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Corporate Exec Sorry for Discriminating Against Moms

Photograph by Getty Images

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.

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“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 industry.

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 work place.

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 easy.

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No one ever bothered her with that question again.

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.

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