March 2, 2021

’Like Holding a Yoga Pose for 24 Hours’: Joann S. Lublin on the Challenges and Triumphs of Executive Women

While writing Earning It: Hard-Won Lessons From Trailblazing Women at the Top of the Business World, former Wall Street Journal career columnist Joann S. Lublin noticed something interesting. Among the 52 executive women with whom she spoke for the book, most were mothers. Among those who had become public company CEOs, the percentage of mothers was even higher.

Lublin started to wonder: How did these women juggle their demanding careers and the needs of their personal lives? Eventually, that thought would give rise to Lublin’s latest book, Power Moms: How Executive Mothers Navigate Work and Life.

Based on interviews with 86 “Power Moms” — women who have reached the executive level and have worked in some capacity for a company with at least $100 million in revenue — Lublin’s book explores the lives of working mothers from the baby boomer, Generation X, and millennial demographics. Along the way, Lublin uncovers some fascinating insights into how things have changed since the first wave of Power Moms — and how they’ve stayed the same.

Lublin recently sat down for an interview with Recruiter.com. Below is a transcript of that interview, minimally edited for style and clarity.

Recruiter.com: How does the situation for executive moms today differ from that of the baby boomers who came before them?

Joann S. Lublin: The biggest changes come from advances in technology. You can now work from home. We’ve had this rather large-scale experiment in remote work since the pandemic hit, and the overwhelming majority of white-collar employees have been able to work from home thanks to technological advances.

The second thing is that this generation has highly involved spouses, whether it’s a husband, wife, or domestic partner. Basically, that’s table stakes. These women say, “If you want to be involved with me romantically over a long-term basis, you have to be committed not only at the outset. If children come along, you have to parent with me.” Those were not, frankly, the standard rules of the game for the boomers.

And the workplace itself has changed. There are not only many, many more companies to choose from that have family-friendly policies and practices, but there are also many more businesses where women have advanced to senior roles — and a lot of them are those boomer moms who came before the latest generation. They can serve as both role models and sponsors for these younger women who want to advance their careers.

There’s also not only the ability to change companies, but it’s also gotten a little bit easier for women to start their own businesses. There’s still a huge tilting of the scales in favor of male-owned startups in the venture-capital community, but nevertheless, a number of those executive women I interviewed did decide to go off on their own. When you start your own business, if it’s successful, you generally get to remain the CEO. You get to set the tone at the top for what is acceptable behavior in terms of recognizing the needs of your workers.

RC: So on the whole, it seems like things have gotten much better for the Power Moms. But in talking to some of these younger executive women, did you notice any new challenges they face that boomer moms didn’t?

JL: The biggest challenge that the younger generation faces is the pressure to be always on. The Atlantic coined the phrase “workism” for this. We worship at the altar of workism today. The expectation that you’ll be reachable and available 24/7 has just gotten exaggerated and intensified while everyone has been working from home. It’s hard to disengage. It’s hard to create boundaries. It’s hard to step away when you’re not actually leaving a physical office.

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RC: Now might be a good time to talk about this notion of work/life sway that you explore in the book. How is that different from the work/life balance that we hear about so often?

JL: It’s very different, and it’s a concept I had never heard of before I had met an executive mom in the younger generation who educated me about this concept. It’s the notion that work/life balance is an impossible ideal. It’s like maintaining the yoga pose where you stand on one leg for 24 hours. It doesn’t work.

The idea of work/life sway is: When you have to be 110 percent in the moment for your job, you are. If life intrudes, you basically go with the flow and be 110 percent in the moment for your life and family.

The example that this younger power mom gave me was, she was at work when a text popped up on her phone. It was a live video of her son taking his first steps, sent by the nanny. It didn’t matter that she was at work; this executive could sway out of work mode and be totally present to see her kid walk for the first time.

RC: So let’s say you’re a working mom — or dad — who wants to find a family-friendly organization that will support you in this quest for work/life sway. Do you have any advice on what to look out for? Any “green flags,” if you will?

JL: There are a few things I would look for. No. 1 is: What is the gender makeup of senior management? What is the company’s official policy around serving the needs of working parents — and what are the unofficial, unspoken rules of the game? You’re only going to find out about the latter by doing a deep dive. Put on the detective hat and make sure you reach out not just to current employees but also to people who used to work there and can give you the true scoop.

More importantly, you want to find out whether the official rulers are actually respected and carried out by the people you’re going to work for. Again, you’re only going to find that out by checking them out on social media and trying to ask some pretty good questions during the interview.

I also found that, in the case of several of those younger executive mothers, they weren’t willing to settle for less, whereas the boomer moms often settled for less than ideal working conditions because there weren’t a lot of choices.

RC: What about companies? How can they create more family-friendly organizations?

JL: I think one thing is, as offices start to reopen, employers should make a permanent commitment to letting people work from home, even on a full-time basis. And treat those people who work from home like grown-ups. Trust them to get the work done.

You also have to normalize paid parental leave, particularly when it comes to expectant fathers. You ask them, “When are you going to take that paid time off?” Not “if.”

The third thing you do is promote more women into upper management. And if they have children, you showcase how they made it work — even to the point of perhaps creating shadowing programs where a high-potential, lower-level woman can tag along for a day or two with a higher-level woman to get the inside scoop.

RC: Any final thoughts for our readers before we let you go?

JL: The one last piece of advice I would give to ambitious women in particular is about the importance of finding mentors and sponsors — and different ones at different stages of your career.

The mentor is the person who is going to give you helpful career advice. The sponsor, however, is someone willing to put their professional reputation on the line on your behalf, someone who is willing to make that call to the executive recruiter and say, “Have you heard about Joann? She just got promoted.”

Because women still remain a minority in higher-level jobs, most of those mentors and sponsors should be men. But they have to be different ones at different stages of your career. Who you need as a mentor or sponsor is going to depend on your personal career trajectory, your training, your background, where it is you’re trying to go. It depends on a lot.

Read more in Best Careers for Women

Matthew Kosinski is the managing editor of Recruiter.com.