Some of us don't want to believe it, and the rest of us are intimately aware of exactly how inequitable the working environment still is for women in America.
I was nine months pregnant, preparing myself for four months' maternity leave when I was told they would be hiring a Director to take over my responsibilities while I was gone and, when I returned, that person would be my new boss. My career ambitions, my upward mobility at the company I loved were squashed in an instant. And I couldn't help but feel it was my fault.
The thoughts and feelings running through my head were as violent as they were changing. First acceptance, "I'm not ready to be a director." Then anger, "Would this be happening if I were a man?" Then rationalization, "How can I expect them to give me the job when I'm going to be gone? This company is moving too fast to wait for me." Then sadness and resignation, "I guess this is what's best."
I wish I could go back and, gently, slap my pregnant self. Instead of saying, "I understand," I should have been saying, "What the fuck?" But how was I supposed to advocate for myself in that situation? I wasn't given the opportunity to even be considered for the position, and what was I supposed to do about it now that I was leaving for four months?
So I allowed myself to be convinced, with very little to no fight, that I wasn't ready for the job. I went on maternity leave feeling sad, undervalued, even betrayed, and the Monday after I left my new boss started her first day of work.
----------- "The worst thing about this situation was that it made me doubt myself."
I took the maximum time allowable for maternity leave: four weeks prior to due date and three months after the baby was born. Those four weeks before I had my daughter, my mind would often slip into thoughts about work. I was taking one to two walks a day, waddling around my neighborhood thinking about how all the ambition and hard work in the world didn't amount to anything once I had decided to start a family. I thought about how much I hated my new boss, even though I knew in my heart she wasn't to blame. I thought about her sitting at my desk with the job that was meant for me.
Really useful, I know.
Eventually I coached myself into letting those thoughts go. They weren't helping me, and besides, I had something way more important brewing that needed my full attention and also required a calm heart and mind.
I gave birth to my daughter and was able, for the most part, to forget about the stresses from work. The end of maternity leave came soon enough, and as I was preparing to go back to work with all the fun emotions that come with that, the anxieties I had pre-baby came back with a fury.
My daughter and me at her first birthday party.
I knew that in order for me to be successful at work, I was going to have to adapt to the new environment. I didn't want to make things difficult for my new boss. It wasn't fair to blame her for taking the position. Instead, I focused my energy on doing my best work and trying to figure out what it meant to me to be a working mom.
I spent the first six months back at the office trying to figure out how to balance the workload, how to pump and keep my milk supply up, and finally how to deal with all the messy feelings I had about leaving the baby at home as well as the relief (and guilt) I felt at times because I got to leave the house and get away.
I worked hard. I left work at the end of my work day, no earlier, sometimes later. I pumped twice a day in a windowless (thank God and dear God how dreary) conference room that, in the beginning, didn't have a lock. I found a balance to being a mom and being a good employee, and I was finally getting the hang of it when review season came around.
The last performance review I'd had before going on maternity leave was overwhelmingly positive and I was expecting the same positive feedback I'd received the previous year. Instead, I heard the same words I'd heard before: the team was growing and they would be hiring a new director to manage my department.
Now, I've always been an ambitious person. Always been the type to go after what I wanted with inexhaustible passion. And for a long time, I'd funneled that energy into my career and my writing. But I also always knew that I wanted to be a mom. Naively, I did not expect, or was not prepared to accept the truth that being a mom and having a successful career were two goals in conflict.
The feedback was I didn't take enough initiative. Maybe I didn't. Was I being punished because I was gone for four months? Or because I had to disappear twice a day to pump breastmilk? Was it because I left work at 6:30 or 7 p.m. instead of 8? Or was it simply that, now that I was a mom, they assumed my focus and drive were elsewhere?
Whatever the reason, the truth was I was being passed over twice for the job that I wanted. A job I believe I had the experience, drive, and ability to do. They'd shown me twice that I had no potential for career growth at that company. So I took my time, found a new job, and four months after my annual review, I left.
The worst thing about this situation was that it made me doubt myself. I felt like I wasn't good enough, or capable, or smart enough to be successful. Now I have enough self-compassion to know that is not true. I work hard, and I'm smart, and I had the data to prove how much revenue I'd generated for the company even in the short six months I'd been back from maternity leave.
The whole situation left me angry, and sad, and at the same time, I knew I had it a lot better than most women. From the outside, my company had done everything right. I had four months of fully paid maternity leave and even though (because of CFRA and FMLA eligibility rules) I didn't qualify for job protection, I was reinstated into my job after my leave was over. I have friends who lost their jobs shortly after going back to work. My own mother was fired when she got pregnant with me. Sure, we've come a long way but we still have a long way to go.
What I experienced was a perfectly legal type of prejudice. It's not outright discrimination, it's more slippery and harder to pin down but it was there.
I created Women.work to level the playing field. I want to promote transparency in the American workplace and give women access to information about how their company, and companies they are considering for job placement, treat the women in their employ. I plan on doing that by using both qualitiative and quantitative insights into the workplace. Not only how women feel about their career potential but the numbers behind their career growth.
I'm also looking for answers to hard questions and insights into the compromises that women face when they have to navigate between what they need to do for their career and what they need to do for their families. My dream is that, through information sharing and community, Women.work will be a force for change.
Women.work is for all women. The women who want to lean in and those who need to lean out. The women who are fighting to break the glass ceiling and those who are considering leaving the workforce to stay-at-home. Everyone's challenges are different, and Women.work aims to provide resources for women in every facet of their career and personal development.
Want to help? Review your current company. Need advice or have a question? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Want to get in touch or write for us? Contact us.
I hope to hear from you soon. In the mean time, let's stir some shit up.