A blonde woman in a blue top, red skirt and red cape stands with her back to the viewer.
Image: Lia Koltyrina/Shutterstock

One working mother learns to drop the ball, hang up her cape and just say no

18 Sep 2018

Tired of being Superwoman? So was Dr Anita Sands. Hanging up her cape, however, was harder than expected.

Growing up, I thought my mom was Wonder Woman. After all, she raised five kids, worked at least two jobs, helped with my dad’s business, took care of her parents, contributed to our parish, and shuttled the five of us to endless music, sports and swimming lessons.

She, with that resilient fortitude of most women of her era, would say that she had it no worse than her contemporaries. Which makes me feel like an even greater loser on those days when making it out of the house with only one child in tow feels like an Olympian-level feat.

Despite our inclination, however, to think it’s ‘just me’, pretty much every working mother can relate to those (endless) days of feeling tired, stressed and overwhelmed. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise when you look at the data, which shows that women with partners and children are more than five times more likely than men to do all or most of the household work.

Bad enough as that is, what about the more than 40pc of women who are the primary breadwinners in their home? Even they are 3.5 times more likely to be working the ‘double shift’ than men in the same situation.

Wonder Woman be damned, this gender inequality just didn’t seem right in this day and age, so I decided to conduct my own unofficial social study.

‘Pretty much every working mother can relate to those (endless) days of feeling tired, stressed and overwhelmed’

My experiment started when I was pregnant. Granted, while I was the only one who had to deal with 10 weeks of all-day ‘morning’ sickness, the physical demands of pregnancy paled in comparison to the monumental to-do list that needed to be completed before the baby’s arrival.

There I found myself, bleary-eyed at one o’clock in the morning, going through endless websites and top 10 lists for the 50 must-have baby items. That was the first time I caught myself. Why was it solely my job to pick all this stuff out? I didn’t know a single thing about cribs, bottles or strollers (which seemingly require a degree in engineering to operate). Surely my husband John – as a father of five children already – had an obvious comparative advantage when it came to this stuff?

And so began my quest to share responsibilities. I asked John to pick out the crib and supplied him with my initial research. Two days later, he dropped a file on my desk with three handwritten pages of notes on his shortlist of cribs. He let out a frustrated sigh and said: “This stuff is insane. It took me two days to whittle it down to three.”

Ah, welcome to my world. One down, 49 more items to go. Which of your 24 items would you like to handle next, dear?

Balancing act

In spite of this modest victory, I came to realise that achieving a 50:50 split of household chores is more nuanced than I imagined.

As any new mother will tell you, the birth of our daughter marked a transformation in the amount and type of household chores our home requires to remain borderline functional. And I’m lucky: when it comes to divvying up the jobs, John is an incredibly supportive partner with a flexible career that allows him to shoulder some of the domestic burden. I know many women don’t have that luxury, especially single mothers (who truly are superheroes). Even for those in dual-income situations, for many, the availability and cost of childcare alone make for an ongoing struggle.

Despite my fortunate marital situation, and my own conscious effort towards an equitable split of household work, it’s remarkable how many times I’ve had to catch myself. It’s crazy the extent to which my default mindset tells me that everything to do with our home and daughter is my responsibility. It has been illuminating – and terrifying – to observe how natural it is for me, unchecked, to take on all the household chores.

Hanging up your cape at work

Taking on every thankless task at home is one thing, but it’s a habit that many women let spill over into the workplace and, when we do, the consequences are not benign.

Think about it. How many times have you experienced the default expectation that one of the women will take the notes during a meeting? Or how often is it a female colleague who plans the birthday celebration in the break room or organises the holiday party?

Turns out, these assignments aren’t a random pattern but rather indicative of behavioural and cultural norms that have subtly crept into many organisations. Not surprisingly, they have significant and negative ramifications on women’s careers.

Prof Linda Babcock, author of the groundbreaking book on gender and negotiation, Women Don’t Ask, has undertaken some illuminating research on this issue. Her impetus came from a startling realisation that she spent a lot of time doing favours for colleagues and performing extra work-related activities that had no bearing on how she was evaluated. While her efforts were good for the university and her colleagues, these tasks detracted from her own career. And Babcock was not alone. She and several colleagues formed the ‘I Just Can’t Say No’ Club when they realised their commonality.

‘When other women weigh in, it becomes easier to recognise the opportunity costs of saying yes, to encourage each other in saying no, and to bring an end to the explanations, apologies and guilt for declining’

Remarkably, Babcock discovered that men and women both turn to female colleagues when they need a favour. The expectation – and unfortunate reality – is that women are more likely to volunteer to help and also more likely to say yes to a request. As a result, women lose out on promotions and advancement opportunities because they spend more time working on non-promotable tasks than their male counterparts. Adding insult to injury, these types of tasks have the unfortunate side effect of lowering a woman’s perceived productivity and value, as these tasks are considered more ‘menial’.

When managers ask for these favours or tasks, it’s even more difficult for women to turn them down, especially if they believe it will impact their ‘likeability’ at work (a standard men don’t usually face). It’s incumbent upon managers and leaders to be aware of this behaviour and ensure that uncompensated and thankless tasks are evenly distributed among men and women, but women themselves have to become better at saying no.

A problem shared is a problem solved

Part of the reason Babcock and her colleagues created the ‘I Just Can’t Say No’ Club was to provide each other with a sounding board for all those task requests. When other women weigh in, it becomes easier to recognise the opportunity costs of saying yes, to encourage each other in saying no, and to bring an end to the explanations, apologies and guilt for declining.

Throughout my career, it has become clear that the first thing women need to do is share our experiences, and to not be afraid to put your hand up when you do feel overwhelmed at home, or taken for granted at work. Just knowing that you’re not alone in all that you’re encountering is often enough to bolster your confidence to do something about it.

Supporting each other in our efforts is so important because as much as there are systemic issues that impede women’s advancement, there’s also the powerful ‘invisible hand’ that we place on ourselves. It starts with recognising our own innate inclinations and behaviours and then rewiring our minds, and reworking our routines, so that we can drop the ball and say no without feeling that it strips us of our superwoman status.

After all, while we Wonder Women may be able to do it all, it doesn’t mean we should.

A longer version of this post originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse. You can read it in full here.

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Anita Sands
By Anita Sands

Dr Anita Sands is a US-based board director, author and speaker. She has a background in the financial services and technology industries, and has served on the boards of companies such as Symantec, ServiceNow and Pure Storage. She also happens to hold a PhD in atomic and molecular physics and a master’s in public policy and management. www.dranitasands.com

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