“She’s Just Like You!” Are Women with Children Marginalized in the Workplace?

6 comments

I’m 33 years old, married with an 18-month-old daughter and another one on the way in May. In about 10 weeks I will be starting my 12-week unpaid maternity leave from my job as an associate at a small law firm in Hartford. With 7 1/2 years of total practice, but a few job changes throughout that time, I am what you might call a “senior associate” if a firm were to officially label me something: not quite ready for partnership, but at the same time, not exactly green either. I tell you all this to give you the backdrop for my story: I have just started a four-fifths schedule, after approaching the partners and explaining that I could use a day off during the week to accommodate the increasing challenges of my advancing pregnancy and the demands of raising a toddler (i.e., I need a regular mental health break or I will stab someone). This means that I work 4 days a week instead of 5 days, when my workload allows it; that instead of 1800 billable hours a year I’m expected to achieve 1440; and that my salary is reduced by 20%. This isn’t pursuant to some kind of policy at my job – we’re way too small for that. It was an invention designed for me, once I raised the idea of reducing my workload somewhat. We’re still working out the bumps.

So my boss and I are in the bar (him with a martini, me with my club soda and already-huge-at-25-weeks pregnant belly), when I ask him about an attorney we recently hired. I already happen to know that she is in her late 40s, was a partner when she left her firm to take twelve (12!) years off for her kids, and is now returning to work on a part-time basis. Her husband happens to be a partner at another firm – I’m guessing he makes around $250k-$350k a year, if not more. Their kids go to or went to a private high school.

“She’s just like you!” says the boss, cheerfully gripping his third Bombay Sapphire. “You know, she wants to work part-time, for her kids …” Then he says some other stuff before returning once more to, “So she’s just like you.”

I want to say something, as of yet unarticulated in my brain, when we are interrupted by two other people and this conversation is brought to an untimely end.

Later on, I realize what it was that I wanted to say.

“No, actually, she is not ‘just like me.'”

At 33, having been out of school for more than a few but less than ten years, having found my footing, but still being very much an associate with a new mortgage and a young family, I am not a near-50 year old woman whose husband makes the lion’s share of the household income so that I can be home for 12 years and still send our kids to private school. With a paycheck that is still larger than my husband’s, even being paid at 4/5 my salary, it is a huge sacrifice – yes, one that I chose, but a sacrifice nonetheless – when you consider how much we rely on my income to meet monthly expenses. Not to mention that a mother of teenagers is not changing diapers, making toddler-appropriate meals for daycare, or pregnant, most likely.

At a time when my career is so important and I am ever aware of the negative impact I am risking in voluntarily opting out of full-time work, I was unhappy to be compared to a stay-at-home mom of 12 years who is looking to pick up a little extra on the side now that her children are grown.

So no, actually. She’s not just like me.

If at this point you’re wondering why this is such a big deal to me, there is more of a backstory here that deserves its own post, but I’ll add one thought here: Do the people I work for think that all working moms can be classified into one neat little trajectory of work for a few years, go “part-time” (hate that term, as 30-40 hours a week is not really part-time), and then leave their careers hanging for 12 years to live off a well-paid husband until they feel ready to pick up a little work again? Do they expect me to do the same thing, and if so, are they already making decisions not to invest in me because they figure I won’t be around in a few years? If this person is “just like me,” then do they think that I have a wealthy husband, a trust fund for my kids’ private school, and no bills to pay?

I want to end this by saying that the guy I currently work for is probably the boss I have enjoyed working for and respect the most out of anyone else in the past. I don’t want to make this a bigger issue than it may be, nor do I want to turn this into a typical “me against the man” post or make it sound like it’s something personal against this new employee, who I don’t even know yet. Of course not. But the thought has stuck with me for this long, so I felt compelled to write about it. And further, even if it was just an innocent comment, I guess there’s the rub … it’s “innocent” comments that indicate a societal attitude toward and stereotyping of working mothers that needs to change. We may have some commonalities, but we’re individuals with different talents that contribute to our workplaces in different, and valuable, ways. And I guess it’s the lack of recognition of this sentiment that I see in “she’s just like you.”

6 comments on ““She’s Just Like You!” Are Women with Children Marginalized in the Workplace?”

  1. Sarah- thanks, I agree, and I think when the time is right I will say something. I do want to preserve that good relationship. Having written this out and reflected on it, I feel more like statements like this are made from a place of ignorance, and at least there’s hope that that can be changed.

  2. Melanie, I think the comment your boss made is ridiculous and offensive! I can understand why it upset you so much, but let me focus on something positive…I think it is wonderful that you changed your scheduled and did what you needed to do to balance your family demands with your work demands. If you are comfortable, I think it is something worth mentioning to your boss, especially if the two of you have a good working relationship. You will feel better and hopefully it will help him to gain a bit more perspective. Good luck!

  3. Hi, Melanie. What strikes me as truly frustrating and sad is that we’ve been talking about this for literally decades, pointing out benefits for employees and employers. I remember reading about it in college, well before it became an issue for me. We have to keep fighting the good fight, whatever that means for each of us. Nice picture of you and your little one!

  4. Thanks Leslie. I know he prides himself on having had associates work for him on various part-time schedules in the past, so that’s why I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. I think it indicates that a broader conversation needs to happen, on an institutional level as well as with individual employees (not just working moms, but working dads too!) and management. Another thing that struck me is that the day off of work each week is not actually to give me more time with my daughter … at least not right now. Instead, I pay for full-time daycare, and use the day off to do things that are just too difficult for me to do in my pregnant state with a kid in tow: grocery shopping, reviewing our finances, car repairs, etc. It’s also supposed to be a temporary situation, given where I am in life right now. The individuality aspect is very important to me, because there is no one-size-fits-all solution to juggling work and family. This is what works for me right now; our new person will hopefully have what works for her, and I hope future families are able to find what works for them in their own careers, to benefit not only them, but their employers!

  5. That’s a really scary comment. How could anyone think that way? I can’t think of a situation in which that remark would be appropriate. No one is just like anyone else. That it was a man saying it about women is troubling. That it was your boss makes my already furrowed brow furrow even more. However, I understand that you have enjoyed working for him and, in fact, the comment may turn out to have no relevance at all in terms of his treatment of employees. I would keep the antennae up (does anything use antennae anymore?!) and that’s about it. I wish you the best of luck in the work situation.

    As for being a Mom, yes. Take that mental health break whenever possible! I wish I had done so. I tried, and even though my daughter is now happily settled in as a college sophomore, I still feel as though I failed to take the mental health breaks I needed. I tried to cherish every moment and do have wonderful memories of every stage of her life. When you get to be my age you want to hold every baby you see!

    Best wishes,
    Leslie

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