As I’m winding down my MBA experience, I’m taking a management class to prepare for what I hope will be a big career transition over the next few years. The course launched this weekend with a case about a manager in his early 30s with a wife and three children who relocates to India to open a new corporate office. Needless to say, as in all business school cases, problems ensue. The class ended with an update on the manager, who ultimately turned the office around by changing his own values and perspectives, as well as rethinking elements of his strategy.
The update came in the form of a video, which opened with the slightly older and wiser manager talking about the burden of his family obligations in the early days of the new division. He had underestimated the difficulty of finding schools for his children, and of acclimating the family to a new place and culture. He spent many daytime hours absorbed with family, and subsequently had to do most of the company meetings in the evenings.
I was appalled. The case clearly defined the problems, and none had to do with the manager’s family. Yet, the very first ‘excuse’ the manager made was family obligations. An ambitious woman — no matter how many family crises she faces — never uses family as an excuse. It’s career suicide.
Let me explain a little further. There’s excellent research that indicates that men who have children fare as well — or even better — than their childless peers. But mothers are less likely to be hired, promoted, and see increases on compensation than their male and childless co-workers. And not by a small magnitude — one study indicated that women who revealed they had children were 100% less likely to be called for jobs than those who did not reveal any family obligations.
Women who want to succeed are cagey about their family lives. They never say that a project went awry even in part because of because of family obligations, largely because that’s not why their projects go awry, but also because women who suggest that their family is a priority are immediately discounted and discredited.
As I listened to the manager talk, I felt glum. In our 70% male program, the group hardly needs reinforcement of the idea that mothers are less valuable to their companies. Whether they are conscious of it or not, this group is already likely to be biased against women with children. While this manager was male, his words had much greater impact on the women in the room than on the men simply because women are perceived as more dedicated caretakers. If even this hard-driven, male, Harvard MBA couldn’t handle work and family, how could a presumably even more family-committed woman?
This all feels particularly relevant to me right now. Women who have already achieved C-suite status usually have some freedom to talk about their family life at the office, but those of us who are on the way up know that it’s best to keep mum about our children. In many corporate offices, it’s more acceptable to say that you are tired because you were out late drinking with friends than it is to say that you were nursing a sick baby.
But, of course, that puts us in a very lonely spot: never suggesting that it’s hard to maintain a vigorous career and a healthy family, always suggesting that it’s all very manageable because you know that a moment of weakness can mean that your boss ‘takes pity’ on you and ‘relieves’ you of some plum assignment. He or she thinks that they’re doing you a favor, making your life easier. What’s really happening is that opportunities are dissolving.
All of this means that it’s sometimes difficult for women to build deep friendships at work, where they need to keep a major part of their lives under wraps. And that has serious ramifications. Men build networks of friends and advocates that lead to opportunities; women, always careful, always guarded, may have a harder time connecting with powerful mentors and colleagues.
They say it’s lonely at the top. When you’re a mother, it’s lonely in the middle, and that makes it a lot harder to climb the ladder.