Do the words “working mother” bother you? If not, they should.

Recently, someone called me a “working mother” in a professional setting.

It felt uncomfortable because I’m a non-native English speaker who hears individual words as opposed to culturally known expressions.

The first word is “mother.” I’m the mother of two amazing little people. The second word is “working.” I’ve chosen to stay on my professional path, so technically I am a perfect representation of those two words.

It shouldn’t be a big deal.

The problem is that those two words are exactly that: just two words.

You and I are unique human creatures; we can’t be squeezed into two words whether we choose to balance care for little people and pursuit of our professional ambitions—or not.

And, come to think of it, I’ve never heard my husband or any of my male colleagues being called a “working father.”

Is that a thing?

To my surprise, a Google search uncovered over 200K different references to the term “working father.” A search for “working mother” revealed double the number of references. There’s also a specialized online magazine called “Working Mother” that I’ll never click on. I’m sure it has a genuine purpose, but the name works for me as well as a quality repellent does on mosquitoes.

The problem is labels.

According to the Oxford dictionary, one meaning of the noun “label” is {emphasis mine}:

A classifying phrase or name applied to a person or thing, especially one that is inaccurate or restrictive.”

The “working mother” label is inaccurate and restrictive.

It makes me feel that I should be like Mila Kunis in Bad Moms, aiming for something that’s impossible to achieve. In that light, I should be out of breath and with lipstick on my teeth, nervously checking my phone 10 times during a meeting. I should not be able to manage my commitments and understand priorities. Things should be falling apart.

But, for me, they’re not. It’s just the label and where thoughts may flow when you hear it.

What else might come to mind when hearing the label “working mother”?

  • It brings up personal information that’s appropriate only in certain settings and relationships.
  • It can distract the person being labeled, as it did me, and other hearers.
  • The phrase conjures stereotypes, for instance, the thought that you may not be able to fully count on a working mother, as she will naturally be struggling with competing priorities that may limit how much time she can dedicate to her profession.
  • The labeler may come across as discriminating, as it’s rare to hear references to working fathers.
  • If you’re the labeler, your meetings in professional and private settings may not be as efficient or fulfill their purpose, and you may not fully leverage the talent of those around you.

What about mothers who choose not to pursue a profession?

Also, think about what the label says about a mother who chooses a path other than that of a “working mother.” Is that mother not working if she doesn’t wear the label “working mother?”

I asked my friend, a native English speaker, about this. She quickly said that the other mothers—those who choose not to pursue careers or professions—are “housewives.”

That’s another label we should drop from our vocabulary. Here are a few good resources for what women think of the “housewife” label:

Which label is assigned to you?

It seems to me that women who choose to have children are assigned one of two labels, either “working mother” or “housewife.”

That sounds pretty restrictive to me, especially when you consider that the lines between work and our private life are blurred these days, and flexible work arrangements are more and more common and sought after.

The Experian Blog focused on” Statistics and Obstacles Facing Women Entrepreneurs” reveals quite a positive picture:

  • 30 years ago, there were close to 4 million women-owned businesses in the United States. Today, there are over 11 million.
  • 39% of all U.S. businesses have women majority ownership, employ nearly 9 million people and generate more than $1.7 trillion in revenue
  • Women are the sole source of income in 40% of all households and outpace men in educational achievement
  • The number of women-owned businesses grew 45% between 2007 – 2016, 5 times faster than the national average

My friend and executive communication coach Jeanne Trojan, who is a successful entrepreneur, responded to my query on how she views the “working mother” label.

“I had to chuckle when I read your question. I’ve actually never thought of myself as a ‘working mother’. I’m not sure why. I’m a mother and I work. Maybe it’s because I have my own business and I don’t have to deal with issues like maternity leave, sick leave, time off when [my son’s] sick… OR maybe it’s because I don’t see myself any different than my husband and I don’t think of him as a ‘working father’ 😉 “

Another thought: How should we label women who have children and work from home? Should we label them at all?

My advice to leaders: Say NO to labels

If you’re reading this, chances are that you’re a leader working in a professional setting. You want to be the best leader you can be, and you want the people working under you to thrive.

I believe that you—that all leaders—should consciously focus on getting to know every individual’s unique set up—mother, father, or not.

Raise questions around and celebrate the balance people have managed to create for themselves and then focus on what other qualities their paths brought to the forefront in their lives. Parenthood is, after all, one of the most intense self-development journeys. So naturally, parents in any professional environment will have benefited from their newly acquired or intensified qualities.

Mamava enclosed pod
These small pods saved by life when on business travel during the times of breastfeeding. I wish they were available everywhere!

The parents I know bring much to the worktable, for instance: 

  • Extreme efficiency and clear prioritization
  • A no nonsense approach (really, who has time for non-urgent and unimportant tasks?)
  • Empathy, humility and readiness to roll the sleeves up any time
  • Ability to switch focus fast
  • Sense of humor (you won’t survive without it!)

I’m not suggesting parents at work are better professionals than those who choose not to have children. I’m offering an invitation to catch yourself when you’re making judgement by using labels. Instead, ask questions. Be flexible.

This will make me and all parents who choose to work be better engaged and excited that we’re under the right leadership and in the right place.

What’s your experience with labels? How do you feel in environments where labels are not welcome? I am sure this community can benefit from your experience. Please, share.

Thank you,

Dana

 

Share this post on:

6 Comments

  1. Thanks Dana! As a leader I am sure I have used labels from time to time however, after reading this I will be more conscious of the words I use. I like the way you challenge us to think.

  2. Great post Dana, great food for thoughts for everyone!
    I also dislike the fact of labeling people, getting people into boxes, as if we, human beings, could be only one thing. It is quite interesting how the opposite also happens, in my own experience as expat, mother, working, married with a great husband who is looking after OUR children, I can tell that men are also heavily labelled when not fitting to the standard, as househusband, funny but sad at the same time.
    Being mother taught me some super powers as multitask, patience, empathy which definitely empower my abilities at work – we are normal, equals.
    Your post is a great opportunity to increase, consciously, awareness about unconscious bias when using labels. I really enjoyed reading it!

    1. Thank you, Fernanda. I am glad you enjoyed the read and that it resonated with you. I am sure men are exposed to labelling equally or maybe even with more intensity when they choose to take care of their family. I have no doubts that both you and husband will manage this with kindness and directness that is needed to open the eyes of those, who enjoy using labels. I love your closing word on consciously creating awareness of unconscious biases 🙂

  3. “Do the words “working mother” bother you? If not, they should.” after reading your article they really do! Thank you, I enjoyed it very much 🙂

    1. Hi Joanna, thank you, I am glad the article ‘spoke’ to you. Professionals who have children experience specific challenges during these past months. This can be also a great opportunity for employers and leaders to adjust and offer flexibility and an emphatic approach while of course still focusing on results. And many of them do. 🙂 It is amazing to witness such fast adoption. I hope you too experience this in some form … Have a great weekend and it was good hearing from you.

Leave a Reply to Pete Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.