Changing the Way We Talk About Work and Family

Young business woman in a office environment.By Robin Madell (San Francisco)

“I totally believe that employers WANT to feel comfortable with a multi-tasking mom, but at the same time, there are still sideways looks and quiet conversations with co-workers. I believe employers want to feel more comfortable with this, but I just don’t think they really do….”

–Katherine Woodfield Hermes, The EHIC Group

A recent article in the New York Times touched on the topic of the taboo that some working mothers face about admitting that office absences are related to their children. In the piece, Anne-Marie Slaughter—who was director of policy planning at the State Department under Hillary Clinton from 2009 to 2011—was quoted as saying:

“The whole idea that you can’t cut it if you have to go home is hard on any engaged parent. When I was dean [of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs], I was very conscious of openly saying ‘I have to go to a parent-teacher meeting. I have to go home for dinner.’ What kind of society doesn’t let us say these things? People who have to pretend they’re doing something else are just going to be miserable, and ultimately they’re going to drop out.”

The author of the article, KJ Dell’Antonia, who interviewed Slaughter said that Slaughter’s comments made her rethink her own choices as a working mother in terms of how to talk about work and family:

“I spent the days after my conversation with Professor Slaughter trying harder to own up to the time compromises I make to both do my job and be home for my family. I explained that I was offline for an afternoon for a school event instead of just responding to e-mail without acknowledging that I wasn’t working. I took an earlier train and declared it, instead of letting it be assumed that the train was my only option. Even as a writer focused on issues of family, I have spent a fair amount of time at ‘doctors’ appointments’ rather than ‘children’s doctors’ appointments.’ It is surely easier for me to break that silence than it would be for many, but it still felt powerful, and honest, in a way I enjoyed.”

Dell’Antonia concluded her thoughts by asking readers whether they can begin to change the way they talk about the intersection between family and work, and speculated whether doing so might help change workplace culture around these issues.

Weighing In

What do you think? Are there ways that women can more honestly own their time commitments without jeopardizing their jobs? Some career experts say yes. “We’re women! We have children! We are caregivers! And we are business leaders! No longer should we leave our personal lives at the door when we come to work,” say Sharon Hadary and Laura Henderson, authors of How Women Lead: The 8 Essential Strategies Successful Women Know.

Yet some executives feel less than comfortable being transparent with their employers about leaving work for family responsibilities. Christine Tsien Silvers, MD, PhD, chief medical officer at AFrame Digital, Inc., keeps her statements honest albeit limited in detail. “I definitely prefer to avoid mentioning my reasons for being absent,” says Tsien Silvers. “I do not usually volunteer specific reasons that are personal (whether or not related to the kids). I usually simply say, ‘Sorry, I have another meeting at that time’ or ‘Sorry, that time doesn’t work for my schedule’ even if the reason is that my three-year-old daughter and I are meeting a friend and mom for a playdate!”

Technology executive and working mother JJ DiGeronimo takes a similar approach, as advised by a mentor. “I was told a few years ago that a meeting is a meeting,” she says. “You are not obligated to share who you are meeting with. Since then, I do just that: I block my calendar, take care of my responsibilities (work and family), and keep my explanations short, which is never an issue because I deliver results. I believe that minimizing all the explanations (‘I have to go to the doctor’s…”) has helped my professional brand and removed the guilt.”

Kathy Hannan, who is national managing partner, diversity and corporate responsibility, at KPMG LLP, validates that although candid discussion is necessary, over-communicating is unnecessary. “Sometimes people feel guilty for leaving the office and have a tendency to apologize or over-justify a reason,” says Hannan. “The most important thing you can do is focus on the job or assignment and how you’ll get the results you want, regardless of the need to step out for a non-work priority such as a ballet recital or soccer practice.”

Gail Tolstoi-Miller, CEO and chief staffing strategist for Consultnetworx, is both an executive and HR professional. She agrees that taking time off for a child’s doctor’s appointment should be permissible and an employee need not explain why they are taking a day off. “Just request to take your personal, sick, or accrued time off,” says Tolstoi-Miller. “It is not your employer’s business as to why you need to take a day off. The more you keep your personal life out of the office, the better.”

Pushing for Change

While some suggest a “less is more” approach to sharing the details behind office absences, others believe that holding back may cause more problems than it solves.

Allison O’Kelly, founder and CEO of the national flexible staffing firm Mom Corps, says her number-one piece of advice is to never downplay or make excuses to your employer or colleagues on why your family commitments are important and deserve attention.

“When you lose confidence or start backtracking, you begin to face resistance and judgment,” says O’Kelly. “If you express with confidence that you need to come in an hour early in order to leave an hour early to attend your child’s soccer game, your employer will respect your diligence and likely give you his or her blessing. Conversely, if you walk in lacking confidence and start off apologizing, you automatically downplay your needs. Say upfront what you need, and then express how you plan to make up for anytime spent away from the office – confidently.”