Saturday 11 June 2016

6 Reasons You Should Hire More Working Mothers

Over the years of working in, reading about and chatting to people within the tech industry, there have been a few common threads that come up a lot.  These threads cross companies, specific fields, countries and continents, and many of them have to do with the hard problems of documentation (as you would expect, given that I'm a technical communicator).

But one thread has absolutely nothing to do with documentation itself: Working mothers find it harder to get a job, and harder to be taken seriously when they do get a job (or return to their old job).  This is very relevant to our field at a time when the American Medical Writers Association has a 4:1 ratio of female to male technical writersThe Journal of Business and Technical Communication has a paper that discusses the "socioeconomic influences that contribute to women's dominance of the technical writing profession".  My personal experiences (for what they're worth) support this; my opinion is that there are more female writers than male ones.

The reasons for this female preponderance, whatever they are, would make a very interesting study, but that's not the aim of this post.  Nor, despite this ratio, is this article specific to technical writers.  The fact that there are so many more female writers than male writers gives me a justification to speak about it on a blog about documentation, but when many women feel discriminated against when they become mothers, and when there are proportionally so few women in tech, let alone tech leadership, this is an issue that affects our industry as a whole, not just the technical communication part of it.

Now, if you live in a country in the Western world it's pretty likely that not only is it illegal to discriminate against somebody based on either their gender or family situation, but the popular consensus is likely to be that it's (at best) morally dubious to hire or promote someone based on their gender. (We're talking hiring for a office role such as a writer in the tech industry here, not jobs where there may be a good reason for gender discrimination in hiring, such as a bra fitter for a department store.)  There is plenty of information about your legal obligations around discrimination, and if you want to read about the ethical implications of discrimination then Google is your friend.  This article is not aimed a people who are ignorant of the law or so strongly misogynistic that they'll happily discriminate against a woman just because they hate women (these people are beyond rational argument). 

This article is in fact aimed at people who don't hire or promote women based on what they feel are sound business reasons. 

As a slight aside, please don't assume this is about male sexism or patriarchy.  There's good evidence to suggest that women are more likely than men to discriminate against other women, because gender bias is not limited to men.  There's plenty of anecdata, such as here, here and here to support this; it's called Queen Bee syndrome, and I know quite a few women who feel they've suffered from it.  Obviously there are plenty of examples of men discriminating against women as well.  The point is that this is about a manager, regardless of gender, discriminating against women, specifically working mothers, for what they feel are good business reasons.

There are pros and cons to hiring or promoting anyone, because no-one's perfect.  Also, I wouldn't say "all working mothers are great employees" any more than I'd say "all degree-educated people are great employees", because groups of people just aren't that homogeneous.  But I've seen a few attributes that working mothers in general seem to share, and these attributes are very business-friendly:

  1. Their children come first.  Which means they can stay calm and keep things in proportion, so when a "crisis" happens at work it's not the worst thing in the world.  Great leaders know how to stay calm, partly because freaking out is not helpful, partly because both calmness and stressing out are contagious.  A parent will know that a "crisis" at work is just a minor inconvenience in the bigger scheme of things compared to a real crisis involving their child.  Ask the parent of a child with a serious medical issue whether finding a serious bug the day before a big release is a crisis.  Then feel like crap for even considering that the two things might be in the same ballpark.
  2. Working mothers are often more flexible about when they work.  This might seem odd because often they have fixed start and end times due to childcare/nursery/school demands, but outside of normal working hours is sometimes the best time for a working mother to get stuff done.  You need someone to log in remotely and triage the overnight change requests onto the backlog before everyone else comes into the office?  Who better than the working mother who has to be up anyway to supervise the insomniac toddler who's awake at 5am and glued to Peppa Pig on the tablet for the next hour?  Better for you, better for her, insomniac toddler doesn't care either way.
  3. Mothers are used to dealing with whiny, inexperienced people who are prone to childish anger when they can't get something to work and think that their ideas are the most important thing in the world.  So that's "tech bros" dealt with, then.
  4. They're organised.  Working mothers have 2 choices:  Be organised, or....actually, no, they've only got 1 choice.  Organised people make better employees: They're punctual, they respond to communications in a timely fashion, they're good at prioritisation, they make their deadlines.  What's not to like about an employee who's organised?
  5. They work damn hard.  Working mothers often feel a serious motivation to work hard, not just to earn money or to get respect from their colleagues, but because they want to teach their child that hard work is valuable and important.  Mothers are role models, and a lot of them take that very seriously. 
  6. They've got a different perspective to non-parents, especially the young men who predominate in tech.  Businesses with diverse teams have better decision-making and problem-solving skills. Diverse perspectives correlate with greater profitability.  If that's not a sound business reason then nothing is.
These attributes are generalised, of course; not every working mother has all of them (or indeed any).  But the point is that mothers can bring plenty to the table because they have children, aside from their specific technical skills and experiences.  Being a parent can improve a person's value to the company.  Here's a great quote from a tech CEO:

"There’s a saying that “if you want something done then ask a busy person to do it.” That’s exactly why I like working with mothers now.

Mom's tell me when a project can be done, and they give me very advanced notice when they have to take time off work. If they work from home, it doesn’t matter if a kid gets sick. Yes, they might not be able to Skype with me as often through that day, but they can still be productive because they can work from home while keeping an eye on their child. (And, like me, many have childcare. There’s no way you can work from home without support, usually from another woman.) Mom's work hard to meet deadlines because they have a powerful motivation—they want to be sure they can make dinner, pick a child up from school, and yes, get to the gym for themselves.

But, I know there are still a lot of people like my 28-year-old self — they undervalue mothers’ contributions because they count hours logged in the office and not actual work. Most mothers lose if that’s the barometer for productivity."

Yes, working mothers are not the "perfect employee".  But no-one is.  So they might need to work from home occasionally because their child's sick.  So what?  That's what Slack and GitHub and VPNs are for.  What difference does it make why they're working from home, as long as - like everyone else - they get their work done?  And I've seen plenty of young devs at their desk unable to work properly because they're hungover or because they've only had 45 minutes sleep after an all-nighter on XBox Live.  Not seen many working mothers do that.  There are pros and cons to hiring or promoting just about anybody.

But ruling out a significant part of the talent pool just because you think a child is some form of baggage to a woman is dumb.  Not illegal or immoral (although it is those things), dumb.  You're missing out on a whole group of motivated, organised, hard-working people based on that fact that these people have something in their lives which is more important to them than your company.  News flash: Children are more important to men too.  We're just not discriminated against for having them, so the bias against us being parents hasn't formed as strongly or as pervasively. 

When you hire or promote someone, choose the person with the skills, experience, work ethic and perspective that will allow them do the job well - and remember that quite often that'll be a working mother.

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