In a recent article on Fortune.com, titled “I’m sorry to all the mothers I used to work with,” Katharine Zaleski, a co-founder of a start-up that matches skilled female executives with positions they can perform from home, laments her younger, insensitive self. The commentary has since gone viral, provoking an array of responses, including this one from me.
I read the piece when it first came out, having discovering it via a post on Facebook. Friends subsequently sent me a link to the article. “Thought of you when I saw this,” they wrote, referencing the working parent bit, not the selfish twenty-something Zaleski describes as her former self.
At first, I hated this piece.
Portraying herself as a successful professional, Zaleski recounts stories of showing up at work at 10:30 AM, hung over from an evening of fun with colleagues (which is not my definition of a successful professional), and of judging other women negatively just because they were parents.
“I was there to meet with Time.com’s then managing editor and pitch a partnership idea, but once I took a seat and surveyed the endless photos of her small children spread across the airy space, I decided this editor was too much of a mother to follow up on the idea…She wasn’t the first and only mother whose work ethic I silently slandered.”
She gives examples of how she was a selfish and self-absorbed manager and colleague, without an appreciation for coworkers who had lives that were very different than hers.
“I scheduled last minute meetings at 4:30 pm all of the time. It didn’t dawn on me that parents might need to pick up their kids at daycare. I was obsessed with the idea of showing my commitment to the job by staying in the office “late” even though I wouldn’t start working until 10:30 am while parents would come in at 8:30 am.”
As a working parent, I found Zaleski’s actions short sighted, frustrating, and, unfortunately, not at all, surprising. I’ve been there. I know people who thought I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) take on a big job because I was a mom and others who made assumptions that, because I’m a parent, my career was unimportant to me.
As someone who was once (but, thankfully, no longer) in my twenties, I understand the complete self-absorption that befalls a person who really wants to get ahead in her career and will put in the long hours to do so. She plays the game the way the game has been written, not questioning if it’s unfair. She is likely too junior to do so. That was me: I regularly worked 12-hour days in my twenties because I wanted to advance and face time at the office was the way to do that.
But that was (gulp!) 20 years ago and the world of work has changed—though there’s still much to do to make the workplace as supportive of working parents as it could be.
As Zaleski shares in her article, since her twenties, she grew up, too: she had a kid and she changed her thinking about working parents, largely due to her own experience. She accepted that becoming a parent doesn’t mean you became a failure at work. In fact, she now understands that it’s often the opposite:
“I wish I had known five years ago, as a young, childless manager, that mothers are the people you need on your team. There’s a saying that “if you want something done then ask a busy person to do it.” That’s exactly why I like working with mothers now.”
“Moms work hard to meet deadlines because they have a powerful motivation – they want to be sure they can make dinner, pick a child up from school, and yes, get to the gym for themselves.”
It’s her apology, though, and the general tenor of the piece that I felt was so self-serving. While Zaleski might very well have felt compelled to share her mea culpa publicly, she’s doing so to promote her new company and its embrace of the challenges of the working parent. She’s selling flexibility and achievement, an attractive combination that entices working parents (like the women she writes about who used to commute to a job in London from Bulgaria, but who now can happily work from home thanks to Zaleski’s company) and companies looking to cut overhead (we’ve paid our workers more than $1 million, she writes, portraying her company as a successful entity that should be hired to help others). This isn’t a thought-piece about advancing working parents (and I use parents advisedly; it’s not just moms who struggle with balancing career and family) as much as it’s an advertorial with a “make me feel better for once being a jerk” bent. Shame on Fortune for not seeing through that.
(Interestingly, the article now includes a short interview with Zaleski in response to the widespread interest her piece has received; in it, Zaleski comes across as defensive and impatient more people don’t agree with her.)
But, after the fifth (or sixth) read of Zaleski’s piece, I found myself agreeing with her—in some ways.
Managers do need to be open to hiring people who are different than them. This means hiring working parents and people who come from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and perspectives. That diversity enriches and expands our ability to achieve our goals—and have successful lives. To that end, Zaleski makes an excellent point in which I am in complete agreement:
“There are so many ways we can support each other as women, but it starts with the just recognizing that we’re all in different positions at different times in our lives.”
I’d tweak it only slightly:
“There are so many ways we can support each other, but it starts with the just recognizing that we’re all in different positions at different times in our lives.”
Women and men need to take up the call to change the view of working parents in today’s workplace. We need to do more than apologize; we need to work together, we need to think differently together. That’s the only way real change will happen and will be sustainable.