Now that the dust has settled from recent skirmishes around women and work, and President Obama has officially declared equal pay a good thing, let’s turn the spotlight away from the authors and politicians and shine it on the almost 70 million women in the U.S. workforce everyone has been talking about.
Trouble is, we’ve been discussing gender issues at work as if there’s a one-size-fits-all solution. While we may want to create neat, succinct policies to ensure women have equal opportunities, the fact is, any group that comprises more than half the workforce is bound to have mighty diverse concerns.
Take women ages 24 to 30. Recently, a colleague and I ran a focus group with young professional women. We had designed material to generate a discussion about women’s encounters with bias and unfairness at work, and we wanted to test it with them. Our historical feminist perspective widely missed the mark. These women were confused by what they viewed as our negativity about the subject. In fact, they told us, they did not feel they were losing opportunities to their male counterparts. They were being promoted quickly, their bosses were using processes fairly, and they felt they were being paid equitably. Huh?
Of course, one focus group does not a research project make. But Jodi Detjen and her co-authors reported similar feedback in their book, The Orange Line. They found women often enjoy general equality with men in their career trajectory prior to their childbearing years. While Sheryl Sandberg and others have been emphasizing the challenges of working motherhood, these young women in their early professional years are facing different dilemmas. They hadn’t experienced bias … yet.
But the women in our focus group were anticipating it. They wanted to know: When and to whom should I announce my engagement? Should I let my co-workers know that I hope to have a baby? What can I do to ensure that I don’t get relegated to the mommy track?
These young women looked forward to having it all but knew there would be hurdles. One of the big ones: being taken seriously as professionals. They didn’t see their bosses as the only constituency they needed to handle. They wanted help managing others’ impressions of their capabilities; they wanted creative plans for balancing their work and home responsibilities; they wanted guidance on how to persuade decision-makers they could pull it off.
Based on what I know about organizations that support the working mothers in their ranks, here’s the advice I shared:
Use tech to adapt your schedule, but don’t skimp on face time.
Technology allows workers to redefine face time, providing geographic flexibility to young professional women. E-mail responsiveness is great, but seeing is still believing for many bosses. One of my clients has created a conference table with a virtual seat reserved for telecommuting employees. The large screen provides a full-size image of the person, and the camera allows the telecommuter to see everyone at the table. It feels as though they are right there. Other video communications software allows face-to-face chats with co-workers anytime, at any workstation. Have a plan to get your face in front of your boss and co-workers as often as possible when you can’t be there in person.
Create the data you want to be measured on.
While organizations aspire to evaluating performance based on results, outside of sales and other budget-related metrics, measuring success can be a gray area. Creating detailed plans and regularly reporting on progress is a great way to showcase performance, preempting questions like, “What is she doing?” that get answers like, “I have no idea.” Measure your activities and also measure your results. Don’t give anyone room to question your dedication to your work.
Plan to sacrifice.
Engage in periodic feats of heroism. Plan for emergencies and have a back up at home, because nothing says dedication like making a sacrifice for the team. You don’t have to pick up everyone’s slack, but when your turn comes around, step up and put yourself out—like when the CEO wants that report from your department two weeks earlier than the original deadline. Be humble, and let your team members tell the tale of your amazing feat for you. You may not always be in the office, but occasional acts of gallantry demonstrate you are definitely in the game—and are a team player.
Yes, it would be wonderful to lean into one’s parenting partner when the time comes, but that solution is sluggishly inching its way to mainstream. In the meantime, the fundamentals still resonate: Have a plan, measure yourself, and communicate often.