This piece made the rounds last week. In it, Katharine Zaleski apologized for the condescension and outright disdain she showed towards her coworkers who were working mothers. Her apology might have been more tolerable if it had come before she herself became a mother and realized that gee, it’s hard out there for working moms. Zaleski has seen the error of her ways and is co-founder of a company that seeks to match women with work-at-home tech jobs. Her piece rubbed me the wrong way because of her privilege that eased her decision to lean in or lean out. The majority of women don’t have C-level positions at start-ups coming their way. At the very least, I hope I wasn’t nearly the asshole she was to working moms in her office before I had kids. And really, that’s the crux of it. Was it really so difficult for her to attempt a modicum of empathy for those women? Was it really that impossible for her to think that maybe she might have kids someday and how would she like to be treated in the workplace?
One of the best responses to Zaleski’s piece was adamant in her refusal to accept the non-apology. Anne Born notes that being a working mom would have been more bearable if just one person had backed her up or spoken up as she received comments and side eyes doubting her work ethic. By not extending any support, no matter how small, women like Zaleski became just “one of the guys.” And Born is writing about what she experienced in 1997, a time not that long ago. She concludes:
I worked with too many women like you, Ms. Zaleski, who reinforced that I was just a lesser version of the other women I worked with who did not have such tedious family obligations. Working women are worth less enough already without your help – or your apologies.
Sometimes I think that with all the media coverage of “leaning in” and telecommuting, we think that it is easier to be a working mom than ever before. This topic has been on my mind a lot, especially since in NC, children missed almost 2 full weeks of school due to snow and sleet in February and for many working parents, that time must be made up or vacation used. Working from home is not permitted in all workplaces.
The truth is that it is still very hard to be a mom who works outside the home. It’s even more difficult if you need further accommodations. I think that there is a perception that daycare and programs like after-school care make it easy to work 8-5 if you are a working mother. That’s true if everything goes to plan, but what I and several other women I know have learned, it is as fragile as a house of cards.
- Think of the mother whose child qualifies for one of the few free preschool options available in NC. The problem is that while these preschools end when the school day ends, after-school care is not available for these students. The mother will need to leave work at 3:30 to transport her child to some other program so she is able to return to work in order to fulfill the hours she is expected to work. The logical answer would be to let her telecommute but sadly, her position classification makes that option unavailable. She also cannot take her lunch hour at that time because OSHA rules dictate that she take a break after 6 hours of work.
- After-school care is a godsend, but imagine if you are a mother whose child cannot cope in the school-sanctioned program. Maybe the child is acting out or just not coping well and on the verge of being expelled. Maybe the mother can hire a student to transport her child home and stay with the child until after work or maybe, if she’s lucky, she finds an alternative program that will pick up her child from school and take her to a program that is more suited to the child’s needs. While this mother will be relieved to find any option that works to keep her child safe and engaged while she fulfills her expected hours, these options cost money, likely more money than the school-sanctioned after-school program. These are also options that are likely more available in larger cities than smaller ones. What would be the answer for the mother who lives in a small town?
- Maybe your child is in a small school that is perfect for your child’s needs, and your child is thriving, but the after-school program goes only to 4 PM. Maybe in this case you have the ability to make up some of the missed hours, but you live in fear of a meeting being scheduled late afternoon and any hint that you might not be a dedicated employee who deserves the responsibility she has been given. You worry that coworkers view you as Zaleski viewed her coworkers who had children.
It is easy to say that these women should find other jobs that are more flexible, but the reality is that many workplaces are less flexible than you imagine. After all, even Yahoo rescinded its telecommuting policy. I work for the state and while there are drawbacks to being a state employee (flexibility being one), it has decent health insurance, paid time off and security. It is also one of the largest employers in my state. It isn’t that simple to go get a new job, especially when children are involved.
I applaud Zaleski for her epiphany (even if it is infuriatingly late for those women she worked with prior to having her own child) and her effort to make things better for working women through her new company. The problem is that her company will help only a small subset of working women: those with in-demand technical skills. What about the rest? What about the factory worker or hourly office worker who finds herself walking a tight rope of child care and praying that the few options that exist will work for her family? What about those women for whom telecommuting is not allowed? What about women who have children with special needs or needs that mainstream programs cannot support but who still need to or want to work?
We still have a lot of work to do to help mothers succeed in the workforce.