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'Office Moms' Aren't New, But They Say A Lot About What Women Bring To Work Culture

03/28/2013 08:36 am ET | Updated May 28, 2013

On Tuesday the Wall Street Journal published an article by Katie Rosman reporting the emergence of the "office mom" -- the woman "asserting herself as the matriarch of the office family."

As is often the case with trend stories, the office mom is not actually a new thing. There have been nurturing female figures in offices since women were first allowed to work as secretaries. Yet a conversation about office moms is relevant in this particular cultural moment when we are already talking so much about who women are and should be at work.

Rosman describes the office mom as the workplace equivalent of the room mother or school nurse -- an almost always female supplier of tissues and advice, the person who knows who has a cold and who is going through a breakup, the shoulder to cry on at the office. She forms close personal relationships with mostly younger women in the office, and she is especially present -- sometimes in numbers -- in mostly female workplaces. She makes sure there are lots and lots of cupcakes. And she represents what a lot of offices could use more of.

There's a danger in highlighting a phenomenon like this of making the apparent domain of the office mom -- companies with a large number of women on staff -- seem like centers of frivolity, where employees are more focused on finding someone to take care of them than they are on the bottom line. Rosman's description of those workplaces and the confiding and nurturing that goes on there certainly doesn't fit into a traditionally masculine every-man-for-himself work environment, where you get ahead by trusting no one and looking to the leadership less for advice than for a sign of who you can most easily replace.

And those who appreciate power women Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer's refusal to put the personal before the professional may not appreciate this focus on senior women's nurturing skills at the office rather than their professional contributions, which Rosman doesn't touch on much in the piece.

But singling out the "office mom" is important for two reasons. First, so much media coverage of women's professional lives either questions their ability to lead -- as the New York Times' Room for Debate did last week --- or how terrible they supposedly are to each other. The "office mom" as Rosman describes her goes out of her way to be supportive of female colleagues and is a leader in the sense that she helps keep valuable employees happy and healthy. Lori Richmond, creative director of XO, told the Journal, "I'm not worried about being seen as too soft or not tough enough," says Ms. Richmond, a 36-year-old mother of two. "Nurturing valuable employees is critical."

Second, Rosman's description of office moms and their relationships with colleagues highlights the fact that female employees do often form close personal bonds at work -- and that's a valuable thing. Sure, a relationship between a junior employee and her superior can't be the kind of friendship she has with people outside her professional life, but pretending that employees don't form friendships with their coworkers is like pretending that office romances don't happen. It's very hard to keep a boss-employee or even mentor-mentee relationship at the office entirely work-focused. Since women talk more than men, I would argue that it's even harder for women, and not necessarily beneficial. Which company would you rather spend 8 to 12 hours every day working for: the one where you interact with colleagues you genuinely care about, resulting in a steady flow of oxytocin and reliable opinions on how to get through those times when life throws you under the bus, or the one where people who barely know you and have no personal investment in you?

Overall, Rosman paints a picture of the kind of environment some predominantly female workplaces have made a reality -- one where you are trusted to get the job done but someone lets you know they care if you are getting enough sleep, if your relationship is on the rocks, if you get home safely. It's a messier way to do business -- family, after all, can get messy, and very, very personal -- but one that more mixed gender workplaces and predominantly male companies might enjoy and benefit from if they tried it. I'm looking forward to the trend piece on the office dad.

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