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Questions for Reva Seth

Interview by: Amy Stupavsky

The author of The MomShift says it’s time to question outdated paradigms of motherhood.

You have interviewed over 500 women of different backgrounds, ages, careers and family situations, and while there is no single template for post-baby professional success, you did find some underlying commonalities. Tell us about them.

Not surprisingly, women continually referenced the need for supportive partners, flexibility and the importance of hired help for housework and childcare.  But in addition to these well-known needs, there were some other interesting commonalities. Knowing yourself was a big one. Your career’s evolution and success don’t happen in isolation from your personal decisions and choices. While on maternity leave, one of the women I interviewed used that time to figure out what she really wanted, as a mother, a wife, and a partner in an accounting firm. There’s something to that: deliberately taking the time to decide what you are doing and why you are doing it. So many people just slide into a career without taking the time to analyze their decisions and engage in that kind of introspection.

Another thing I noticed is that the people who are happiest in their work and family lives continually redefine their rubrics for success. Like many women, when I started in my career in Law, I entered a firm with an arbitrary group of people who all started our careers at the same time. The problem is, many of us benchmark our successes against this group. The interviews for the book were done over a five-year period, so I saw how these women changed and grew. A lot of them realized they were still using these groups as barometers for their success—even though they had pursued very different paths—leading them to feel frustrated and unsuccessful. They realized that they didn’t want the same careers or have the same goals as the people in those early groups, yet they still allowed them to define what it meant to be successful.

The happiest people I interviewed accepted that ideas of success change. They told me that they are more successful now than they thought they’d ever be—although success looks different than they thought it would look. It’s important to be open to change: we’re all going to be working into our 70s, so the definition of success is going to keep changing; it’s not a static thing.

What was the most striking piece of research you discovered?

The one that comes to mind is the 2008 Cornell study: Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty? Researchers sent out fake résumés for both a childless woman and a mom; both were equally qualified. The only difference was that the mom’s résumé listed ‘Parent-Teacher Association Coordinator’ under the heading of ‘Other Relevant Activities’, as a discreet way of informing employers that it was a parent’s résumé. The researchers quickly discovered that the moms were viewed as less favourable candidates, and were less likely to be hired. Mothers were also offered an average of $11,000 a year less in compensation than childless job candidates with the same qualifications.

In contrast, men in the research sample actually benefited from their parenthood status and on average, fathers were offered $6,000 more than non-dads. The study supports the old model that a father will be more dedicated to his job because he needs the money. We still don’t ascribe that to women, even though we know that more and more women are the primary breadwinners. I spoke to many women who are either the main breadwinners or equal earners, so losing their incomes would be a gigantic step back for their families. The cultural framework is still ‘a woman works because it’s a choice, not a necessity’.

You met one woman who became the main breadwinner, earning about $40,000 more than her husband. But she wanted to keep that private and didn’t want you to use her name in the book. Why?

I met many women like that, and I think it’s because they’re still uncomfortable with it. Women told me, “I’m the primary breadwinner, but I don’t want that in print; I don’t know if my husband will like it, and I don’t want everyone to know.” Many of these women are in their late-30s and up, and for that generation, it’s still a stigma. These women had to get to the place mentally where they were okay with making more than their husbands, and some were holding themselves back because they didn’t want to out-earn their partner. After hearing all these stories, I realized that what is happening in your relationship and with your kids affects your career choices, and vice versa. We artificially divide them, but they’re not in separate ‘boxes’.

Many of the women you profiled pursued entrepreneurial career paths. Is motherhood somehow compatible with entrepreneurship?

In many ways it is, because the traditional, corporate career is still set up for people with stay-at-home partners. I think many women are  fighting against a model that hasn’t yet adjusted to working mothers; they’re at the forefront of finding new ways to work successfully, because the old ways were never set up for them.

Many women told me that motherhood pushed them to the next level of their careers.  They came to see staying in their old corporate job as the ‘easy’ path; they realized they wanted something more—whether it was more money or a more meaningful, fulfilling career. Some said they felt braver and more confident after having children: after tackling motherhood, taking the leap into something new became less daunting. There is also the ‘mompreneur’ phenomenon: after having kids, many women discover untapped market niches. However, I think the biggest element is that mothers are inspired to become entrepreneurs because they want more for themselves and their families.

Why does motherhood have such a positive effect on ambition and drive?

So often, we hear about children being a burden to a woman’s career. My biggest realization after having kids myself is that they’re a lot more fun than people tell you. It’s pretty great to have little people around, to get a different perspective. Before motherhood, I wasn’t very organized or ‘together’, but being a mother made me think, Wow, I’m capable of much more than I thought.

Motherhood is completely different from any other job, so it opens you up to possibilities—whether it’s to write a book, start a business, or some other initiative. You realize that you can probably succeed at lots of other things, too.  Say you’re pitching a project: before kids, I would have had so much angst leading up to the presentation, but after kids, I don’t worry too much, because frankly, I'm just too busy to worry. If it works out, great; if it doesn’t, I’ll just pitch it to another audience. Having children gave me that grounded perspective. It’s not something we hear in the discussion about business and kids, but lots of women told me that kids made them more efficient.

With the implementation of non-standard work hours, technology that makes us more accessible, and secondary careers, the traditional nine-to-five job is becoming an anachronism. It seems that mothers are a good fit for the modern workplace.

They are. We need to look more closely at working moms’ stories to learn how they do it. Work doesn’t have to happen nine-to-five, five days a week, with a commute. We now know there are other options. In my view, the best group of people for us to examine are successful working moms. I think their lessons really extend out. If previous generations of women who were new to the corridors of power told us that we needed to be more like men, I would say there is now a larger group that encourages us to be more like working moms.

As long as we have this idea that parenting impedes you from doing something else, everyone—children, parents and society—suffers. We need to change the notion that parenting is an all-consuming endeavour, and I think that speaks to changing the current parenting culture. There’s so much pressure to parent in this over-the-top ‘helicopter-parent’ way, and it takes a toll; it’s not healthy. The way many women think they have to parent hurts their friendships, relationships, children and careers.

You quote Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg frequently in the book. Why?

She is so strongly linked to this topic that I couldn’t help but include her. The conversation about working mothers is dominated by people like Sheryl and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. Don’t get me wrong, they are amazing women, and I think they’re hugely inspirational and aspirational; but we’ve let the less-than-one per cent take over the whole conversation. A lot of women are frustrated because we define success so narrowly.

These days, there are so many ways to have successful careers beyond the traditional, corporate path, and that’s where the trends are going. It’s more helpful to look at women who are having successful careers in all different kinds of ways, and that’s what I hope to do with this book: showcase the many ways we can achieve success. The fact is, there are many ways to set up a family and a career; we need to expand the conversation to let those other stories in.

What can we learn about work/life balance from successful working mothers?

I think the overarching lesson is that work/life balance is completely personal, and what it looks like needs to be regularly redefined. I hope the stories in the book provide examples of what it looks like at different life/family/career stages. Hearing about abstract or academic ideas doesn’t have the same impact as reading about how real people apply these ideas to their own lives.

I was once asked to recommend a book to graduates, and I chose Timothy Ferriss’s The Four-Hour Work Week. It’s interesting because he shows that what you do with your life—how you earn your money and how you structure your day—are wide open to possibilities. For instance, you can earn your money from one job, but get your career satisfaction from something completely different. I think we need more examples of that, especially in today’s workplace culture, which doesn’t do a good job of showcasing the many ways we can be successful outside of the traditional full-time job.

The World Economic Forum’s gender-gap report shows that countries with the strongest economies are those that have found ways to further women’s careers and keep mothers connected to the workforce; and in a survey of 215 Fortune-500 companies, the ones with a high ratio of women on the board or in senior positions were the strongest performers by every measure of profitability. Why is advancing women such good news for corporations?

Real diversity of experience is essential for companies to do well. Also, women tend to be the people who make the financial decisions in the home. They are the main audience for marketers, because they’re buying the majority of products. As a company, it just makes sense to have these people on your board. If you want to understand them, you need to have them present. We also need more working parents involved in politics at all levels. If we’re going to solve childcare issues or set up policies that really help families, we need women at the table.

What can employers do to promote and foster women’s growth?

It’s difficult to provide blanket suggestions, but some general recommendations from the current data include:

  1. Showcase the success stories of individuals who navigate their careers in ways that go beyond the conventional corporate climb. This can include people who work remotely, flexibly, have done part-time stints or sabbaticals, or turned down promotions. Policies are completely ineffective at changing organizations if employees don't see how they can personally relate to new choices.

  2. Provide role models from beyond the C-suite. There is still a tendency to showcase female success stories — particularly women at the top — in this shiny, packaged way. The research clearly shows these are not the stories or means of sharing experiences that are relevant to most working moms. I heard repeatedly that you learn more from the person immediately ahead of you in your career than from someone ‘at the top’, because it’s more attainable. Women want to hear about the tricky, gritty parts to learn how other women overcame difficulties.

  3. Create a culture that allows for more flexibility, in terms of both the workday (how and when people work) and how a career can or should look.

In the end, I hope my book will expand the type of conversations women have about how we structure and navigate our career and family lives. We have more opportunities than ever, and ultimately, that should shift the dominant view that still sees children as a barrier to career success and encourages the (false) cultural framework of either children or career. Given the range of ways we can structure our careers and family lives today, the two are not inherently in conflict. 

Reva Seth is the best-selling author of The MomShift: Women Share Their Stories of Career Success After Having Children (Random House Canada, 2014) and the founder of The MomShift (, an online platform for professional women to share career advice. She serves on the board of the Trudeau Center for Peace and Conflict Studies and the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

This article originally appeared in 'The Balancing Act' (Fall 2014).

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