despite living in the 21st century and men saying women have choices, the unspoken responsibility rules seemed to be as follows: that women were responsible for the care of the children, that men were responsible for their career, and that if the women wanted, they could also maintain a career. Another interesting, unspoken rule in our culture (one that really irked me) was that the women’s salary pays for childcare, and if the woman’s salary could not cover the cost, why then should she work?

In the final chapters of the book, the author looks into how these women coped with losing their careers. Some took to it naturally, and others were still struggling with giving up their careers. Volunteer work enabled some women to start using their career-level skills after time, and a few others were eventually able to pick up a little bit of part time work. Unfortunately, none of them were able to return to the careers where they had been so successful.

Review of the Book
As with all books, I found things that I liked and did not like. Overall, I found the book to be informative, but at the same time, even though it had lots of great insights, I still found that it was limited and did not fully reflect on all women’s situations. Here is a quick breakdown of my thoughts about the book itself:

  • The book covered many difficulties that women who are parents face. Each different challenge was fully described and laid out for the reader.
  • The book showed both the good and bad influences with equal emphasis. The author really wanted to get to the heart of the issue, no matter what the results were.
  • The writer really delved into the details of why women left the workforce. She kept her sources anonymous, but it did not take away from each woman's story.

Did not like
  • The book focused only on upper-middle class (or higher) women. (ie: white women from mostly privileged backgrounds) I understand that the writer wanted to focus the study on women who met the media/cultural stereotype, but I believe she would have had greater success in breaking the stereotype by showing that the world of professional women covers more than just white, upper-middle class women.
  • The book could have been structured better, and information was repeated multiple times in different chapters.
  • The book held a lot of detailed text explanations. However, because this book is geared toward professional women, I feel that adding some strong visualizations would have added a lot of value, provided a new way to view the information, and broken up the long paragraphs more.

Final Thoughts
After reading Opting Out and other books/articles, I feel that a lot more research needs to be done on the struggles of professional women. I have more knowledge about the difficulties I might face as a professional after I become a parent, but I have found very little information about how to address and overcome these hurdles when I reach them.

For all the other females out there, educate yourself early on what you might face when you become a parent. Knowing the challenges is half the battle! Talk to other women who are successful professionals and learn their tricks. MOST IMPORTANTLY – if you want to be in a relationship, be sure to find a partner who will truly split the parenting/household responsibilities.

Don’t let your culture dictate who you should become. You have something to offer, and if you want to, you can be a part of something bigger, just like any man can.

Happy International Women’s Day!!

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