I'm getting tired of the modern work-life conversation—including the "can women have it all?" question—because so much of it is self-defeating. That's because it often starts from the premise that we either need to choose between being good parents and being good workers or else have to make strategic sacrifices in order to keep both sides of that equation properly "integrated" or in "balance."
Aside from the outsize harm that does to working mothers in particular, it implies there's a division of skills, if not of spheres, that simply isn’t true to life.
Parenthood doesn’t just equip you with experiences that come in handy at work. It can actually help you hone the skills that the 21st-century economy is coming to value more and more. And it’s why working parents should start adding "parenthood" to their resumes.
Alexandra Acker-Lyons started getting together with the other working moms in this photo about 18 months ago. The founder of AL Advising, a political and philanthropic consultancy, she knows firsthand (even as someone running her own company) how the modern business world tends to divide work from family life, leading parents like her to go elsewhere for support.
When her group started meeting, Acker-Lyons told me, "One had grown kids and one was pregnant then," and the other "five of us got pregnant within three months of each other." It didn’t matter—they all had a lot to share, and their workplaces didn't offer much space for that.
Organizations as we know them were designed by men for men who had women at home, minding the children and doing the housework. As Heather Boushey writes in Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict, "American businesses used to have a silent partner. That partner was the American Wife." And even though that’s changed quite a bit in recent years, the sense that parenthood has little to do with professional life remains stubbornly in place—a view that disproportionately hurts women.
"I have a master’s in engineering," a woman told me at a recent panel I moderated, "and I worked in increasingly responsible positions for 15 years. I took a few years off with my kids, and now I can’t get back into that job, let alone one anywhere near the career path I was on when I left. I’ve stayed current in my field, but those hiring see only the gap in my resume. What’s your advice?"
I couldn’t contain myself: "Put parenthood on your resume!" I told her. "List the skills you’ve learned from it, the things you have accomplished because of it."
Here’s how to do that.
I’ve raised three children. Nothing I’ve done in life—not teaching school, not writing books, not even being president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America—has taught me as much about leadership as raising those kids. Here are a few things I'd add to my resume if I were entering the job market tomorrow:
- Exceptional organizational skills that have helped me juggle multiple high-stress priorities
- Effective communication skills and patience (well, maybe not so much of that) for managing a diverse range of personalities
- Regularly developed innovative solutions to seemingly intractable problems on a daily basis—seven days a week, with no vacations or holidays
- Led high-pressure negotiations with no advance preparation
Sure, this may sound cheeky at first, but there actually is a way to write thoughtfully about your parenting experience as a form of work. As to that last bullet point, Carla Harris, Morgan Stanley vice chairman and managing director and a self-described "no nonsense, hard-driving, analytical investment banker," told me that, six months after adopting a baby girl, she's "learned so much about negotiating. You can’t win a negotiation with a child by pushing hard; you have to find the way she will want to come along to what you want her to do."
Personally, I’m quite sure that when I became a nonprofit CEO with no formal leadership training, I wouldn't have been nearly as successful without having had parenthood teach me to be flexible enough to innovate on the fly. That includes the tactical skills and experience as well as the big-picture challenge of balancing the vision it takes to raise child with the daily decisions parents make about allocating limited time and resources.
When I challenged that panel audience to include parenthood as a leadership skill and work experience on their resumes, they cheered. But I've no illusions about the major paradigm shift that would entail, which could help right long-standing gender imbalances in pay and prestige.
Human resource professionals might balk at this. Even those who want to expand gender diversity might not take seriously a resume that includes parenthood—but that points up the very bias that makes such a change necessary. And indeed, many women will be understandably reluctant to revise their own CVs along these lines. An MBA student at NYU’s Stern School of Business told me she’s already felt criticized for being a mother even though she achieves her business goals. "It was not stated explicitly, but I felt [negative judgment that] was correlated with my needing time to use the lactation room a couple of times a day."
But the truth is that it’s easier to get co-opted into maintaining the norm than pushing for change. The more we keep parenthood at the outermost margins of the workplace—and our resumes—the longer these damaging biases linger. The costs of hiring and training a new employee can be huge, ranging from 16% of annual salary for low-paying jobs to more than 200% of annual salary for executive positions. And there are serious consequences for entire families when time out for children results in lower pay and less opportunity for advancement.
Nothing could go further to creating healthier and better lives for employees and companies alike than rethinking how we value parenting skills in the modern workplace as it continues to evolve. Why not start guiding that evolution in the right direction with the next resume you send to a potential employer?