A mother’s advice for ‘the missing middle of the female workforce’

Alyson Gounden Rock, a research fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, is a 40-something mom back in the workplace and ready to provide some motherly advice to working moms about to have their first Mother’s Day.

She’s been a stay-at-home mom, a work-from-home mother, and a mom who worked full-time in the office while raising three kids, she writes on WBUR’s Cognoscenti blog today. But she wonders whether people like her are doing enough to provide guidance to millennial mothers, who, she says, are better positioned not to fall into the career-limiting traps other generations of mothers did.

The lack of paid leave and a federally-funded system of childcare left my generation on an unequal playing field. In particular, we were ill-equipped to deal with the decision of how to divide caregiving. Society frames this particular decision as a choice (especially for those who can afford to make it). However, it is at best a constrained choice, one certainly made without adequate information.

The Gen X mothers who had access to (paid or unpaid) leave were better able to create the conditions for quality childcare and stay in the workforce. But even in full-time, foot-to-the-floor career tracks, they suffered maternal penalties: Women who are mothers, irrespective of their actual caregiving arrangements, receive lower pay; are viewed as less committed; are seen as less promotable and are held to higher standards than fathers. Those who could not or did not want to delegate early care of their children found that “opting out” meant staying out, long term.

Well-intentioned gender equality initiatives focus on mothers in the workforce at the top of the corporate ladder, and on fixing the individual rather than the structure. But they forget to ask a fundamental question: Where is the missing middle of the female workforce? The answer? At work they are in mommy tracks or working flexibly and likely under-employed, under-promoted and under-paid compared with their male counterparts. At home they are developing leadership, organizational and negotiation skills that build value for their families and communities. But with no home-to-career exchange rate for these skills, and no “hybrid” professional path prizing skills gained outside of paid work, return to a career (not a job) is an uphill struggle.

So what advice would she give new mothers? The mere perception of the work-family conflict makes them less promotable than non-mothers. Weighing short-term costs and benefits alone is likely to lead to the ‘rational’ choice for the lower earner in a couple to scale back or stay home. Think long-term instead, she advises.

Things are going to change with this generation, she says. In the meantime, other mothers should be sharing their cautionary tales.