Mothers aren’t broken, it’s the system — and other lessons I’ve learned in the last two years

April 30, 2019

This article originally appeared in an issue of The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter for women kicking ass in digital media. Join the conversation here

Nearly two years ago, I published a cover story called “Where are the Mothers?” for Nieman Reports. It was the culmination of dozens of interviews and the months of research and reporting I did as part of my Nieman Fellowship that looked at the issues facing newsrooms in supporting mothers and attracting a new generation of talent. I included a number of recommendations for newsroom leaders and for women interested in advocating for change within their organizations.

I’m thrilled to report that many people did not just skim the article and move on — I’ve been told by moms in different newsrooms that this work generated some serious and much-needed discussion, and even sparked new ideas and action around getting better policies in place.

This article was also a personal turning point for me in a number of ways. It was the launching point for me in “finding my story” as a journalist — meaning the topic that fascinates and motivates me. Since “Where are the Mothers?” came out, I launched “The Double Shift” podcast, a reported, narrated show about a new generation of working mothers. We’re grant-funded, independently produced, and are telling stories you really haven’t heard before about the complexities and intersections of motherhood in America.

As we approach Mother’s Day, I wanted to take a moment to reflect back on five things I’ve learned from researching across industries that can be useful to mothers and people considering motherhood in media organizations.

My core philosophy is this: I do not believe in telling mothers they need to change.

Nothing about the current situation of how mothers are treated in workplaces is our fault, and getting up at 5 a.m. isn’t going to fix it. I am, however, interested in empowering and motivating women to change the culture and policies of the workplaces we find ourselves in, whether we are part of the rank and file or we are leaders with considerable power.

We’re not broken; it’s the system. And here are some suggestions I have to keep fighting the good fight, starting with family leave.

1. Don’t go at it alone.

Family leave is not the be-all, end-all discussion point about supportive workplaces for parents, but I think it’s a bellwether issue that is an important starting point in talking holistically about workplaces. You can’t have a “good” workplace for moms if you have paltry family leave.

In my research and reporting, I’ve found the people who are most effective at getting better family leave policies, company-wide flexible work arrangements and thoughtful return-to-work programs for new moms are getting it done by working together. A request for a more comprehensive family leave policy coming from one person can seem like a complaint or an individual “special need.” A thoughtful, concrete proposal with a number of people in the organization already behind it immediately creates pressure for leadership to take it seriously.

As I documented in “Where Are the Mothers,” this was an effective strategy for the women at The New York Times. They used their Employee Resource Group, “The Women’s Network,” as a springboard for this internal advocacy. ERGs are a great place to start with this kind of strategizing and organizing. I’ve also seen other examples, like women at Amazon and Lyft effectively using this group strategy to get longer, more gender-neutral paid leave policies that also support same-sex and adoptive parents.

Unions can be potentially helpful negotiating partners for people in newsrooms. Women at The Boston Globe worked alongside union leaders to successfully advocate for longer paid family leave.

If you work at a smaller news organization without some of these official groups, try to identify what allies you might be able to recruit to the cause.

P.S. I know paid family leave is not just a women’s issue. Increasing paternity leave offerings and getting men to take advantage of it actually has a positive effect on working moms. However, in my reporting, I’ve only ever encountered women who are taking up the mantle of changing company policies around family leave. I’m ready to hear some stories of men taking up this fight, so, ahem, feel free to step it up, guys.

2. Make a business case.

After you’ve found allies, you need to build your data arsenal. Luckily, there’s great research on why family leave is a good business decision that the most ruthless capitalists can get behind.

Especially in our constantly cash-strapped industry, I recommend making a persuasive business case for why good family leave actually can:

  • Save a company money. Many people assume that paid family leave is wildly expensive and is a drain on financial resources. The data, however, shows it can be cost neutral or save companies money in the long term.
  • Help with retention. Inadequate family leave can lead to much higher rates of women quitting a job, dropping out of the workforce within a year of when a child is born. Companies that care about the talent they are cultivating can see clear benefits to paid leave.

  • Attract top talent. Julia Turner, who at the time of our interview was the editor-in-chief of Slate, put it this way: “Journalism is an incredibly competitive landscape. If you create a workplace where (women) see that if they make the fairly common life choice (to have kids) they will no longer have opportunities to do amazing work or to be promoted to take on leadership roles, then you’re shooting yourself in the foot. We need that brainpower, talent and those ideas.”

  • Be a crucial component for organizations that have goals for diverse newsrooms and female leadership. In survey research Rebecca Ruiz conducted for Poynter, she found, “(Parents) are overwhelmingly worried about their career prospects after becoming parents and say they have few role models in management who demonstrate what it means to have a viable balance between work and caregiving responsibilities.”

Paid Leave US, an advocacy organization, has some great resources available about how to approach your employer to increase family leave offerings, and how to make an effective business case to company leaders.

3. Make workplaces and newsrooms work for everyone.

I think creating special accommodations for only moms in workplaces and newsrooms actually disadvantages us in the long run. If the moms get to leave at 5 p.m. when everyone else has to stay ’til 7 or they get exempt from holiday coverage, that can create resentment and ultimately disadvantage women’s potential to advance. What I recommend is for newsrooms to think holistically about how to get the best work out of people, rather than putting a premium on who’s staying the latest at the office on a non-breaking news night.

Family leave is only one piece of the conversation about making sure mothers are able to thrive in newsrooms and media. Mothers face serious pay gap issues and are judged more harshly than childless colleagues, and yet there is sometimes the incorrect perception that they are at an advantage in the workplace because of “perks” like leaving early for daycare pickups.

Not everyone has kids, but most people have caregiving responsibilities at some point in their lives, like taking care of a parent (more than 29% of the entire U.S. population spends significant time caring for an elderly or disabled family member in any given year). Also, everyone has lives and interests outside of the office. Telling someone they can’t have time off for a treasured college reunion but letting someone with kids take the same time for a family vacation doesn’t support a diverse workforce.

And if news organizations are operating a 1950s-style office environment that acts like everyone is a white dude with no caretaking responsibilities, that’s exactly who they are going to get working in the newsroom. Organizations will be missing out on diverse ideas and the creative thinking that we desperately need in media companies today.

4. Don’t assume the worst, but don’t assume the best either.

New moms returning to work often find themselves in an uncomfortable position of needing to advocate for themselves in new ways at a delicate and sometimes disorienting time. Yes, you may need to speak up about what you need out of a lactation room (a bathroom stall or — this was a new one I just heard — a freight elevator used to take out trash are not acceptable). You may need to make it clear that impromptu brainstorming chats at 5:45 p.m. when you are trying to make daycare pickup don’t work for you anymore (and you are happy to do it at 9 a.m. instead). You may need to clearly articulate why you will be actually MORE productive if you can work from home one day a week and save an hour of commuting time.

Don’t presume that people know what you need to survive and thrive as a new mom. Sometimes burdens placed on new moms are done out of ignorance and are happily corrected. However, don’t assume everyone has the best intentions and has your back, either. I’ve come across a depressing number of stories of anti-mom bias in the workplacepregnancy discrimination and truly hostile work environments toward moms.

If you have any inkling that you may be being discriminated against because of pregnancy or your family responsibilities status, take good notes on incidents and save emails that you may need as evidence later. This can be extremely useful if you need to go to HR or decide you want to take legal action.

5. Pay it forward.

My advice to all moms in media is to think about how you can support other mothers coming behind you.

I think we are in a new era where more women are starting to see that success is not just about individually stomping our way to the top by any means necessary. I see a lot more collective and community spirit around the shared struggle of being a working mom. But I do feel that moms should give thought about how to make it easier for those who are coming after them. New parents are exhausted and overwhelmed, and are not always in the best position to take on more work to advocate for themselves. It’s also such a tough time that sometimes we can even forget how tough it is once we are a few years away from the experience ourselves. If every mom had the mentality of, “I want to make this new mom in my office’s situation better than what I had,” I think it would go a long way to changing culture and policies in our workplaces and beyond.

But in addition to what individual moms can do for each other, it’s crucial to have thoughtful, inclusive and supportive newsroom cultures where a wide range of people can thrive and do their best work if we’re going to have 21st-century companies that serve 21st-century audiences.

 


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