MBA Moms in the Executive Ranks

Lauren J. Coyle 5/1/2010

Executive Mothers

Lauren J. Coyle: lcoyle@mba2010.hbs.edu. Please do not quote or distribute without permission of the author.

..................................................................................................................................................................... 6 Boundaries .................................................................................... 9 2 .................................................................................................................................................... You Need to Keep Working ............................................................... 6 Company Culture Matters… A Lot.................... 3 Findings: Recommendations from Executive Mothers ..............................................................................................................Table of Contents Executive Summary............................... 4 Do Not Wait to Have Children ........................................................................................................................................................................................... 7 Other Good Advice................................................................................................................................................................................. 4 Outsource: Hire As Much Help As You Can Afford ............... 4 If You Want a Career........................................................................... 5 Know Your Priorities and Live By Them ...... 3 Methodology & Questions .......................................................................................................................... 8 Bibliography ............................................................................................................................................ 7 Conclusion & Personal Lessons ...........................

These are the questions I asked them: • Can you tell me about your family life? What does your spouse do? How many children do you have? How old are they? Have you ever taken a significant break from work (longer than a 3-6 month maternity leave)? 1 Gail McGovern. In short. Gail went completely off topic (she had been speaking about raising money for the American Red Cross) and said that she wanted all of us to know that you really can have it all – you can have a great job and be a great mom. I wanted in! And I wanted kids. Boston. In reading several academic pieces as well as interviewing nine “executive mothers. And they are mothers.” I have found two things: • • Most well-educated women with children want to have the best of both worlds – they want to have meaningful careers while raising a family. 2 I found this incredibly depressing because I didn’t want to opt out.” MBA class discussion. tactical advice given to me by the nine women I interviewed. Gail gave me hope. 3 . I had worried that there weren’t many women like me – women with children who wanted to puruse meaningful careers. How were they able to pursue careers while also being the parents they wanted to be? Many of the women who “opt out” do so because they feel like they cannot be the mothers they want to be while working. 2009. Her comment told me that there were women out there who had done this. I was not alone.Executive Summary This project was born out of a comment Gail McGovern made as a guest lecturer in Youngme Moon’s Consumer Marketing class last fall. Methodology & Questions The women I interviewed have achieved a high level of professional success in business.” The New York Times Sunday Magazine. MA. They are consultants. They are leaders of their organizations. How had these women avoided that trap? I expected (and feared) that I would get nine divergent pieces of advice. This paper focuses on the incredibly helpful. 1 As a relatively new mother about to re-enter the workforce after getting my MBA at Harvard. October 23. but that’s not at all what happened. These women came to a consensus on many points and this paper focuses on those points. I wanted to find out what these women did on a daily basis that made their lives work. suggests that well educated women are “opting out” left and right. October 26. 2 Lisa Belkin.com/2003/10/26/magazine/26WOMEN. led by Lisa Belkin’s New York Times Magazine article. 2003. operators and strategists. accessed April 20. 2010. I had wondered whether this was possible.html?scp=1&sq=opting%20out&st=cse. financiers. “The Opt-Out Revolution. http://www. It can be done – you can have a meaningful career and have a family. Harvard Business School. At the end of that class. So much of the popular literature.nytimes. “Consumer Marketing.

At the same time. If you want children. eight of the nine women I interviewed strongly recommended having children as soon as you are ready. One executive mother said emphatically. however. a new business venture. assuming that children will eventually happen for them courtesy of high-tech reproduction – only to discover disappointment and failure. p. 3 4 .” All of the interviewees know countless women who kept waiting for the next promotion or the next quarter or the next bonus and then found themselves unable to have children. 4 Ibid. “If you are in the right relationship and you want to have kids. about the perks of having a child once you are fairly senior in an organization.” 4 In line with these findings. none of the interviewees thought it was easy to have children early in your career – it’s just that it might be impossible to have them later.. I have not referred to anyone by name without express permission to do so. an in-house project you’ve been asked to take on) how do you know whether or not you should pursue it? Can you give a specific example of such an opportunity. The advice from these women was consistent – don’t wait. 70.• • • • What childcare choices have you made throughout your career? What has worked best for you and your family? What does the overall picture of household help look like? What strategies do you use to ensure that you fulfill your commitments to your family and to your company? Do you have strict “boundaries” that you set? What are they? When a new opportunity presents itself (a job offer. and how you made your choice? What does the phrase “work-life balance” mean to you? Do you think it is possible? Desirable? Do you think you have achieved it? Why or why not? Because I wanted interviewees to feel free to speak as candidly as possible. “Executive Women and the Myth of Having It All.” Harvard Business Review 80 (April 2002): 66. And have them now. You Need to Keep Working Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce have written about “On-Ramps” and “Off-Ramps” for women in the workforce. Two of their findings were startling: first. Her boss made accommodations for her (such as keeping her on local clients so she wouldn’t have to travel) that she thinks he would not have made had she been less senior. DON’T WAIT. She spoke. She felt that she was able to call more of the shots than she thinks she would have been able to had she held a less senior position. Findings: Recommendations from Executive Mothers Do Not Wait to Have Children Sylvia Ann Hewlett wrote in the Harvard Business Review that “The typical high-achieving woman childless at midlife has not made a choice but a ‘creeping nonchoice. If You Want a Career. Only one executive mother had her daughter “late” in life (at 39) and she had not originally intended to have children.’” 3 She continued. the Sylvia Ann Hewlett. “Too many career women put their private lives on the back burner. “Among women who take off-ramps. have them.

One mom described choosing the right childcare as “absolutely critical. and anything else that needed to be done around the house.. the dry cleaning.” She continued. She believes this is true for men as well as women. Time after time. 6 Ibid.overwhelming majority have every intention of returning to the workforce – and seemingly little idea of just how difficult that will prove. 5 Slyvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce. “Do not underestimate how hard it will be to go back to work after an extended break. but the key difference between men and women in corporate America is that most male executives have a stay-at-home spouse. And all of them believed that it was absolutely necessary to return to work within those six months. p. “You have to be able to focus on work at work and on home at home. She said. Another said that when she is hiring. 6 None of the women I interviewed took anything longer than a six month maternity leave. women remarked.” 5 Second. Outsource: Hire As Much Help As You Can Afford I divide the discussion on outsourcing between (1) childcare and (2) other household help because I think they are different discussions. the women I spoke with had (in addition to fulltime childcare) hired housecleaners and household “managers” – people who would do the laundry.” “It is really hard to get hiring managers to take you seriously with a huge gap in your resume.” A majority of the women I interviewed also believe that hiring additional household help was necessary.” Another said. they are happy. Trustworthy childcare was essential for every woman I interviewed.” Harvard Business Review 83 (March 2005): 45. “This whole misconception that you’ve got to be home with your baby is misguided. It is widely accepted that for a woman to go back to work. “You cannot worry about your kid when you’re at work!” Each of these women is comfortable with having someone else – be it daycare or a nanny – take care of their children for many of the daytime hours. 45. 5 . But as long as they are with someone who is taking good care of them. hired household help is often the best substitute most women can get. One mom explained. One woman explained that her home life has to be going well for her work life to be going well. she has to have childcare. a full 93% of highly qualified women who are currently offramped want to return to their careers. “Children want someone to be warm and caring. It is not widely accepted that she needs other household help. She’s not convinced that that woman is really committed to being back at work full time. Women can reduce their hours and work flexible schedules but they cannot leave the workforce completely if they want to return to their careers. Across the board.” A six-month maternity leave is not a big deal. but anything longer than a 12-month break can be “very problematic.” She believes that it is a myth that children need their mother and not a nanny or other caregiver to spend their days with them. she just can’t take the risk of hiring someone with a huge gap in her resume. “Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success. Although hiring household help will not afford one the same peace of mind that a stay-at-home spouse will. They know who their mom is.” one mom said. the cooking. the grocery shopping.

who was at one time a professor at HBS. And she doesn’t do work dinners. she started cutting things out. but only two things need to be perfect – your kid and your career. except 5:30pm – 7:30pm each day. One mother in management consulting said that she often finds herself saying no to a lot of things at work. she has to be “particularly passionate” about the project to take it on.” She leaves daily at 5:30pm. After that. most of the moms believed that their 6 . what would she find valuable? She realized that her career and her family would be the main sources of happiness in her life. she started thinking of her life and her time as a pie chart. five days per week. She says no to team dinners and recruiting events frequently. like many mothers. Another mother works until 6pm daily. Boundaries Each of the mothers I spoke with had placed boundaries between work and home to ensure that they got to see their families. This mom. One mother working at a start-up explained that she isn’t in the position to be the CEO of her company right now. several mothers had also thought strategically about the types of roles they want to take on while having children. Additionally.” All the mothers I interviewed had come to similar conclusions. Given her specific position. They can’t spend limitless time on the job so they have to think strategically about how they spend their time and which projects they pursue. did not get a lot of time for herself but she loved being a mom and she loved working. Everything else can land on the floor. in her words. told me that she “firmly believes that HBS women struggle because they want to make everything perfect. One mother. this mother doesn’t believe people actually understand why she does this. Even limiting themselves to work and family. She works and sees her family – the two things that contribute most to her happiness – and she is “deeply happy. Most mothers had a time at night by which they left their offices. One mother said. most women were very particular about taking on additional responsibilities. executive mothers have found that they have to prioritize their time at work. “You can set your clock by me. and those two areas are where she devoted her free time. Friends – she doesn’t see them often. Another mother told her team that they can contact her anytime. “deeply happy. This exercise required to think about what made her. Another mother said that in regard to pure extracurriculars. She cut nearly everything out. she felt that she just couldn’t be the parent she wants to be and also be the last decision maker for a company in its start-up phase with young children at home.” Looking back from the end of her life. but they are usually things that don’t necessarily add to her career.” This mother described herself as a “disorganized mess” who “never cooked a meal” while her daughter was young. this is a pretty hard line to take. Although their coworkers might not find their boundaries to be convenient.Know Your Priorities and Live By Them One mother completed a prioritization exercise nearly ten years ago in which she had to write her obituary. Those two hours are dedicated to her children. How would she spend her time? Where was her life going? In order to spend enough time with her family and on her job. but she rarely says no to client work. Although she is more than qualified. And although people say they understand. From there. All of the mothers explained that you have to have your “lane” of work in order first and foremost. Period. Hobbies – gone.

One mom said. their teams at work will have to give them some extra support because something will go wrong at home. upon walking in the door. One mother told me that if you want to be seen as a professional who happens to have children instead of a mom who happens to work. Annie wanted to outline her mom with chalk on the driveway. Several women mentioned that they do not check their phones.boundaries forced them to be more efficient.” She thought about what Annie would want and need from her that day and tried to be ready to give it to her. and their subordinates. including how and when she gets her work done. then never use your kids as an excuse for not getting something done. One night. The work has to get done. She said. “I am 100% theirs…. you want to be able to access it easily.” Being ready to play at any moment was her way of showing her daughter how much she cared. Several women have actively searched for family-friendly companies and many have been up-front with these companies about their intentions to leave work at certain times in order to get home to their families. So this last section is dedicated to comments that weren’t repeated by other women but certainly seemed worth repeating. 7 . email or blackberries from the moment they walk in the door until after their kids have gone to bed. Annie. to think of her as someone who was 100% dedicated to what she was doing.” Second. who wanted her daughter. not for the hours that you put into the job.” This same mother also emphasized the importance of making a credible impact at work early and making frequent deposits into the emotional bank accounts of those around you. Company Culture Matters… A Lot Each woman I interviewed spoke about the importance of working in a good culture with good people who would evaluate you for your work. So this mom headed right back out the door – in her suit – to the driveway to be “drawn. they need to make lots and lots of deposits into the emotional bank accounts of everyone around them – their bosses. the women I interviewed gave so much good advice and some of it was hard to place into one of the categories listed above. their peers. She said that executive mothers need first to figure out how they can “help the company in a material way – quickly. “Just because your kid got sick doesn’t mean your deadline changed. Many of the mothers talked about boundaries as more than just physically being home at a certain time. One mom explained that she didn’t have time to “goof off” at work because she has to leave at a certain time. One executive mother said that she tries to find out as much as she can about the man who will be her boss so that she can figure out if he will trust her enough to follow her judgment on things. Other Good Advice Lastly. When you need that support. voicemail. At some point.I think I’m mentally incapable of focusing on anything but them” during this time. Another mom. described her thought process for her drive home each night: she turned off her cell phone and tried to “get into an Annie frame of mind.

Recently though. Then they want to wait until the next promotion. this same mother also told me that it drives her crazy when working moms say they feel guilty about not being home with their babies. that if I focus on those two things I have a good shot at being great at both. It’s much harder to stay connected as a family when your kids are older. They may not be able to go back to work after a significant absence. I’ve started to value what Professor Youngme Moon eloquently called “lopsidedness. Two of the most important pieces of advice were contrary to what many of my friends believe they should do. recitals. She asked. In conclusion. these executive mothers nearly unanimously encouraged having children early. This will work for some women. with their eyes wide open. these executives unanimously recommended going back to work following a maternity leave.” I want to be a great mother. They think they need to wait until after business school. waiting is a risky proposition. etc) and the more they need you to help them make decisions. She said. Many of my classmates were shocked to find out that I planned on returning immediately and graduating on time with our class. the more they have going on (sports. Earlier in my life. “What could you possibly feel guilty about? You are earning a good living. She has two teenage sons and she thinks that women get duped into believing that they need to be home with their babies – that the infant and toddler years are the important ones to be home and be flexible. What women don’t seem to understand is that they are making a semi-permanent decision. I also want to be a great businesswoman. Women need to go into this. Countless times while I was pregnant as a first year student at Harvard Business School. I know. but feeling guilty is just “silly. thanks to all the women here. You are using your talents to make good in the world. plays. and it did work for one of the interviewees. Once a child starts making real choices – such as how much time to invest in school and who his friends will be – you need to be there and to be influencing and monitoring those decisions. “This whole misconception that you’ve got to be home with your baby is misguided. Second. as one executive mother said. Then they think they need to wait until after they’ve “established” themselves at work. Finally. many women think they should take one to two years off when they have a baby – to be present for the infant and toddler years. if a woman really wants children and if children will be key to her long-term happiness.” She thinks that society has somehow conditioned women to say they feel guilty about working.” Conclusion & Personal Lessons The advice these women gave me was incredibly helpful. however. This is the time that flexibility is essential. However. I valued well-roundedness and balance. First. her experience was that you really need the flexibility later – during the teenage years. I threw both ideas out. many young women believe they can and should wait to have kids.” The older children get. I feel like the best advice I’ve gotten through this project has really been to know my priorities and be true to those. However.Another mother shared her perspective on raising children while working and the need for flexibility. classmates asked me if I was even planning on returning to class and then how many years I was taking off. 8 . however.

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