Working Mothers in Corporate Leadership: Three Keys to Success

Paul J. Donahue, Ph.D.

Executive Summary

Professional working mothers often have to overcome considerable bias that they are capable of performing at the highest levels. This is especially the case for senior managers who want to balance their work and family responsibilities, and have flexibility in their work schedules. To reach more senior positions, working mothers have to demonstrate their worth to their firms in tangible and measurable ways, and to be unabashed about their value and expertise. They also benefit from developing a solid network among their peers within and outside their firms, and seeking out mentors from members of the company's leadership group.

An executive team that recognizes the achievements and efficiency of working mothers is likely to take active steps to retain them. During periods of economic contraction, they will be more apt to resist the tendency to cut staff who have non-traditional working arrangements, and focus instead on the productivity and intellectual assets of senior managers, regardless of their family responsibilities.


In today's economy, every employee has to prove their value. Working mothers who want to advance their careers and find a reasonable balance in their work and home lives have to go further than the rest.

First they have to overcome the subtle bias against working parents, particularly those who want to reduce their responsibilities or work less than full time. Directors at one financial firm routinely refer to the "mommy haircut" to describe this decision, with the clear implication that once women reduce their time and responsibilities in the firm, there is no returning to the executive track.

For women who are vying for the most senior positions in their firms, there is rarely much discussion of work/life balance. One marketing director I spoke with recently stated it bluntly: "If you're aiming for the top rungs, you don't want to show weakness or ask for flexibility. There is still a stigma." Women with children still feel that they have to prove themselves for an unspecified amount of time and reach a certain level before they can request any flexible arrangements, or be up front about their need to balance their lives.

Once they get to the top, female executives face continued pressure to prove their value. Some feel that they have to overcompensate and work harder than their male colleagues to avoid the appearance of "taking advantage of the mommy situation." Many are also sensitive to the fact that they are viewed as trailblazers by more junior female colleagues, and they don't want to do anything to limit the options of the women who are looking to advance in their companies. Some begin to feel overwhelmed by these expectations, even when they are aware that they are largely self-imposed.

Developing an Action Plan

The current recession has significantly increased the pressure on all corporate employees. Now more than ever, working parents, particularly women in senior management, need to take the time to develop a strategic plan for their careers. Part of the challenge of balancing multiple roles and responsibilities is the difficulty in carving out time to think clearly about their strengths, their objectives and the resources they require to continue to advance in their organizations and industries. If working mothers do not take this time, they risk being limited to reacting to their firm's needs or the economic climate, and could end up missing opportunities to enhance their reputations and to raise their status in their companies.

The Keys to Success: Core Contributor, Confident, Connected

There are three ways that professional working mothers can establish their value and secure a place in their firm's management structure.

  1. Being Identified as a Core Contributor
    1. Commitment
      Like any members of a team, working parents first establish themselves through their loyalty and commitment. Senior staff generally enter at junior or mid-level positions and rise through the ranks through their tenacity and hard work, and by successfully completing key projects. To hone those skills and establish their visibility, they generally need to work full time for a minimum of 1-2 years, but often for at least 3-5 years. The longer the commitment and the more successful the engagement, the more leverage working parents have when it later comes to negotiating more flexible arrangements.
    2. Brand and Expertise
      Working as a solid team member is not enough to differentiate working women from their peers. If they are to advance to more senior positions, they need to create a brand that demonstrates their expertise and value to the company. This may mean running a department or developing an area of research or devoted client base that is not easily transferable. But it needs to include a skill set that is easily identified by senior management and can be articulated in a few words: "A great eye for sales talent;" "one of our best litigators in patent cases;" "The person on Asian currency."

      Firms are usually loath to lose top talent and want to find ways to move or keep them in top positions. A CEO of a small firm pointed to the head of integrated marketing as a prime example: "She's a core member of the team, so we make it [a flexible schedule] work for her." A marketing director at another firm spoke regretfully about their head of corporate sponsorship who had recently left the company due to family considerations: "She was terrific at her job and I believe we could have worked something out."
    3. Real Measures of Productivity
      Along with a solid internal record and brand, working parents need quantifiable ways of determining their value to the company. This is particularly important for women, who often become more efficient in producing top quality work after having children. Regularly reporting sales figures, research data or client assets, and documenting their contribution to team-based projects is critical to women looking to establish themselves.

      One senior attorney summed it up this way: "Women tend to measure worth by what others think. They need to focus on productivity. and it needs to be measured. Let people see that publicly, through memos and announcements. You need to educate the top people [about your worth]."
  2. Becoming a Confident Executive
    1. Recognize Value and Promote Skills
      In order to advance to senior levels, working mothers have to develop a sense of their own value and recognize their unique skills. When asked for one piece of advice for younger associates, a female executive stated simply: "Know your trade and believe in yourself." This may sound like a self-help mantra, but working parents who have a clear sense of their skill sets and intellectual assets are far more likely to project an image of a confident, determined and serious person who gets the job done.

      An awareness of their strengths is not enough to assure that working mothers are retained or promoted. They must also be willing to share this knowledge with the leadership team. This may not come naturally to some women (just as it does not to many men), and many need to overcome reservations about appearing self-aggrandizing, rude or non-collaborative. Some employees learn these lessons only in retrospect. [In a recent survey by the Catalyst organization, a large number of women reported that they "wished they had known that 'just' working hard enough is not enough to succeed" and that "they had been more aware of organizational politics and about the advantages of self-promotion." ]
    2. Don't Be Afraid To Ask
      Those who become more comfortable about their value also tend to be more assertive about asking for concessions and for more balanced work/life arrangements. As one former marketing executive argued "If you don't ask you don't get." She was referring to a colleague, a senior vice-president and department head at her financial services firm who had arranged to leave work early each day, a heretofore unheard of arrangement in the company. In large consulting firms, it is not unusual for both men and women to ask to reduce their travel schedule and take on more local assignments when they attain more senior positions. But according to several of the executives interviewed, often "women are afraid to be more forward," fearing they might put their jobs at risk or lose the good will and credibility they have built up.
    3. Be Open about Flexible Arrangements
      When women do negotiate better deals they are typically encouraged to keep the details private. This may not appear unusual, much like salaries and bonuses are kept secret in many firms. The reality in most aspects of corporate life, however, is more transparent. People generally have an idea of how much money their colleagues make, and it is clear who has been promoted or been given plum assignments. There remains however, a "Don't ask don't tell" mentality around many of the arrangements women procure. An HR director at a hedge fund described to the resentment from sales force staff at the schedules of the directors of investor relations, nearly all women. Despite their inherent value to the firm, they were derided in part for being on the non-revenue generating end of the business, but also for having "taken the easy way out."

      The most successful women do not stand for being party to these covert operations. One HR executive at a pharmaceutical firm suggested that her colleagues follow her lead and confront the challenge head on. "After having children I told my boss I will get my job done. If you seen any problems with my work, please let me know." Those who can ignore the comments ("Oh, you're still here? It's past 6!"), and continue to excel at their work should not have to explain themselves. [In some newer business the leadership is getting the message. When asked how he felt about critical comments towards working mothers, one CEO replied: "I'm not tolerant of that attitude. Having a child and working is a tough gig. It speaks to the immaturity of that staff member. I would tell them to find another place to work."
    4. Worry Less about Being Perfect
      The biggest challenge for many working women is not falling victim to their own high standards. Women are typically much harder on themselves than men when it comes to grading their performance in the home and the office. A male HR executive reported that he learned a valuable lesson from one of his early mentors: "He told me it's okay to do 'B' work sometimes." A senior consulting partner admitted that being connected to his family meant he "couldn't always be a superstar at work."

      For many women who advanced up the ranks, accepting anything less than their absolute best is difficult. A marketing executive spoke of one of her senior staff members who had recently left the company: "She felt that if she couldn't give 150% all the time, she just couldn't do it at all." A senior marketing analyst described the dilemmas of executive women in concise fashion: "We feel we have to perform in ways that are unattainable." Many women feel that in addition to maintaining their high standards as parents, they have to work twice as hard to prove that they are the equal to their male colleagues or those who do not have the same responsibilities at home. Those who survive come to realize, at some point, that they can still be driven, ambitious and successful without completely over-taxing their capacity to sustain their efforts.
  3. Staying Connected: Taking Advantage of Networking and Mentoring Opportunities

    Many of the most successful women I have interviewed have strong mentoring relationships with executives in their firms. These bonds serve a number of roles. Many women received practical advice about how to manage their responsibilities and prioritize their work as they attempted to become more efficient with their time. Others talked of mentors who helped them strategize about when it was appropriate to ask for "off-line" assignments after having children, and how to remain as a valued member of a management team. One investment banker recalled the advice she received: "After I had my first child he told me to ask for things; so I said I'd like to travel less and spend four days in the office and one at home working. My boss agreed right away." Mentors also helped some of the women plot their career moves within and in some cases outside their companies.

    Although some corporations have tried to institute more formal mentoring programs, most men and women reported that they had observed and experienced greater success in these partnerships when they developed in more organic and informal ways. Nearly all agreed that they cannot be too process heavy, and must focus more on problem solving and strategic planning. Industries that have longstanding apprentice models, including law, investment banking and consulting, are designed in part to forge strong mentoring bonds. In other companies these connections can be initiated by the junior staff members, who identify senior managers they want to emulate. For working mothers, this often includes a search for people who have distinguished themselves while still maintaining some balance in their lives. Given the limited number of senior female executives, the mentors they chose are, for now, just as likely to be men as women.

    In the most successful mentoring relationships, the senior advocates help their colleagues gain perspective on both their home and work responsibilities. One senior attorney talked of her advice to younger women: "I tell them don't sweat it to be home every day at 3. Give yourself a break and trust your caregivers." In addition to helping them be more relaxed and not try to do it all, women reported getting good advice about prioritizing from their mentors: "She told me 'It's your son's first day of pre-school, of course you're going to be there.'"

    The question for most working mothers is how to find the right balance. Some mentors remind their junior colleagues about the importance of maintaining their own adult contact and pursuits, and how much they valued the intellectual stimulation at work after they had children. One senior attorney talks about her own experience in raising resilient children to her associates: "My kids learned to struggle a little and pitch in at home. They became so independent. I never spent every moment with them and they learned to cope." Some women have found men who are engaged fathers as good role models. One male CEO offered this advice "You are capable of being a parent and having professional satisfaction, if you are focused and available. Don't get caught up in the guilt. It just sucks up energy!"

    Networking in larger groups presents somewhat different challenges to working mothers. Leadership forums can provide women with role models and offer a chance to form solid relationships with other women who have similar ambitions and face the same challenges in balancing their work and home responsibilities. Yet some women avoid these groups, particularly if they feel that there is a stigma attached to women-only initiatives or if they part of the company's "diversity" efforts. Many female executives yearn for the more informal networks available to men who play golf together or are involved in other athletic or social activities with their colleagues and business associates. Though less exclusive than they once were, these options are not always readily available to women.

Professional working mothers face the difficult task of having to hone their skills, establish their credibility and value, and promote themselves in corporate environments that are not always entirely welcoming. Given that they must accomplish this while also trying to manage the demands and needs of their children and families, it is not unusual for working parents to experience considerable stress. Successful women thrive because of their intelligence, intensity, diligence and high standards, but these same traits can exacerbate their conflict over juggling multiple responsibilities and leave them feeling less competent in one or both roles.

In order for working mothers, and fathers, for that matter, to function at their peak in the office and feel more accomplished at home, they need to develop a cogent plan for advancing their careers and finding the right balance in their work and family life. In addition to recognizing their strengths and being clear about the value they add to their organizations, many working parents benefit from having strong mentors who can help them craft a career trajectory that satisfies their desire to succeed at a high level and stay connected to their families.

Ultimately working women benefit from a careful examination of their short-term goals and long-term objectives both as mothers and professionals. The critical step, in most cases, comes in realizing that compromises are inevitable, and that the path forward is not always a perfectly straight one, at home or in the office. Any well-thought out plan should include provisos for how to keep the stress level down and the expectations reasonable. This is no small challenge for highly successful women who are used to pushing themselves to the limits, and bearing the consequences without complaint.