I went to a conference this week. It was my first time flying without my son since he was born, and even on a 6 AM flight, that was truly glorious. I don’t always love conferences, but I went anyway, and I’m glad I did.
The topic was Diversity + Inclusion: How to build a more inclusive workplace for everyone. The speakers covered a lot of ground and I’m still digesting most of it. However, two things bothered me about the day. One professional, the other personal.
The overall message was that we need to create environments where people of all backgrounds can feel comfortable bringing their full selves to work. The problem? The vast majority of speakers were women, and having googled them, I know all of them are mothers. Of the few male speakers, all but one are fathers. Yet all day, even when discussing mental health, bias, and career trajectory, not a single one of them mentioned having kids. I understand that not everyone wants or needs to talk about being a parent at all times, but a discussion about integrating life and career seems like the right time. If you’re a parent and a leader in the inclusion space, you have a certain responsibility to talk about being a parent. It reminded me of the conversation about ‘hidden parenthood’ – the idea that working parents do not feel they can talk about having kids for fear that colleagues will assume they’re no longer dedicated to their work. Change comes from conversation and examples from senior leadership. I was disappointed that these speakers did not use the opportunity to be part of that change. If leaders aren’t doing it, how can we expect others to? Is there a certain hypocrisy there?
On the personal side, this long day trip required extra childcare and I relied on my partner to fill that gap. I was, and am, very appreciative. I tell him that often. However, everyone went out of their way to tell me how lucky I was; strangers at the conference, friends, even family. By the time a 10th stranger had, in my opinion, exaggerated what a hero he was for taking care of his own kid I began to wonder: where’s the line between being appreciative and overly grateful to the point that it becomes harmful? Does misplaced or excessive gratitude reinforce stereotypes? Was the message that I should have been the one home and the fact that I wasn’t meant by husband was doing some exceptional? The fact that a functioning adult put his son to bed on his own doesn’t seem like something that needs to be celebrated at the level it was, and it began to grate on me. This might be a bit of an overstatement, but it gets at what I was feeling: “Gratitude is a brand of benevolent sexism, a force that repels change.” The people who made comments were all women, and mostly working moms. If we’re telling each other to be excessively grateful to a partner who is doing what all of us have and would do, what’s the overall message?
I read a lot about change for working parents. But when you see 22 speakers in one day and not one mentions how having kids has impacted their career, and that same day you’re told that your partner deserves a prize and adult equivalent of a gold start for…being a partner, you start to think – is this change really happening? With whom?
I’d love your thoughts: Have you ever experienced something similar? How would you have responded? Have you ever spoken on a panel about your career and did you address the fact that you have kids?