Working mothers need role models, not superheroes

While billionaire COO Sheryl Sandberg may be inspirational it's not realistic to expect working moms to relate to wealthy superwomen CEOs.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, is about to become one of the richest selfmade women in the world. She is also an articulate champion for the advancement of women’s careers. Her 2010 TED talk, “Why we have too few women leaders,” has been viewed online well over a million times, and she regularly speaks about managing both her career and young children.

Her story is inspirational for both men and women—but how helpful is it really to hold Sandberg or her C-suite counterparts up as role models for the majority of working moms?

I specifically say working mothers, since when it comes to gender equity and careers, this is the battleground: children and family obligations remain the primary challenge to career success for most women.

A recent study of business school graduates from the University of Chicago found that after graduation, men and women had “nearly identical incomes and weekly hours worked.” Fifteen years later, however, the men were making about 75% more than the women.The one subgroup whose careers resembled those of the men: women with no children.

But making it an either/or choice serves nobody—women are now the majority of the workforce, female talent retention is a bottom-line necessity, and 72% of mothers in Canada work.

While there are lots of potential ways we could help working mothers, one that may seem counterintuitive is to focus less on the handful of women at the top—just 28 of Canada’s 500 largest companies are headed by women—and to emphasize instead the successes happening in the middle.

“There’s a perception among young women that there are few role models for them—they don’t see women successfully managing their careers and their lives [whom] they feel they can relate to,” says Jane Allen, Deloitte Canada’s chief diversity officer. Deloitte’s internal research suggests that what the majority of women are really looking for are templates for their own lives and careers. Successful women in middle management are often raising young families while still pushing their careers forward, making their experience and advice far more practical, relatable and helpful to a larger number of working moms.

Take Carol, whom I recently interviewed. A mother of two young children who was promoted to a management role at her bank after seven months of maternity leave, she’s taking courses to boost her skills and looking for an assignment to increase her internal profile. Carol’s kids are in a daycare close to her office, so some days she stops by during her lunch break. Stories like Carol’s are not as dramatic as Sheryl Sandberg’s, but they showcase obtainable outcomes and relatable pathways to success. It’s no slight against Sandberg to say that the superwoman narrative can be as intimidating as it is inspiring.

Focusing on other successes reminds not just employers and colleagues but women themselves that children and career success go together—more often than we sometimes realize.

Reva Seth is the founder of TheMomShift .com, an online campaign showcasing women who achieve career success after children.