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Power Moms: How Different Generations Of Executive Mothers Navigate Work And Life

Part of Kathy Caprino’s series “Women, Leadership and Vision”

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Despite tremendous progress, working mothers still face numerous critical challenges at work and home that prevent them from reaching their highest, most rewarding potential in life and work, and these challenges remain different from what many working men are facing today. In fact, my research has revealed that there are 7 damaging power gaps that 98% of professional face that keep them from reaching their top goals and visions they desire for their work and careers. These gaps are influenced and shaped in many ways through our families, society, institutions, organizations and our culture overall.

These particular struggles have only been aggravated during the global pandemic, and hit women hard. But how do executive moms today differ from the trailblazing Baby Boomer generation, and do they still face the same common challenges? What has truly changed?

To learn more about the answers to these pivotal questions, I caught up recently with Joann S. Lublin on my podcast Finding Brave. Lublin is a longtime Wall Street Journal career columnist, Pulitzer Prize-winner, and author of two books about female business leaders. Her latest, Power Moms: How Executive Mothers Navigate Work and Life, hit the shelves February 16, 2021.

Her first popular leadership book, Earning It: Hard-Won lessons from Trailblazing Women at the top of the Business World, offers insights from 52 high-level executive women about obstacles they overcame.

Lublin is the former Management News Editor of The Wall Street Journal. She created its first career advice column, which she wrote until May 2020. Lublin shared the Journal’s 2003 Pulitzer Prize for stories about corporate scandals. In 2018, she won the Gerald Loeb Lifetime Achievement Award, the highest accolade in business journalism.

Lublin’s book is chock full of important revelations and insights into what has changed over a generation of executive women, and what more must be done to make being a working mother (and parent) easier in 2021 and beyond.

Here’s what she shares:

Kathy Caprino: Joann, of all the things you’ve written about in your long career at The Wall Street Journal, why did you choose to focus on how executive mothers navigate work and life?

Joann Lublin: For my first book, Earning It, I interviewed 52 high-ranking executive women. I had one chapter about being a working mom, and I realized the proportion who had kids was higher among those who became public company CEOs. And all but one of those 52 women were baby boomers. It made me wonder two things: how those executive moms made it work; and what has changed for the women who were under 45 and had become corporate executives and mothers.

And so I interviewed 86 executive mothers who worked for a company with at least a hundred million dollars in revenue at some point in their careers. I interviewed Baby Boomers and a younger group of millennial and Gen Xers. And then I wondered, “What is it like to be the daughter of one of those trailblazers?” So I interviewed 25 daughters who are adults, mostly in their twenties, and I got a very interesting perspective on how they viewed their moms.

Caprino: Tell us more about those 25 adult daughters you interviewed? What did they say overall about their experience growing up with these Power Moms?

Lublin: Overall, when they were teenagers, they did not like the fact that their mother was larger-than-life and trying to give them the benefit of her experience, travails, and trailblazing. And yet, when they entered the workforce, they suddenly discovered that they had a secret weapon. Their mom was the door opener, the networker, the person they come to when they are having trouble on the job.

There’s a wonderful anecdote in the book where one of the daughters summons her mom out of a meeting because she has to fire or discipline an employee for the first time, and she’s terrified and needs guidance. So, there’s a great chapter in my book called “My Mother, My Coach.”

Caprino: Did the daughters talk about the dynamics they saw between their fathers and their powerful mothers and how that impacted them?

Lublin: One of the daughters shared a revealing story about this. Her mother is a boomer, and while she initially worked with her husband and his consulting business, she went off on her own and became one of the first female VPs of a major bank. But the dynamic changed in terms of who got home from work first. The dad owned his own company, so he could leave work anytime he wants, while the mom generally couldn’t get home before 7:30 pm. They had two little kids, so one night she called home and told him not to wait for her and go ahead and feed the kids. I’m not sure if he wanted the family eat together or he was trying to guilt trip her, but the dad insisted they would wait until she got home. And of course, when she got home, there were fireworks.

I think that marital discord influenced the daughter’s choice of profession. She is now a mother herself, and she’s an independent filmmaker who sets her own hours and really tries to be there for her kids. But she is guilt-ridden when she has to be out of town on a film shoot, even though her husband is perfectly capable of dealing with the kids on his own. It raises an important question: Why do younger executive moms still experience working mother guilt?

Caprino: And what did you come up with?

Lublin: One theory is that it’s a reflection of our larger society. We still have different expectations for mothers than we do for fathers. I interviewed one younger executive mom who, when she returned to work after maternity leave, was asked by male and female colleagues alike: “How do you do it all?” And she asked, “Why are you not asking that question of my husband?”

There’s another issue here as well in terms of self-imposed guilt. I talked to one adult daughter who didn’t see a lot of her mom growing up, and subsequently chose to stay at home and raise her family. When I interviewed her, she told me how guilty she felt about having her grandmother come over to watch her toddler so she could go to a yoga class. A lot of this guilt is self-imposed as well as imposed by our larger social norms. That’s why I devoted an entire chapter to hacks for ditching working mother guilt.

Caprino: For all the progress we’ve made, it seems that young girls still receive the message that it’s important to be pleasing, malleable, and not put yourself before others. Based on your work and research, what will it take to change that?

Lublin: First, I think men are being raised differently than they were a generation ago. And this really came home in one anecdote where one of these younger Power Moms was recently made VP and was invited to an important VP lunch. She’s the only female VP in the room. They’re waiting for lunch to be brought in, and one of the older men asks her to check and see where the food is. Which is, of course, totally sexist.

And one of the younger male VPs in the room speaks up and tells this older man “If you want know where the food is, you should go check. It’s not her responsibility to bring the lunch.” And I asked her if she was shocked that this younger man spoke up. And she said she wasn’t because she knew his mother was a working mom and had raised him right.

Caprino: What is the biggest, most pervasive and difficult challenge that Power Moms face?

Lublin: It’s twofold. First, it’s how you view yourself and your role in the world, and whether you feel like you have to bear the mental load. Second, it’s the unwillingness or the lack of ability on the part of women to ask for help.

A number of these Gen Xers were married to men who were supposedly totally committed to co-parenting, but it really wasn’t happening. And so the women called their spouses on the carpet. There’s a powerful anecdote where a woman tells her husband that they need to share the load, including making and taking the kids to pediatrician appointments. And he responds, “You’re totally right, I will handle it from now on. And by the way, what’s the doctor’s name again?”

We have to expect more of men. We have to expect them to take parental leave and expect them to be deeply involved throughout a child’s upbringing. And stop penalizing them for it. Multiple surveys show men are still penalized career-wise or fear being penalized if they’re taking on more of the responsibility at home. And that keeps the mother feeling guilty and encourages her to bear more of both the actual workload and the mental load.

Caprino: In your book, you talk about work/life sway. What does it mean to “sway” and how is it different from work-life balance?

Lublin: Before I wrote the book, I knew that work-life balance was a myth—it’s a shaky yoga pose that cannot be maintained. One of the Gen X moms mentioned the idea of work-life sway, explaining that sometimes you have to be all-in for your family, and sometimes you have to be all-in for your job. And sometimes your family intrudes on your job, and vice versa.

The idea is that you sway back and forth as needed, without giving yourself a huge guilt trip about it. And you know that at some point you’re going to have to get some extra help from others, whether it’s family members or spouses or supervisors to make it possible. The mother who told me about this gave this example: She received a text from her nanny that her son was about to take his first steps, and she watched him do it on FaceTime while she was at the office.

One of the things that makes work/life sway possible for the younger working moms is that we have so many more women in senior level positions who can advocate around parenting issues. There’s a story in the book about Andrea Jung, a boomer mom who was the CEO of Avon at the time. As she’s rushing into a meeting, one of her direct reports says, “I’m sorry, but I may have to jump up and leave early because my son has been rushed to the ER after an accident on the playground.” And Jung stands up in front of a predominantly male management team and states, “Your son is being taken to the ER. You need to leave the building now. And I don’t want to see you back here until everything is taken care of.”

The point she made to me is that Avon couldn’t call itself a company for women if they didn’t stand up for women.

For more information, visit Power Moms: How Executive Mothers Navigate Work and Lifeand hear Lublin speak in depth on these issues.

Kathy Caprino is a career and leadership coach, speaker, educator, and author of The Most Powerful You: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths to Career Bliss. She helps professional women build their best careers through her Career & Leadership Breakthrough course and programs.

Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website or some of my other work here

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