Tuesday, June 9, 2009

I'm back and I'm mad as hell...

Okay, I'm not really mad as hell. But I am back and thanks to the encouragement of a few people (probably the only few who actually read my blog) I am going to make a concerted effort to post more often. Because I like it. Because I have opinions. Because I quit corporate America to do more writing.

But I am also back in corporate America. This time as a contractor, but I'm an integral part of the team I'm on. I'm even on the org chart! I joke that I took the same job I had three years ago, only for less money and no benefits. But, then again, I do have flexibility. And that's the price that I, and many other working parents, pay when we choose to step off the corporate ladder. I'm okay with my choice, primarily because I had the opportunity to make it. But what if someone else made the choice for me? You can bet I'd be mad as hell.

Apparently it happens all the time. A new study, Getting a Job, Is There a Motherhood Penalty?, highlights the pay gap between working women who have children and those who do not. The study is getting some press (BusinessWeek article here) and of course, it's also getting some people riled up.

As part of the research, equally qualified mothers and non-mothers submitted resumes for a job (the only indication that an applicant was a mother was the inclusion of a Parent-Teacher Association activity). In every category, the "mother" was judged more harshly than the non-mother. She was expected to be less committed and competent, would be allowed fewer days of arriving late and needed to score higher on tests to be considered for employment. All this because of one line on a resume! So for all those moms thinking about re-entering the workforce, beware the advice to highlight your volunteer work!!

(However, the part in the study that really got me is this: "Men were not penalized for, and sometimes benefited from, being a parent." Another topic for another time, this annoying double standard)

I could sit here and gripe about how unfair life is, but I won't. I've been riding on the see-saw of family and work for years now. There are times when I give more time to work and times when I give more time to family, but overall it's been okay so I don't have much to complain about.

But here's something that the study doesn't show: Being a mother makes me a better worker. Yep, it's true. Because I am a mother, I am:

Better prepared to deal with people. I have two children, Thing One and Thing Two. They are twenty months apart in age and a world apart in personality. Although they are being raised in the same house, with the same parents and the same values, rules, and other control factors, they are very different people with different temperaments and approaches to life. What works for Thing One does not work for Thing Two. Thing One is easygoing, happy to be around, easily amused. Thing Two is serious, stubborn, intensely focused, hard to smile. So, I've had to change my parenting approach when dealing with them. But the benefit is that if I'm managing someone--a subordinate or a supervisor--I'm much more in tune with his or her personality and can tailor my approach to fit the situation. And while I'd read plenty of management books before I became a parent, none of Steven Covey's principles made the impact as my real-life parenting experience.

More efficient. Many people say that multi-tasking was invented by moms. And I can see why. Just as when I'm "Mom" I can cook dinner, talk on the phone and help Thing Two with an arts and crafts project, when I'm "worker" I really can have a few IM windows open, listen to a conference call and send out a business note. The difference is, I know when I can give some tasks my half-attention and when I need to focus on just one task. I attribute this to being a parent because there are times--when you need to suss out the truth, calm a fear, or listen to a problem--when you need to give a kid some undivided attention. Likewise, there are times at work when you need to ignore the phone, shut down the instant message and just get the work done.

More effective. Another well-worn cliche is "if you want something done, give it to a busy person." But in my case, it's true. I'm much more efficient when I have a lot to do, and I'm effective because I get it done. Because I have a limited amount of time that I can spend at my desk, I don't really think about it. I don't get overwhelmed, I just chunk things into tasks and I do it. And this has extended beyond my work into other areas of my life, such as working out: even though I work from home and could take time out during the hours of 9 and 3 to run, history shows that I won't do it. So that's why the alarm goes off at 5:30 every day. That's my workout time, and I have just one hour to get it done. And, most days I do.

Able to see what's important. Before kids, I'd stay late to get the one last thing done. I'd send notes at midnight. I'd respond to every single mail that hit the inbox. I was quick and responsive. Now, though, I'm not always the first to respond. And that's okay, because I've found that sometimes things work themselves out. Or other people want to add input and I'm not needed. I also don't feel the need to turn every single thing at work into something urgent and important. Because it can't all be urgent and important. And it's true: having kids does help you figure out what matters in life.

So, back to the study. Am I surprised by the findings? No, not really. I'm a bit jealous that men get a better deal on this whole parenting thing.

To use a phrase dreaded by most kids, I'm disappointed. I'm disappointed that corporate America can't see the benefits that working mothers bring to the table. I'm disappointed that there aren't better childcare options or more companies offering flexible work arrangements. But the fact that we can all talk about this and draw attention to it makes me think that we can work to change it.