Four years ago, Lucy Harris was a creative executive at an advertising agency in New York. She put in long hours at her job, spearheading projects, leading meetings, and meeting with high-profile clients. Then she had her first child, returned from maternity leave—and found that things had changed.
“When I returned I wasn’t asked to do any of those things, or even given the chance to,” recalls Harris, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect the identity of her employer. “I constantly felt that I wasn’t being taken seriously and was being pushed aside because I had had a baby.”
Harris initially brushed it off as her own paranoia—until a major client of hers came in to the office for a meeting. “I had no idea about it because the company had shifted them off to someone else,” she says. “I was astounded. The client wasn’t particularly happy about it either.” The frustrating reality finally hit her: She was being mommy tracked.
What Is the Mommy Track?
The “mommy track” is a common term for a career path for women that can allow for greater work-life balance, thanks to reduced hours or flexible schedules, but often at the cost of career advancement.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing; After all, many people want to (and choose to) make their career a lower priority than family. But when your boss or team choose the mommy track for you—and it’s potentially holding you back at work as a result—that’s a problem.
“The motherhood penalty is absolutely real,” says Jennifer Gefsky, a labor and employment partner at Epstein Becker & Green and the co-founder of Apres, a digital platform for working women who are pivoting in their careers or returning to the workforce.
According to the Bright Horizons Modern Family Index 2018, while 85% of people surveyed feel (rightly!) that motherhood is great preparation for facing the challenges of leading a business, 69% also say working mothers are more likely to be passed up for a new job than other employees. And 60% admit that career opportunities are given to employees who may be less skilled than the working moms who are being passed over.
As if those stats aren’t bleak enough, the report also found that 41% of working Americans view working moms as less devoted to their jobs, with 38% judging them for needing flexible schedules.
No wonder women themselves worry about the motherhood penalty, with 73% of surveyed moms believing they don’t get as many career advancement opportunities as women who aren’t moms, and 72% of both working mothers and fathers agreeing that women are penalized in their careers for starting families.
Paranoid? Not so much, as it turns out. So what do you do if you fear you’re on the fast track to the mommy track? Here’s what the experts say.
1. Set Expectations Early
Ideally, avoiding the mommy track starts even before you go on maternity leave, by sitting down with your manager and being clear about your career and professional goals. Once you’re back from leave, meet with your boss as soon as possible to review the status of your projects, figure out where (and how) you fit back into the picture, and—most importantly—reemphasize your ambition and dedication to your job.
“Be super-explicit: ‘Here’s my expectation, here’s my plan. Do you see any reason why this won’t work?’ says Angela Smith, a career coach at The Muse. “It comes down to being really specific with your supervisor. A lot of times these things are unsaid and we assume our manager knows [them], but actually saying it is important.”
Setting that benchmark also makes it easier to go back to your boss if things aren’t going according to that plan.
2. Find a Mentor or Coach
Is there a working mother in your company who’s killing it? And is she someone you want to emulate? If so, seek her out and ask her to be an informal mentor, says Gefsky. “Say, ‘I’d really like to talk to you about how to handle this.’” A mentor can help you process your experiences, evaluate your performance, and reaffirm your ambitions.
If no one at your company comes to mind, or you’d prefer to work with someone outside of the office, a maternity leave coach can be a great resource, too. This is a type of career coach who can help you with things such as transitioning your workload, navigating your leave, planning your re-entry, articulating boundaries, and advocating for yourself as a working mom. Some companies even offer maternity coaching as a perk, but if yours doesn’t, a regular career coach may be able to help you strategize as well.
3. Honestly Assess Your Performance
If you feel like you’re hitting roadblocks, it’s important to step back and assess your work. Are you doing the best you can do?
“Take your emotions out of it and look objectively,” Smith says. “Is there something you need to improve in your performance?” For example, are you keeping expected hours, or are you regularly arriving late or leaving early without having gotten your boss’s approval for a flexible schedule?
This also gives you another opportunity to have a results-oriented conversation with your boss. Ask, “What constructive feedback can you give me on what I could be doing better, so you’ll consider me for XYZ assignments in the future?”
The bottom line: Make sure you’re delivering before you bring up any mommy track concerns. “You can’t have these conversations and be half-assing it at work,” Gefsky says.
4. Talk About Your Plan—Again and Again
“Good communication with your supervisor is essential,” Smith says. “Be clear with your ambitions and be able to back it up with actual work product.”
But if you’ve checked those boxes and still feel you’re being mommy tracked, have another conversation with your boss.
“Unconscious bias is real,” Gefsky says. “Is it possible people look at a woman with a brand new baby and think she should be at home? Yes. But they might also be trying to be helpful, and think it’s a good thing that they’re not giving you a travel assignment.”
Remember that the best approach is to be a positive advocate for yourself. Keep emotion out of it, and let your manager know you’re dedicated with measured, well thought-out, and objective conversations. Make sure your tone is non-accusatory, and focus on being as collaborative and positive as possible, says Gefsky. “You can say, ‘I would have really liked XYZ assignment, and I want to make sure you know I’m going to do whatever I can to make sure you think of me next time,’” she says.
If you’re still not getting the results you want, you might directly address the issue with your manager (again, in a non-accusatory way), Gefsky says. “Say, ‘Is it possible you’re not giving me this assignment because I have a young child at home?’” This gives you the opportunity to reassure them that you have the coverage and support at home that you need to take on high-profile, time-consuming projects or travel.
5. Finally, Approach HR
“If you really are intent on being successful at your company, the best way is to work it out directly with your supervisor,” Gefsky says. “Unless someone has made direct discriminatory comments to you, don’t go to HR and file a complaint without serious consideration. Once HR gets involved, that takes it to another level.”
If you do bring your complaint to your HR department, be prepared with documentation of your conversations with your manager and specific examples of how you feel you’re being mommy-tracked. Again, in your first exchange with HR, it may be best not to be accusatory but to simply raise the issue in an attempt to clear the air.
HR may be able to partner with you to resolve the situation—which is what happened in Harris’ case, after unsuccessful attempts to raise her concerns with her supervisor. “After talking with the HR manager things improved a lot,” she says. “They had assumed I was going to take a step back, and I was able to inform them that that wasn’t the case at all. Thankfully, they heard me out, and I was able to get back into the work I was doing prior to my maternity leave.”
The experience helped Harris, who eventually left the company for unrelated reasons, understand the value of open, honest dialogue in the workplace. “I wish I had communicated with my boss prior to my maternity leave—it probably would have saved a lot of time and frustration,” she says. “But after that experience, I made sure that I communicated with my boss more and in detail, so everything was understood on both sides and there was no chance of miscommunication.”