Working moms and the 'flexibility' fallacy that exists in PR

Here's something you should know that many leaders in our industry are too afraid to say: no matter who you are, your boss does not want you to work from home

Harvard Business Review published an article titled, "Your Flex Work Culture Doesn’t Help Employees If It Hurts Their Careers."  We at Lippe Taylor couldn’t agree more. The word "flexibility" seems to have become code word in the modern PR industry for unchecked work-from-wherever.

I started Lippe Taylor more than 20 years ago when I was still a new mom, working out of my New York City apartment, so I understand the difficulty and the importance of work-life balance.

Women have made a lot of progress in the workplace, and men help out more around the house. However, Pew Research shows that when it comes to childcare, the primary responsibilities still reside with mom.

It’s no wonder that many new – and working – mothers are asking for flexibility when it comes to finding work-life balance. Unfortunately, many are doing so with the misguided belief that spending a significant amount of time working from home won’t impact their career.

Working moms are often punished for choosing to work from home by being subconsciously put on a slower advancement track in the office.

Authors cite original research, which shows if all employees perceive that people who take advantage of flexible work-from-home arrangements are sidelined, there is a negative effect on morale and tenure. When people see their peers being sidelined for working from home, they become more likely to disengage and quit.

This is, to some extent, good news, but still doesn’t change the fact that it happens. I can’t tell you how many women I’ve interviewed who had different versions of the same story – they were a rising star, took an appropriate amount of time for maternity leave and requested a consistent work-from-home arrangement afterward. They thought their history, tenure, and existing relationships with clients and staff would enable them to be just as effective working from home. Yet, with each performance review cycle, it became clearer they were no longer viewed as a star, not by management or their peers. 

Havard Business Review authors cite nine research studies conducted over 15 years, and make the stark declaration that mothers who work from home, "are often deemed uncommitted to their jobs, and are frequently "mommy-tracked" into less-demanding support roles, passed over for promotions, and offered less pay than mothers who do not use these arrangements."

This may not be in your company’s HR handbook, but it is a reality that working mothers need to be aware of. Many companies unfairly hold women back in their careers when they decide to start working from home on a regular basis. 

But here’s something else you should know that many leaders in our industry are too afraid to say: no matter who you are, your boss does not want you to work from home. You can ask for it – and they will probably allow it, but he or she would rather have you in the office, working elbow-to-elbow with your teammates to solve problems quickly and collaboratively. Technology is great – we can Skype, Facetime, and Slack with the best of them, but nothing beats working together in-person as a collaborative team.

I’m not the only one in the PR industry who thinks this, either. In 2016, I approached Renee Wilson and the PR Council about expanding a program we’d launched called the SheQuality Project, which helps women in our industry gain access to leadership positions. Since then we’ve hosted meetings all over the country with senior women in PR. This topic – not just workplace flexibility, but specifically how to curb working from home and get people back in the office together, is one that comes up in almost every meeting. 

The PR industry is not alone in this. Marissa Meyer (above) famously mandated that Yahoo employees stop working from home in 2013 via a memo in which her HR director stated, "Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together." 

IBM made similar waves last year when they announced that all remote employees needed to get back into an office.  

This is not to say that remote working is all bad. There are many benefits to occasionally changing your environment and focusing on "deep work" when necessary. But the Harvard Business Review article was talking about working moms who switch from being in the office every day to working from home more regularly. Like with so many other things, the research shows working moms are more likely to be judged harshly for doing this.

At Lippe Taylor, women who work from home are just as likely to be promoted as those who don’t. However, a big contributor to this truth is that we say "no" to a lot of work-from-home requests. In this, we’re not trying to be inflexible. But, like the Harvard Business Review headline explains, we are putting a stake in the ground that we are here to help women build their careers even if it means saying no to some of their requests.

Many women do succeed and grow in our agency while working from home a small amount of the time. But they understand the importance of being present and connected at the office as well, and we have stringent guardrails and expectations when they do (childcare providers are present, among others). 

I know this is somewhat dissonant with the trends in the industry right now. Perhaps it’s because I am a working mom and I understand the importance of pushing moms to stay present and connected at the office. 

As women, we have made significant strides in recent years to breaking down barriers and overcoming obstacles to advancement. Sometimes it takes acknowledging the inconvenient truths about the difficulties we face and the tradeoffs we make, to successfully continue on that path.

Maureen Lippe is CEO, Lippe Taylor

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