An HR executive called me the other day and told me about this job where the employer had liked my profile, but (there it is) he was wondering if I still had the 'limitations' I had a year ago. Well, I thought of asking, if he meant my kids, sure I still had them. They'd grown a bit - my kids, I meant, not my limitations (paradoxically as kids grow, the limitations, sort-of, go down). So yes, I told him I was still a mother of three, but if it helped to know, the limitations had started full day school, so I was now, you know, limitation-lesser, if you will.
He didn't seem fully convinced or frankly satisfied with my answer. I wasn't sure what he had wanted me to say. Did he expect me to tell him I'd packed off the kids to boarding school, or that they'd taken a sip from the "Drink Me" bottle and grown up in an instant, or, better still, I'd finally managed to convince my mother to give up her life and come run mine? (If only).
I did tell him that things were a lot better than they were a while ago. I could now be at work from 9 to 4, which was not bad. Then I could carry work home, if needed, and stay longer when needed too. Sounded alright to me. He, however, did not receive my suggestions with the alacrity I had expected, and told me he'd call me back, which I was sure he would not.
"Did my abilities and qualifications come second and my so-called limitations first?"
To my surprise he did, and we worked something out (more on that towards the end), but his use of the word 'limitation' left me with many, many thoughts. Not that this was news to me, but somehow, when it was said so point-blank to my face, it made me think. Did my abilities and qualifications come second and my so-called limitations first? Did he assume that just because I had kids, they would limit my performance? I know that I was probably over-thinking it and making too much of one word, but sometimes it takes one little remark to give away a mindset. And this, something told me, was a perfect example of that.
Being unable to put the issue to rest, I then proceeded to do what I am quite the master at. I turned the conversation endlessly over and over in my mind (my husband's friendly, though guarded, suggestions of letting it go were quite in vain), to the point that it acquired an unhealthy life of its own. But I knew that the only way to purge it out was to think it to death (it works). What was upsetting me, I guess, was that most people thought this way. Or so I believed. And to me that was unfair; the fact that I was being judged on a conjecture. I found that hard to accept.
The primary reason why I felt this way was because a large part of my conversation with this anxious HR gentleman consisted of questions about how I would manage to flee from my interminable domestic constrains. Not much was discussed about my skills. It was almost like he didn't care what I could do, as long as I could get away from home. Also, there was a bit of a pattern here, which is why this was getting to me so much. He wasn't the only one who had inadvertently let out his reservations on the matter. Many a boss has been scared way before on knowing that I had three little kids.
So the truth, as I find it, is this. That despite all the hullabaloo about flexi-work, of women getting back into the work force after a hiatus, and all that gender diversity rhetoric that people like to spout (especially on mission statements), it's really not that easy for a woman to put her foot back into the door she closes when she leaves to be with her kids. The hard fact is that when she comes to that fork in the road and takes the seemingly leafy path, she pretty much stays on that path because (and this may not have been apparent to her initially) it almost always runs parallel to the other one. The reality is that no one is really building bridges to connect the two.
And if a bridge must be built, then she has to be the one to do it, which she may or may not be able to do all by herself. But that's really the only way she will ever get to the other side. To expect the people on that parallel path to take the time to connect the two would be an absurd hope (as Camus would probably call it).
"A few refreshing exceptions apart, we still have not created an environment where a woman is not forced to choose one path over the other."
Don't get me wrong, by making these allegorical analogies I am not saying that things are not better than before, or that women don't have options. They are and they do, but we're still a long, long way from a culture where a woman is taken more for her ability than her assumed availability. A few refreshing exceptions apart, we still have not created an environment where a woman is not forced to choose one path over the other. Sure there are work-places that now have crèches and jobs where you all you need are a laptop and an internet connection, but these are too few and far between. The average woman still has to make a difficult choice; she still limits her options when she takes, what she thinks, would be a hiatus from work. I know so many bright women sitting at home just because companies don't want to leave open that little window of flexibility (a much tossed around word these days), which would give her the confidence to leave her little limitations and venture back into the corporate world. And I can tell you, clever is that boss who does - because once you give such a woman an opportunity, she's going to put her life and soul into proving herself and staying on the path that she's got back on with such immense difficulty. I say this because I have been there.
"[C]lever is the boss who gives her enough that she'll stay, but far from what her real worth would be (had she not had the gaping hole in her resume)."
And there's another thing at play here. The woman who does take those tiny steps back into the corporate world is, more often than not, on the back-foot. She does not need to be, but she is, either because she is so relieved to be in a position where she gets to use her grey cells and talk to thinking adults, or because she is ever-so-aware of her hiatus and her limitations, or both. And this, coupled with an inability to talk money, leads to her underselling herself. Again, clever is the boss who gives her enough that she'll stay, but far from what her real worth would be (had she not had the gaping hole in her resume). It's quite a masterstroke, if you ask me, to hire such a woman, because the truth is that a returning-to-work-after-kids woman will almost never negotiate much. She's been waiting for this bus for long, and she'll not miss it once she's caught sight of it. Also, she'll give the job her best because she's trying to prove herself - she's trying to prove that her limitations are bigger in people's minds than they are in reality, and that they would not affect her performance.
This is what I was alluding to earlier when I said we worked something out with the HR gentleman. It was a trade off really - that I agree to a modest compensation and he agrees to my little limitations, because the two are interminably and most doggedly entwined.
I hope that by the time my daughters grow up, it'll be a better world for women who want to have kids and work too - not too much to ask really.
And if they need me, I'll be there to take care of their little limitations.