What Happy Working Mothers Know

05/25/2011 02:20 pm ET
  • Manisha Thakor Director of Wealth Strategies for Women at Buckingham & The BAM Alliance

Newly released Census data has once again brought the question of women, work, happiness and the issue of "opting-out" into the limelight. Given my focus on personal finance for women, I wanted to dig into this a little deeper. So I spoke with Cathy Greenberg, who along with Barrett Avigdo, is the author of a new bestseller... What Happy Working Mothers Know (Wiley, 2009). Here's what Cathy had to say...

1. What was the catalyst for your deciding to write "What Happy Working Mothers Know"?

My co-author, Barrett Avigdor, and I are both happy working mothers today, but it was not always the case. We each had our own journey to happiness that involved a lot of research and a lot of trial and error. We wanted to help other women find their path to happiness with less pain and less time than it took us. I've been a single working mom with one daughter who shared several blended family experiences over the course of my life while Barrett lives a more traditional family life with two sons and her husband. As a result of our experiences we complement each other in many ways that are helpful to an array of both working and stay at home moms.

2. To what degree in your research for this book did you find money to play a role in the happiness equation for working mothers?

We interviewed and surveyed over 1,000 women for this book. About 80% of them said that they contribute 40% or more to their family income. They are proud of that contribution and feeling proud of your work is part of our formula for happiness. We tell women that, if the only thing you get in exchange for your work is money, you are underpaid. Your work should have meaning. But there is also meaning in knowing that you are helping to provide for your family. Earning money also gives women a sense of independence which contributes to their happiness. We know that money, in and of itself, has little connection to happiness. Once your basic needs are met, having more or less money has little impact on happiness. But the sense of accomplishment and independence that money brings contributes significantly to happiness.

3. When it comes to handling their personal finances, what best practices did you find happy working mothers putting into place?

We did not discuss personal finances in our interviews. We did poll the focus groups on their current income level and percentage of household income they provide as well as their contribution to child care. Interestingly- even when women make >80% of the income in their families they still provide more than 50% of the child care.

4. In your work you teach people to identify the "values in life" that have the most meaning to them... and then you ask people to identify the percentage of their money they spend on those values. What are typical responses that you get to this exercise?

Most people put family as their #1 value and they spend a lot of their money on their family - particularly raising children. You see a very sharp drop off, however, when you get to other values that are typically at the top of the list such as "spirituality," "good health," "giving back to the community" and "being good at my job." People tend to spend relatively small amounts of money and time on these even though they say they are important.

5. As you've studied and talked to working moms, what has surprised you the most?

We were surprised by the number of working moms who rated themselves an 8 or better on a scale of 10 when asked if they are good moms. I think most moms are very good moms but I did not expect women to rate themselves so honestly. The women we talked to are very confident in their skills as mothers. Where women felt the least competent or accomplished was as a spouse or significant other.

6. How do you think the happiness levels of working moms in the US compares to working moms in other developed countries?

By talking with women in Asia, Europe, Latin America and the US, we realized that guilt is largely a US phenomena. Women outside the US suffer from far less guilt and they also have a far better support system - e.g. extended family nearby, spouses who do at least half the childcare. Women in the US have unrealistic expectations for themselves - to be Supermom - and they have relatively little help.

7. Given the tight link between happiness & productivity, do you think employers should be doing more to help their workforce, and especially working moms, maximize their happiness levels?

Absolutely! We know from previous research done for "What Happy Companies Know" that there is a 93% correlation between happiness and productivity. We also know that when people are in a positive environment, they flourish. They think more creatively, they are more productive and they make more ethical decisions. In a positive environment, people can contribute their best. Creating a positive environment is good business, no matter what your business may be.

Cathy Greenberg holds a PhD in the behavioral sciences and is an internationally recognized authority on leadership. She is a former managing partner in two of the world's largest consulting firms, Accenture and CSC, Computer Sciences Corporation, Currently, Cathy is the founding partner in a new venture, h2c: Happy Companies Healthy People, and the h2c Leadership Foundation an executive coaching and consultancy focused on helping companies maximize their investment in talent using her "Happiness=Profit" business formula.
Barrett S. Avigdor, JD, is an executive coach and Director of Legal Talent Strategies for Accenture. A graduate of the University of Chicago Law School and a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil, Barrett has spent much of her legal career as a Senior Executive in the Legal Group at Accenture, a $23 billion publicly traded technology consulting and outsourcing company.