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Real Women in Tech: 'You Can Have It All, Just Not All at Once,' Says Questback's Carol Lee Anderson

The Motherhood Penalty is very real, but Carol Lee Anderson says it's not just a female burden.

One of the most oft-cited examples of systemic gender bias in the workplace is what sociologists call The Motherhood Penalty, which says that how our society structures and approaches parenthood and employment creates an inherent disadvantage for working mothers. When two candidates are otherwise equal, being a mom reduces the chance of being offered employment by 37 percent. When mothers do land the job, it’s at an average salary that's $11,000 below childless female candidates.

It can be almost impossible to overcome that kind of handicap, even over the course of a long career. Women who have kids between the ages of 25 and 35 – prime years both for building careers and having children – double the pay gap between themselves and their husbands, and they never quite close it. In contrast, men who become fathers during this stage of life see an average bump of 6 percent.

We live in a society that thinks the most attractive qualities in a man are morality and professional success, and the most attractive qualities in a woman are physical beauty and empathy, so as odd as it might seem, the opposite impact that parenthood has on male and female earning potential makes sense. Women are overwhelmingly the caregivers in our society. They stay home with the children, with elderly parents, and with sick relatives. Often, they have to do so under inflexible, strict paid-time-off policies that impact income, job performance scores, and opportunity for advancement.

While women take the salary hit when it comes to working parent trends, men suffer from the status quo too. Just as many fathers as mothers say it’s hard to balance work and children, and many dads who want to spend more time at home with the kids are hampered by a perception that child-rearing is “women’s work.” Only 1 percent of the American public thinks men are just as capable of caring for a new baby as women. 

Carol Lee Anderson

The rise of remote work and flexible time-off policies are helping to ease the stress of having children on workers, both male and female, but there’s still very little overlap between the nursery and the conference room. It’s time for that to change, says Carol Lee Anderson, North America president of Questback, which provides human-analytics software solutions. Anderson, who has twin boys and a résumé that includes names like SAP, Oracle and IBM, sat down with us to talk about what it was like being a mom in tech, and what employers need to be doing to be more inclusive to working parents.

Channel Futures: Talk to me a little bit about your own personal experience and how the life choices you’ve made impacted your career in tech.

Carol Lee Anderson: Let me just say, I’ve always had such, such really great bosses. I’ve had five jobs, and I’ve followed two of my bosses to four of those jobs, so clearly I think they’re great. But when [I took maternity leave], and they had to send out a memo about me being off and being gone for awhile, they said I had “a condition” and that I’d be returning in three months. Really? A condition? It’s called pregnancy.

Nobody felt like they wanted to take away from my great career success by saying I was pregnant. They didn’t want anyone to view me as being less capable because now I had children. It was almost protective.

CF: As if the idea of you as a mother couldn’t exist alongside the idea of you as a leader.

CLA: There’s this ethos today that you can’t have it all, but I think you can. You just can’t have it all at once. I tell all my staff that I’m available all the time. I start work very early in the morning, and I try if I can to get home around 6:30 to be present for my husband and my kids for two hours. Then I get back online nearly every night other than Friday and Saturday around 8:30 or 9:00, depending if someone stalls for an extra glass of water or wants a little bit of extra time. Then I get back online and work, but when I’m present, I’m really, really present.

I think women need more examples around balancing that, and honestly, maybe men do too. Maybe for men, sexism goes the other way: You have to stay at the office because you’re the man, or you can’t race home to give your new baby a bath. I try to give both the women and the men in my office permission to be whole in their lives, to bring all of their whole parts to work.

CF: Is there a difference in how your male and female employees ask for time off to be with their kids? Do they approach it differently?

CLA: Frequently, I hear women – and I suffer a little bit of it myself – being apologetic. “I’m sorry.” It’s based a little bit in our culture. Women are apologetic, and they really don’t need to be. We have a family-first environment here, and even saying that, there’s still that hesitancy around leaving to take care of children’s affairs. It’s almost easier to go to a banking appointment or a doctor appointment than it is to take time off to go and watch your kids play, or go meet them for lunch and have a little “mommy and me” time.

CF: That impulse to apologize is pervasive among so many women I know, yours truly included. Maybe we’re trying to offset all the perceptions around women and emotion in the workplace.

CLA: Sadly, women can still be perceived as too aggressive or high-strung when we’re confident. I don’t think women should feel embarrassed about wanting the best for their families, but I don’t think men should feel bad about it either.

The good news is that where I think things are really changing is that one of our most highly valued traits in leadership is now emotional intelligence and EQ. I see time and time again that EQ is viewed to be more related to the “female” side. It’s great, because it makes it OK to have a natural disposition toward emotion. A lot of people assume women do, and that’s an example of positive sexism, which allows people to use their inherent strengths.

CF: That gives not only women, but also men more permission to be emotional at work. By that I don’t mean emotive, necessarily, but rather able to communicate on a more personal level, like being open about being a parent.

CLA: Right. This isn’t just an issue faced by women. According to a Pew survey, about [one-half] of fathers report that it’s difficult to balance the duties of being a parent with their careers. It’s not just women that are facing this. Do people have to make a few hard choices? Maybe. Maybe taking on a brand-new AI project when you just had a baby is not the best choice for your career or your family. Maybe you wait until the next one comes up, or you think about compromises. Again, you can have it all, just not all at once.

It’s a two-way street, too. Employers need to realize they have to take care of their employees. There are a lot of open jobs on the market, and it’s hard to get particular skill sets. Employers need to make better choices. [Parents] need to think about what their company can actually accommodate. Maybe you need to look at going somewhere else that will allow you the flexibility to function, be it male or female, in that type of role.

I tell some of my guys that just had babies, “Don’t come in here. Just work from home.” I think you have to provide the environment, and companies need to wake up. The skill-set demands are only going to get greater and greater as we move to the next generation. We have to retain talent. People don’t stay at jobs forever. Male and female, we have options.

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