What a Decade has Taught Us About Women in the Workplace

Ten years ago, The Atlantic published the most honest, soul-bearing, “Tell All” article I had ever read about women, mothering and work. “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” by Anne-Marie Slaughter, changed the conversation in 2012. Actually, that’s wrong. It started the conversation. Because before then, the conversation didn’t exist. It might have existed quietly, among women, but not beyond that.

My peers and I whispered to each other about our pregnancies and how to win the ultimate victory in working motherhood: Getting permission to WFH one day a week. But even scoring that victory was competitive, because if too many people wanted that luxury, companies often would clamp down and eradicate it for everyone.

And that’s precisely what happened to me in April 2012, newly pregnant with my 2nd baby. While sitting in traffic on the Pike, I got a message on my Blackberry that there was officially no more working from home, for all employees. I burst into tears. I sobbed.

And, I left that job for a new one while on my maternity leave.

Here are some of the rules that many of us lived by as working moms 10 years ago:

  • Save your sick days for when your children are sick. You can drag yourself to the office when you are sick, but you can’t send them to daycare/school when they are sick.
  • And when they are sick and you miss work, tell work that it’s because YOU are sick. Not them.
  • Don’t tell anyone that you are absent, missing work, or leaving early due to child obligations. You don’t need to give a reason, but certainly don’t volunteer that your kids are taking you away from work.
  • Keep the kids’ artwork at home. (I’ll never forget walking into a high-level executive at Arnold Worldwide, and seeing his office decorated floor to ceiling with his kids’ artwork. It evoked the same reaction in me that I’m sure it did everyone of the doting father: “Oh that’s so sweet!” And then I remembered the rule I was taught: “Keep the kids’ artwork at home.” And realized that rule did not apply to him…
  • Upon telling your manager you are pregnant, the line you share is “I’m pregnant, due in July, but I’m definitely coming back to work.” And then pretend the pregnancy doesn’t exist until July.
  • Work until your water breaks, or you are actually having contractions. I wanted my water to break while sitting in my office chair so I could get accolades that I worked right up until the end. And, I secretly wanted them to all have to deal with cleaning up the abhorrent mess of childbirth. I thought that would be an appropriate reminder that those are the consequences for  eliminating the work from home flexibility.

So here we are, a decade later. A Great Recession later. A global pandemic later. And now a “Great Resignation” later. When 90% of employees working within tech are working from home most days a week. When we all learned that Zooms really can replace travel.  When we figured out how to keep our businesses, our jobs, and our economy going when we didn’t leave our homes for days on end. And, many of us still don’t, 2 years later after the pandemic started, due to the realization that commuting does little good for productivity, the environment and overall work-life-family balance.

I’m not taking a stand that all companies should be 100% remote 100% of the time. We’re definitely seeing more people returning to offices more than 1x per week now, but it’s been a long time since I’ve spoken to a candidate who is willing to go into an office more than 2-3x per week.

*Employers, did you read that?* I am on the front lines with candidates and that is the message I am hearing.

A decade later, my candidates freely ask in their interview processes what the maternity/paternity leave policy is. A strong family leave policy is as important as a company’s Glassdoor reviews, and it’s not because everyone intends on having a baby. Now, it’s viewed as a yardstick for how a company values their employees, and how they will take care of you if you need to step away due to life happening.

A decade later, I encourage candidates to think about their definitions of success: Not corporate America’s definition, not Sheryl Sandberg’s, and not what their mother may have dreamed for them. And not even what their 22-year old self may have wanted, or what their 62-year old self might want some day. I am relieved that we have arrived in a time and place where women are learning to say that their definitions of success are strictly, solely theirs.

The one fact that hasn’t changed, and won’t ever change, is that we still only have 24 hours in a day, and 365 days in a year. Many of us were gifted back 2+ hours per day when we eliminated our commutes in 2020. However, many of us also were thrown into an unknown world of remote learning and homeschooling, which eradicated any benefit of the zero commute.

But as we all know, time is the one thing that we cannot buy more of.

So where do we go from here? I don’t pretend to have answers. But I celebrate wholeheartedly that companies are starting to embrace people as whole beings – not as employees, not as mothers, not as a fancy degree from a nice college – but as a 360 person with many different aspects that play into their psychology. I celebrate that a small silver lining due to the pandemic is that no one will go into work for a VERY long time with a cold or a fever, nor will they feel the need to explain when they need to stay home or miss meetings due being sick or having a sick child. I celebrate that we talk about parental leave policies, and we acknowledge that both women and men have families, and that those families matter a whole lot. In fact, to most of us…they are FAR more important than work will ever be. And I think the best managers and leaders who are emerging are the ones who can look at individuals as just that – uniquely individual.

Perhaps we are moving into an era where the goal is not to “Break the glass ceiling” but rather, to “Break the mold.”  

Deborah Kurtz is a Vice President at HireMinds specializing in Digital Marketing, Sales and Product recruiting. She is a storyteller at heart, with a passion for building relationships and engaging top talent and employers. Reach out to her today if you are looking to build your team: deborah@hireminds.com.