I interviewed Carol Evans, CEO of Working Mother Media, which publishes Working Mother magazine. We started off talking about working women as they are portrayed in the media….
Q: What do you think of the current news media portrayal of working women and how it’s changed over your career?
There are three big changes from the time I started Working Mother in 1979.
The biggest change is that working mothers went from being a real kind of working class image, and then they went to a “high executive” image in the media– it sort of bounced up and down in the media. And now the portrayal is much more well-rounded: working mothers can be in any type of job, in any type of image. It’s gotten a little more realistic.
Number two is that it’s become much more popular. I cannot believe how Hollywood has become obsessed with working mothers – not so much working mothers but celebrity mothers. All the celebrity magazines- they seem to have one topic, which is who’s pregnant. The baby bump- I mean, this is a phenomenon. Even 10 years ago- or fifteen years ago, it was hidden, no one saw it, you had a baby, you dropped out of sight and out of Hollywood. When you came back it was a couple of years later. Now it is a nationwide obsession with pregnancy. I think it’s wonderful. The minute the baby is born, though – this poor woman, who is so beautiful, she’s supposed to be right back into shape. And she’s never supposed to age after that. No aging allowed! The excruciating standards the Hollywood stars are held up to – it’s got its goods and bads. It’s wonderful that pregnancy is seen as such a beautiful thing-, but it’s a shame that motherhood is framed against a backdrop of such beauty [that] no one can live up to.
Q: Do you think that all the celebrities being pregnant has helped normalize the thought of pregnant women in the workplace?
A: Yes, I really do. I think it’s helped a lot to popularize the pregnant body as a beautiful thing. I see women walking down the streets of every city I go to, and no ones’ covering their baby bump they are showing it off as fast as they can. When I was pregnant 22 and 19 years ago we were wearing bulky jackets over our belly. We were pretty much hiding it. People were wearing their skirts unzipped as long as they could- anything to not reveal [the pregnancy]. And now it’s like, get that baby out there!
Pregnant women are showing their bellies at work. They’re not wearing suit jackets to cover their bellies. A pregnant body used to be something that scared people, and made people uncomfortable. Thirty, twenty five years ago people were uncomfortable with pregnant bodies, it caused a lot of alarm on the job. They thought people might have the baby on the job. The image of pregnancy has changed from being unhealthy to being healthy. Now we see pregnancy as a thing of being vital. That’s a beautiful change. It’s very important because the mindset of the woman becomes one of pride. If you feel like you should be hiding this, it’s impossible. If you can just let it be something you’re proud of, your mindset is so much better.
The popularization of pregnancy is a good thing. We’ve popularized pregnancy through the normal medium of celebrity worship [laughs]. The bad side is we really feel like you’re supposed to be absolutely gorgeous after the baby is born. And birth is a very difficult physical process; it’s a medical issue. We need to allow women time to recover without expectations being so high.
The third thing that’s changed is I think there’s a real awareness that the news media itself has used motherhood as a newsmaker. But I don’t the general public is buying it so much anymore. There’s more skepticism about how media portrays motherhood now- the mommy wars, people are so tired of hearing that. They almost think it’s something the media is driving, as opposed to reality. There’s more sophistication about how the news media is reporting the current status of moms.
Q: Do you think the news media somehow engenders the image that the working mother is going to be permanently stressed out?
A: The media portrayal of mothers is pretty complex because a lot of times the media does utilize “woman as mom” as a really strong character in their stories- the one image is supermom, and she has to do everything. And the other image is that she’s really stressed and frazzled and can’t do anything. Both images turn up a lot in the media. Working Mother magazine is really dedicated to showing the real mom who’s just making it happen- but in the media you’ve got the pedestal and the pillory. Because the middle ground isn’t as interesting to the news media. There’s no news in, everything’s ok. For the most part, yes, working mothers are stressed out, and take on too much. But basically the story about working mothers is ‘yes, we’re the majority, we’re ok, we’re doing it, we’re solving our problems, and here’s how we do it.’ And that’s just not a grabber on the evening news.
Q: Do you see a change in men? Would you expect in fifteen years your magazine will be called ‘Working Parent’?
A: Not really. I think dads are not feeling so much work life conflict as they are work life opportunity. Moms feel work life conflict more than dads (Editor’s note: this conflicts with recent FWI data finding that 59% of fathers in dual-earner couples report feeling work life conflict). Dads are reveling in the fact that hey, I can spend more time with my kids. They are kind of on the enjoyment side of that. They don’t go to work thinking, hey I wish I could spend more time with my baby. That’s what women think. It’s a very big difference – moms are still taking the majority of the responsibility. Moms want to be the mommy; they don’t want to be the daddy. And dads don’t want to be the mommy, but they are willing to take on a larger role as daddy. That’s why it’s not a work life conflict; it’s a work life opportunity for them.
I think dads have caught on to the idea that it’s really cool to share the breadwinning responsibility with another person. That’s why the two-income family is the basis of the American family for better or worse. Whether the economy is up or down, the two-income family is the basis of the economy. When the economy is down, at least one person has a job; when the economy is up, we’re spending more.
I think dads now are seeing that the role of fatherhood has real value- it’s a bigger role. That’s a broad generalization- every generation has had wonderful dads. But with the Generation X the pendulum is definitely swinging towards more time with the kids. Even an hour a week more time with the kids makes a big difference.
Q: Do you buy the argument, recently popularized by authors such as Michael Lewis, that this parenting generation is really in a transition in terms of parenting roles?
A: Yes I think Gen X and Gen Y fathers are thinking a lot more about the roles. They are learning the softer skills of parenthood. It’s a yes, but it’s a limited yes. Generally speaking, moms are still really in control. Moms still really want to dictate how the children are raised. There’s more teaching and training going on where mom is teaching dad, and dads are learning more about how to implement how mom wants to raise the children.
Mom’s still driving the bus, but she wants more co-parenting- she wants to make the calls. I think that mothers just have really strong opinions about how they want their children raised. And working has in some ways increased their power. They become very good in the workplace. Almost all mothers are working before they have their first child. In the workplace, they’ve learned a lot about self-assertion, negotiation, taking charge. I think mothers are more in charge of raising their children than they used to be. They’ve learned so much about assertiveness in the workplace.
Q: Can we talk about time? What would you say to young people who may not think consciously about time?
A: Motherhood is an experiential sport. It’s an experiential college, university. Unfortunately there are very few ways to prepare for motherhood except maybe be an aunt and take your niece or nephew for a couple of weeks. You can’t imagine the emotional power of motherhood until you experience it. It’s just not fathomable. But people have this longing for a child, they know it’s a powerful experience and their biological desire does hit them at a certain age- but in terms of time, the time crunch, it’s really hard to prepare for that. Babies are so much more needy than human adults can imagine. So, read good books, prepare, and be ready and open for a lot of change in your life.
Once you’re a mom, time is a very weird thing. We do end up giving up sleep. I gave up sleep a lot just to be with my kids, just to be nursing…you just forget what a full night’s sleep feels like.
At work, there are a lot of employee resource groups emerging- or network and affinity groups, and a lot of these are focused around working parents. I was just speaking yesterday at Office Max in Chicago, it’s called the “Max Moms Group” and it’s a group of employees who are working moms- mostly it’s moms- and they tell each other stories. Pre-moms—women who are actively thinking of having a child—can join these groups and learn a lot about what will happen when they have a baby. There are programs like “phase back” from maternity leave- and that’s where a woman comes back a little bit at a time.
Just the discussion about maternity leave itself: it is very important to prepare for a working mother to prepare for her leave.
A lot of a company’s culture is expressed through their maternity leave policy. It’s really important that companies have good maternity leave policies. So yes, I think there’s a lot of ways for companies to discuss this when a woman declares her pregnancy. There’s a lot of role modeling…and lots of one to one mentoring. You find about what kind of time other women took, you ask about how much time they took.
The recession hasn’t changed the programs. Companies are finding the affinity groups very efficient. We have a whole program called the network affinity leadership congress- it’s a training program for volunteer network groups at companies across the country. We’re finding this is just getting more and more popular, it’s just a way to address individual needs in a collective setting. I think the economy is affecting individuals a lot. There’s a lot of stress, job loss… a lot of middle class families who are very afraid of what’s going to happen. But so far the companies are not retreating from their flex programs. Good companies are supporting working families. Now it’s more important than ever to work for a really good company.
Q: What’s the next big thing for the work life field?
A: Well, here are my marching orders — some of the things we need to get behind: I would like to see a lot more government support of policies that are really needed. The fact that we don’t have mandated paid maternity leave is absurd and ridiculous. It makes an unequal playing field for women. It’s embarrassing and really wrong the government doesn’t mandate this. We’re just one of four countries in the world, in the company of Swaziland, Papua New Guinea. And we don’t have mandated paid sick leave. That’s just horrible, and until we have it we won’t be a truly developed country!
Companies are leading the way in work life support- I’m very proud of the companies for doing that. I’m very proud of our 100 Best Companies [the list named annually by Working Mother magazine]. I think it’s a shame we can’t mandate that support across the board for women. Especially now, the recession has brought women up to 49% of the workforce, and if we’re going to be 49% and then 50% we need these policies. The Clinton Administration put in FMLA and we all thought it would turn into paid maternity leave sooner….