Katharine Zaleski, co-founder and president of startup PowerToFly,
published a corporate mea culpa to mothers in Forbes Magazine yesterday. She admits, in clear
and concrete detail, how she was both prejudicial and discriminatory towards
mothers in the workplace.
Her epiphany came during her own
maternity leave as a first time mother in her early 30s. The apology is genuine and a wakeup call for
other executives. My guess is that none
of this is news or revelatory to any mother who works in corporate America, but
to see her words in a business journal like Forbes made my working mother’s
heart grateful and proud.
“For mothers in the workplace, it’s death by a
thousand cuts—and sometimes it’s other women holding the knives. I didn’t
realize this—or how horrible I’d been—until five years later, when I gave
birth to a daughter of my own.”
Zaleski’s very public apology seems especially relevant
this week as I read other news stories making headlines about the gender gap in
corporate culture. The New York Times
ran a piece this week under the shameful yet not surprising headline, “Fewer
Women Run Big Companies Than Men Named John.” Sigh. Also taking one for the corporate team is
the increasingly predictable and obtuse head of Yahoo!, Marissa Mayer, who
said in a recent interview that gender has become irrelevant in the tech
Give me a mother-freaking break.
Of course gender and parenting status is relevant in the
work world, especially for women. I see
it in my own Facebook feed almost every day. Friends who are single mothers, or recently divorced, fearing for their
jobs as they try to juggle everything on their own. Men simply do not cope with these issues in
the same way.
And before anyone gets upset by my generalizations, let me
clarify. While there are a growing
number of hands-on fathers, single fathers, involved-in-parenting fathers, a man will never, ever sit across from a prospective employer or business associate and be seen through a parenting filter: Will he need to leave early to
pick up the kids? What arrangements will
he make when the kids are sick? How on
earth will he manage the whole work life balance thing?
The first step to addressing some of the problems working women in the corporate world encounter is to admit there are problems.
Yep, never gonna happen.
With her public acknowledgment that, yes, in fact, she had
judged women who were mothers as potential business liabilities, Katharine
Zaleski merely pulls the rug off the very large elephant in the corporate
living room. We can only hope that
others step forward to acknowledge these common biases against mothers in the
My last boss in a corporate position had broken through many
a glass ceiling in her mothering days. She
was a tough, tough cookie. I respected
her tremendously and, truth be told, was a little bit intimidated. I feared my
own mothering status—having a newly minted 2-year-old at home, trying to
adopt another child, and grieving the loss of my daughter 18 months prior to my
hiring—would in some way negatively impact my work day.
In the end, it didn’t.
While my corporate boss was indeed intimidating and never
someone you wanted on your bad side, she was, at heart, a mother. She made room
for the occasional moment when my parenting impacted my ability to work. She told a story she was very fond of from
the late 1980s when, having just been promoted to an executive position, a man
in the lunchroom wondered aloud who was watching her children while she was
away. Stone-faced, my boss retorted that
the stainless steel cage they kept in the backyard made child rearing
No one ever bothered her with that
The first step to addressing some of the problems working women
in the corporate world encounter is to admit there are problems. If, like Marissa Meyer, we gloss over the
issue, nothing will ever get solved with all the men named John running our
corporations. Our greatest chance for
creating change is to have women like Katharine Zaleski speak the truth.
Mothers are discriminated against in the work
place. Plain and simple.