As a parent, particularly of young children, you may feel very time poor. More than anything else, what you need is a manager who just “gets it” with respect to your need for autonomy over how you get your work done.
Having the flexibility and trust of a good manager is like gold dust and is extremely coveted by parents. In fact, there’s an expression of “sticky floors” which has been coined to describe the extent to which women (and it is a mainly female phenomenon) stick around in jobs that may no longer stretch them out of fear for losing their manager who just “gets it”. These are managers who measure your output and not just your input. The big fear is that in moving jobs, you might move to a manager who doesn’t “gets it”. Some managers gain a reputation for “presenteeism” i.e., they feel they can only trust the work is being done if you’re sitting outside their office looking busy or constantly logged on at home. These are the managers that are prone to “mummy tracking” you.
Signs You’re Being Mummy Tracked
Some are blatant and some are subtle, but they’re cumulative. Here are a few that spring to mind:
- You’ve been dropped from the shortlist to the longlist for promotion.
- Someone with the same experience is promoted above you and it’s a man who is assumed to be the primary earner, while it’s assumed you’ll be the primary carer – did you know that while there’s a maternity penalty when it comes to pay there’s a fatherhood bump in earnings?
- Your manager no longer discusses your career aspirations with you.
- You aren’t invited to certain key meetings you would expect to be invited to.
- Decisions that affect you are taken without consulting you.
- You have not been invited to that high profile international conference because there’s an assumption that it would be too much of a hassle for you to arrange to be away for a few days.
- You are not getting selected for key projects that you know you would have been a key player on, in your BC (before children) days.
- Work allocation happens when you’re not in the office and so you keep missing the plum assignments.
- A general feeling that your opinion and experience no longer seem to matter as much as it did previously.
So, How Can You Address Being “Mummy Tracked”?
1. Don’t Blame Yourself
The first thing to bear in mind is that it is your manager who is out of step, not you. Too many people I coach feel tremendous guilt at not being as available as their colleagues when they’re parents. In other words, they’re buying into the idea that not being at your desk all hours of the day equates to not working hard enough. That their contribution is measured solely in being ‘seen’ to be present. This is simply not true. The one benefit from the global pandemic is that it was a giant experiment in the practicalities of working from home and it has shown irrefutably that in most organisations, where knowledge work is the premium, work still gets done whether you can ‘see’ the person or not. Presenteeism is an outdated and unhelpful concept.
I’m hoping that the leader I once coached who described working from home as being “missing in action” has now got with the programme! Another manager, who was quite convinced that you couldn’t work successfully from home based this on his own personal experience. He admitted that he tended to watch the cricket and play with the kids when they came in from school and so he wasn’t half as productive than at work. I highlighted for both an example of a woman that I coached who was so diligent while working at home on her one day a week that she would make herself a packed lunch and take it upstairs with her so as not to interrupt her child minder’s precious routine. A quite different, if a tad extreme, attitude to working from home!
Study after study shows that you can be very efficient working flexibly and that it makes people healthier and happier which, in turn, makes them work better. You need to believe this and make a point of drawing your manager’s attention to this research. In other words, educate them. They are behind the times.
2. Clarify Your Aims and Manage Expectations
If you are time poor, and your schedule is paramount, then you will find yourself being a lot less patient with a manager who is “last minute.com”. Unfortunately, we do live in VUCA times (volatile, uncertain, complex and, ambiguous) and so everything seems to be urgent and a bit last minute. Therefore, it is vital to sort out the important from the urgent. You can be of real service to your manager by working out your priorities and managing their expectations. Being a parent gives perspective. It helps you see more clearly what’s important. One law firm partner told me that he had two associates, both mothers, who worked for him. One full time and one part-time. He found he could rely much more on the woman who worked part-time rather than the associate who worked full time. Putting aside the differences in experience and ability, what really made the difference was that the woman working part-time was so clear about her goals and boundaries and reminded him of them regularly. She managed her workload and kept him appraised of what was coming down the line. She didn’t wait to be given the work. He admitted that she made him a better manager and he appreciated this. And she also continued to talk about career progression. She didn’t want to be mummy tracked and she wasn’t.
3. Call It Out
If you are worried that you really are being mummy-tracked, it’s actually a clever idea to name it. In other words, say that you’re nervous that you’re being ‘mummy tracked’. A great deal of mummy-tracking is about unconscious bias, and a big part of that is “benevolent bias”. “Benevolent bias” is where managers think they’re doing you a favour by not putting you forward for challenging assignments when you’re a parent when actually this is detrimental to career success. Women that I’ve coached who have felt on the receiving end of benevolent bias have found it useful to provide their manager with an article about it. It’s important to remember that benevolent bias often comes from a good place – it’s misplaced, but ultimately harmful, kindness. If you want to learn a bit more about benevolent bias, we highly recommend this article.
Interestingly, the status of your manager’s family set up might affect their view of your continued career commitment. If they’re in a traditional, heteronormative relationship and their partner is a full-time caregiver this will have affected their beliefs in how you are going to manage. It’s worth finding this out and being clear with them about your own set-up to ward off the possibility that they make the wrong assumptions about your career commitment. The important thing is to have a conversation about it which voices your concerns but is not accusatory. Practise this on a close friend first to get the pitch right. You might be the primary earner, in which case, tell them! I was once passed over for a key promotion which was given to my male colleague who had a family. I was newly married and hadn’t yet had my family. I’m quite sure that played a significant part in this decision. I left rather than accept the “smaller” job I was offered.
4. Don’t Limit Yourself
Over my career as a coach, I’ve coached as many men as I have women, and I think I’m able to say with confidence that women tend to set their sights lower than their abilities. Forgive the stereotyping here, but my experience is well borne out by research. We’ve all heard how women only apply for jobs when they’re 100% sure their skills fit the brief, while men have a go even if they’re only about 60% there. This tendency to play it safe is particularly apparent with mothers. It stems from anxiety about letting people down and it leads to a tendency to not over-stretch yourself. Unfortunately, this becomes a vicious circle. By not taking on new tasks you’ll get stuck with ones that don’t stretch you and ultimately you will find yourself unfulfilled and unhappy at work. I appeal to you to take the risk and bite off more than you can chew. Men do this as a matter of course, recognising that they’ll get there in the end. You will too. Playing it safe is not a safe strategy. Learning new things keeps you on your toes and the time flies by. If you’re going to spend considerable time away from your baby, make sure it’s time well spent, and you continue to invest in yourself and your career.
So, in summary, if you want to avoid the mummy track, make sure you’re not blaming yourself for not being so available, and if you are working flexibly make sure you manage your priorities and communicate them so you’re managing expectations. Call it out, it might be unconscious bias at play and don’t limit yourself by colluding with being on the mummy track. Take a risk and stretch yourself. Finally, bear in mind that although you may feel now that you’re on a tight rope juggling as you go, the tight rope gets closer to the ground as your children get older and so look to the future when you will have more time and your career will become more central to your identity again to help you keep your career goals in focus.