A young woman partner in a law firm recently told me she had been advised never to mention her children at work. Her mentor, an older woman partner, firmly announced that talking about their kids made women seem unprofessional and lacking the single-minded commitment and ambition that senior leadership demands. As a result, the young woman never tells anyone that her standing weekly meeting on Monday afternoons is with her daughter.
I suddenly had a flash of memory to the bad old days when
gay people had to keep their personal lives a secret at work. Being “in the closet,” whether as a parent or as a gay person, takes a tremendous amount of energy. You have to come up with cover stories, guard your language, and be constantly vigilant so others won’t know your secret.
A senior executive recently told me that one of her mentors, who knew she was lesbian, advised her to quit hiding her identity at work. When she followed that advice, within a year she had received two promotions. Coming out of the closet freed up her energy so she could devote herself more fully and effectively to doing a superb job, resulting in her rapid ascent.
As corporations and professional services firms tackle the challenge of retaining and promoting top female talent, they need to take a look at the unwritten rules that keep parents, especially mothers, in the closet. When both women and men can be open in the workplace about their parenting commitments and responsibilities, they will become more authentic and more productive leaders.