Children and Career: Making it Work

While women have been achieving greater strides in the professional world, the unfortunate pay gap and gender discrimination statistics persist. According to a new study by Palo Alto Software, 52 percent of women reported feeling prejudiced against, compared with just 9 percent of men. What’s more, the study reveals how parenthood impacts mothers much more than men professionally because their career peaks often happen parallel to childbirth. The career breaks impact a woman’s wage significantly, increasing the gap between them and men. Sabrina Parsons, Palo Alto Software

What can women do to navigate the workplace environment while becoming mothers? Palo Alto Software CEO Sabrina Parsons is known online as “Mommy CEO.” A parent of three children, she regularly writes about the challenges and solutions for women to not sacrifice their career development while keeping in touch with their children. Speaking at the White House Summit for Working Families this year, Parsons is a big supporter of workplace family friendly policies. She shares her insight on how to get past negative stereotypes and highlights some of the existing conditions that are unhelpful to women.

Diversity Executive had the opportunity to speak with Parsons on the subject. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

You wrote that “corporate America is designed for men, by men.” What does that mean?

In order to succeed in corporate America, you’re expected to adhere to certain norms. You are expected to be at the office during certain times, come in early and stay late. You’re expected to have no outside commitments, and if you do, you’re expected to keep them separate from your work life.

My argument is that it is much more difficult for women with children to adhere to these norms. Anyone who is a parent will understand that it’s impossible to keep work and home lives separate, and difficult to excel at work if you’re forced to keep them separate. And today, despite men being more involved as fathers, [women] bear a bigger burden in child rearing than men do. Part of that burden is due to the American culture norms that excuse working fathers from events related to their kids, but don’t yet excuse working mothers. I firmly believe that if working mothers are able to integrate both work and home lives, they’ll be much more focused, productive and happy at work.

What kind of initiatives could help turn those concepts around?

Flexible working hours and “bring your child to work” initiatives.  Employees should be judges and evaluated on work product, not when they do their work. Flexibility in working hours, and working from home should always be options to consider, and children should be allowed in the office on occasion, in an appropriate way, when child care isn’t available.

For parents like me who truly love their careers, it’s easier for us to succeed when work is more flexible. If I have to leave early for a swim meet, for example, I finish up my work later that night when the kids are sleeping. I’m able to get everything done and go above and beyond in my career, but on my own time. I’ve allowed my employees to have similar flexibility and I think it’s feasible for most companies to do the same.

My company has retained better employees, produced more and improved our bottom line since implementing family-friendly work policies. My employees appreciate being treated like whole people, and not just like bodies that get work done.

According to the study, women are five times as likely to feel discriminated at work or business setting. Do you think that’s a lot of that is due to overt behaviors, or subtle actions that the perpetrators aren’t always aware of?

This statistic does not surprise me, but at the same time is always disappointing to actually validate through something like this survey. I think that many working mothers feel the perception of criticism and discrimination in many parts of their lives. They feel like they are judged at work, and oftentimes people are looking for them to not work “as hard” or use their children as an excuse. I believe we’re at a place where the discrimination is not overt behaviors, but is more often subtle actions and judgments that are happening all the time to women — and many times the people aren’t even realizing that they are making these judgments or evaluating working moms different than working dads. There is a perception of the working mom that has to change, and not automatically assume that working moms will not work as hard, or get their work done. No one assumes working dads won’t get their work done, but it is often assumed that working moms will “slack off” and will not rise to the challenge. For all of us working moms that do rise to the challenge, and never slack off, this is a frustrating assumption.

How can the workplace be supportive to those who want to bring children to work?

Offices should have designated rooms or areas where older children can sit quietly and play games, read, nap or do homework. These areas should be separate from working areas and allow for children to be comfortable. Employees should feel comfortable bringing kids is when they need to — and not be afraid that they will be judged negatively or be deemed “unprofessional.”

Additionally, offices should be supportive of those employees who have chosen not to bring children to the office. These policies should not replace full-time day care. It should be an option for when school is canceled, kids are sick or child care is temporarily unavailable. At Palo Alto Software, our policies also do not allow colicky babies [babies that cry excessively].

What are the benefits of bringing children to work?

First, it provides the option for women with newborns to continue working after maternity leave and not take additional time off. When I was a new mom, I did not want to leave my newborn with anyone else, but I also did not want to take time off of my career. As CEO, I decided I would bring my son with me to the office, and it worked out great. In fact, I did this with all three of my sons. But, I don’t think this should be a privilege just because I’m CEO, which is why I’ve extended the opportunity to all employees.

I was able to bond with my babies, practice attachment parenting for the first five months of their lives. But at the same time I was able to be at work, further my career and do the job that I love. Was it easy? No. But it was my choice and what worked for me, my family and my business.

Additionally, for working moms with children who do have full-time day care or are in school, it simply provides peace of mind for those days when school is canceled, the kids are too sick to go to school or the usual daycare option is unavailable. This allows working parents to be truly dedicated to their careers without worrying about how they’re going to take care of their children while they’re at work.