Between Mothers and Daughters: It's Still a Man's World

Ellen Galinsky and her daughter Lara are two remarkable women. They led a panel at the Work Life Legacy Awards in New York featuring several remarkable mother daughter pairs. The mothers were super successful career women. The daughters, poised and confident, made it clear they expected nothing less than excellence from their lives. But, being the daughters of mothers who helped drive change within their companies to make work and life fit for employees, the young women were all highly attuned to the pitfalls that lie ahead as they leave their 20s and bump up against the maternal wall.

Guilt was of course a big topic. It is hard to know if the daughters remembered correctly their feelings as young children, but not a single daughter held her mother's career focus against mom. One said, "My memories of her working late and traveling were positive." They didn't remember the bad times, or they didn't admit to them on stage, which is understandable, given the pressure women feel to support working mothers, especially their own.

The mothers, of course, had less than rosy memories. One of the women said, "we want so much to believe our daughters can do anything they want to do, that there are no limits. This is true in school, but once you get into the workplace this changes. We know women don't move through the workplace the same way."

Sylvia Ann Hewlett's research finds that women in their 20s ("the Bookend Generation") are most definitely aware of their mothers' tough choices, whether they've been discussed or not. And younger women don't want to replicate their parents' sacrifices. Sixty-two percent of Gen Y women don't want to emulate their mothers' "extreme careers" and anticipate that work will have to take a backseat to family for life to be satisfying.

Marcella Blakney Collins recalled her complicated days as an up and coming leader in a big company that left her no time for family. She said,

"I consciously didn't talk to my daughter about my struggles because I didn't want her to feel guilty. I was supposed to be moving to France. I was working long hours, had been to France four times in one quarter, was getting ready to go to Japan, and I wanted to be there for her. And it was just too much.

"I decided I could not work there anymore. I knew my career would stall anyway and I took the mommytrack for 6 years. And I told her that later on, when I thought she could handle that."

Anne Weisberg took another tactic with her three children. She didn't hide her stress of the struggles she faced as a working mom. "I tried to show my kids what it was really like. I want to challenge all of us, not just us in the work-life space, to be as transparent as possible with our kids."

This stress is called work-life conflict. We all feel it: the overall level of work-life conflict experienced by men has gone from 34% in 1977 to 49% in 2008. On the other hand, the rise in women's work-life conflict has been pretty steady. I think women and men underreport this conflict because to so many of us, it's just life.

Anne said that when she talks to audiences of young women, she'll often ask, "How many of you have mothers who work outside the home? They all raise their hands. How many talk about it? And all too often they don't have that conversation."

Parents become excellent at hiding stress from their children, and of course, we all want to protect our children from pain. But rather than hiding our work-life conflict, is it a good thing to make sure our children are attuned to the work-life conflict they may face?

Why is there a silence around it?

Most obviously, we need our jobs and we're scared to lose them. We have bills to pay (women earn over 40% of household income) and we fear being vulnerable if we complain.

1) Well, first, we don't want to admit what we see as weakness. I was struck by an op-ed in the New York Times by a woman doctor, mother of four, who basically asked "Should Women Be Doctors"? Here thesis is that too many of women MD's leave the full-time workforce to make their expensive, federally-funded medical education pay. How many of you -- no matter your chosen field -- read this piece and felt guilt? How many of you thought, oh my gosh, I wouldn't want to be this person?

We also don't want to prime young women for the "Don't leave before you leave" syndrome. This comes from a recent TED talk by Google and Facebook mega-exec Sheryl Sandberg. Sandberg says too often, a woman begins thinking about having a child years before she gives birth, and she starts making room for having a child and the career sacrifices she'll encounter, and she stops raising her hand. She leans back and her career stalls. A young woman on the mothers and daughters panel who is a twentysomething investment banker said "It's easier to start intensely and then ramp down, so I'm doing it now." What does she see herself doing in 10 years?

2) We work in a male system.
To paraphrase Anne Weisberg, it's the dynamic between men and women in the workplace that's the cause of so much work-life conflict. And we don't want to be bitches so we play along with the system and pretend like everything is OK. And before you say, working for women is way worse than working for men... I went to girls' school. When you were in class, all girls, and you got a better grade or knew more than another girl, you weren't a bitch you were just smart. When you got into the co-ed world and one-upped your fellow women, you were a bitch. We work in the world men who aren't primary caregivers built, and we feel we have to play by their rules.

3) We want to talk about it but they don't know how to talk about it without stressing out their kids. This is a very real feeling to any parent. I'd love some guidelines on this one myself.

Anne Weisberg notes the only to change the system is to have open conversations with our daughters and sons.

I'll ask the question that was asked in a room full of people who are work-life professionals: what can we do to help younger people tackle some of these tough work-life issues, even years before they may face them -- the trade offs, the dangers of holding back?