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The Citizen

Home Economics: Give Mom a Little (Professional) Respect

Give mom a different kind of gift this Mother’s Day. Give her the gift of professional respect. No, really.

What mothers do at home creates economic outputs that are chronically undervalued by employers and society. We could all do more to put that right.

By Alyson Gounden Rock, MC/MPA 2014

This Mother’s Day, we can all do three things that will bolster mom’s value and support gender equality. We can stop making throwaway negative comments about mothers. We can acknowledge that mothers do real work, and we can value that work more highly.

Deep down, we all know that what moms do really matters. We know that being a mother is a hard, unpaid job. Sometimes we utter a platitude like “it’s the hardest job in the world.” But we have forgotten, or chosen to ignore, that the skills and experience moms develop as they bring up children and manage a household are professional skills, with economic value. We do pay for these skills: child-care workers and foster parents, for example. But when we do so, it is at a level that lays bare the inherent lack of esteem for the caring professions, and for moms.

Gender equality will jumpstart forward when society publically acknowledges these skills and experiences, and in so doing makes them professionally valuable and desirable. The moment of having children is when the pay gap yawns open wide. Without comprehensive, affordable child-care and more access to flexible career track work, not everyone is able to “Lean In” to their careers, and to opt out is to fall off the career ladder. In addition to no pay and no status, moms have no professional associations and networks. They have no collective bargaining power, no Sheryl Sandberg – no powerful voice to sing their professional praises and decry the negative media stereotypes.

What can we all do? Firstly, we can stop being dismissive of moms and their contributions to society: one of the last remaining acceptable societal biases. Mom’s profession is undervalued in a thousand small ways: her unpaid work is taken for granted. Enough with the cheap shots at stay-at-home and working moms alike. Let’s agree to stop using labels like the “lululemon” mom who doesn’t want to work but could, the defeatist “opt-out” mom or the perpetually frazzled working mom complete with briefcase, cell phone and baby on hip.

Secondly, we should acknowledge that moms’ work at home is real work that really counts. Being at home develops and strengthens professional skills like conflict management, organizational efficiency and logistics management. When moms do their job well, benefits accrue to all of society in the form of better health outcomes, lower crime rates and better educational outcomes. Society is free riding on mom’s hard work! We should insist that moms’ contributions be measured and studied by economists. Then we might more fairly weigh society’s long-term economic benefits against the short-term personal career costs to individual mothers. Compensatory policies could be developed to better support moms whose careers have been negatively impacted.

Thirdly, let’s say publically, that with or without pay, what a mom does is valuable. After all, pay is only one way to reward economic contributions. Status, respect and esteem are also key elements of professional acknowledgment. Those we could easily give to mom. At home, we can tell mom she is doing a great job, and her work has value. As employers of mothers, we can name the parenting skills that enhance professional performance: empathy, efficiency and effectiveness. We can accept career caregiving breaks as valuable parts of a career trajectory – not gaps to be swept under the rug. We could see moral leadership, and not a lack of commitment to career in the decision to be at home, or to slow down career progression to accommodate care of children. Time away from work should be an integral part of a professional journey, not the end of the line.

Big societal change is always preceded by years of changes in attitude. Each one of us can prepare the ground for that big change. We owe it to our moms.

So let’s say out loud this Mother’s Day: what you do at home matters, mom: it is real work. It makes society better and our families stronger. It is valuable and valued.

Forget the flowers and chocolates. This Mother’s Day give your mom respect and the super power of professional visibility.

Alyson Gounden Rock is a writer, consultant and Harvard Kennedy School graduate student studying for a Masters in Public Administration. She is focusing on work/family policy and workplace gender inequality – in particular on the issue of mothers returning to the workplace after a care-giving break.

Before attending the Harvard Kennedy School, Alyson was a strategy consultant with Bain & Company and PWC. For over ten years she worked from home as an entrepreneur and a full-time mother. Alyson has considerable experience as a “professional volunteer” as a fundraiser at her children’s schools and she is a development committee board member at her alma mater: St Anne’s College, Oxford University. She lives in Cambridge, MA with her husband and three children, aged 6, 12 and 14.