Throughout most of my career, I've worked in environments with more men than women. This even started even back in business school. It's just part of the world I work in: startups and the venture capital space. According to the most recent data available (it's eight years old, but things haven't changed dramatically since then), only five percent of investments go to businesses owned by women. Another study shows an even lower number, reporting that just "2.3 percent of dollars among the investors surveyed went to women-owned firms." Often, the entrepreneurial world is dominated by the guys.
Today if I'm invited to participate in a conference on small business, entrepreneurs or online companies, I'm often the only woman on the panel. Initially this intimidated me. I remember struggling at the beginning of my career to have confidence in myself and my ideas while I sat in conference rooms as the only woman (and, often, minority) there. To get me through, I thought of my mother and how she--an entrepreneur herself--inspired me to be strong. These situations usually don't bother me anymore, but I still can't keep from observing these imbalances as I move forward in my career.
Most working women and mothers experience the same thing. Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal recently covered a new study from the Academy of Management Journal. She reported "bosses still see women as more conflicted than men over work and family--regardless of their actual caregiving duties." Even though child care, senior care and work/life balance affect both parents in two-parent households, managers in the study subconsciously assumed the brunt of that burden fell to their female employees and affected their work output.
As a parent, I know my responsibility of being a good mom to Ryan and Adam does affect my work. How couldn't it? Recent studies show the average family experiences five "child care crises" each year that cause parents to miss work or change their schedules (parents of children with special needs experience twice as many "care crises," by the way.) But work responsibilities and the daily shuffle don't just affect me. They affect Ron, too. I've written before about parents dividing caregiving responsibilities. Having four hands when it comes to caring for our kids certainly makes things easier than only two.
Yet it looks like women still have to overcome a workplace perception that they're more distracted or occupied with family matters on a regular basis. Maybe that's just another obstacle we have to navigate in the corporate world. We working mothers have to make ourselves known as both "workers" and "mothers," demonstrating to our bosses and co-workers that it's possible to be both successfully. That's another thing my mother taught me. More than showing me how to be strong woman, she set an example of how to be a dedicated, determined worker in the workplace. And at home, she also showed me how to become the best mother I could be.
I've loved Sue's advice for women to confront the perceptions head-on by openly discussing their goals and challenges with their bosses, showing them desire to be both a worker and a mother. At my company, we've tried to address these issues by creating an open environment with ongoing dialogues that address not only work subjects, but work/life balance. We do this for everyone, regardless of gender or family background, too. I've found this openness not only helps everyone on the team manage expectations, but also encourages a culture where everyone cares about their teammates and helps eliminate any unwarranted perceptions.
While every company is different in the way it presents and processes feedback like this, I'd also encourage other working mothers (and fathers!) to be open about your jobs, family and work/life balance. Once you do, then it's up to you to get out there and exceed expectations--that's really the best way to blow through any potential obstacles or misconceptions.