Woman, Mother, and CEO? Yes, It’s Possible

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How often do you read interviews about what it’s like to be a man in business or technology? I’m guessing never. That we still ask women what it’s like is indicative of the major strides we need to take in order to create a more equal “working world.”

In fact, studies indicate that the workplace is still a masculine space that values more masculine traits and modes of thinking. If a woman is to get ahead she is supposed to “lean in” and be like a man, at least according to Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.”

But, is leaning in really the answer? Does it make you more likely to succeed? As a mother, a seriously driven career woman, and a CEO, Sabrina Parsons has a very different take on what it means to be successful. Here’s a hint: It doesn’t have anything to do with leaning in.

Your twitter handle is @mommyceo, and you can often be found speaking or writing about being both a mother and a CEO. Why is it important to distinguish yourself this way, as opposed to simply championing being a woman in business?

There are more challenges involved in being a CEO and a mom than when I was a working woman but not a parent. I think this is because we still live in a society in which we tell ourselves that the mother is supposed to be more nurturing, and supposed to be at home more. Because of this, there’s still a lot of guilt for women who work and aren’t at home.

I think that if you are a single mom or a working woman, and you live in a household where you just need to work to make a living, there’s less guilt. It’s more about justifying your position as a woman. As you get into the middle class and the upper middle class, I think people make you feel guilty. They say, “You don’t have to work, why are you working? Don’t you like your children? Why did you bother to have kids?”

No one ever says that to a man.

Do you still feel guilty being a working mother then?

We still have a lot of preconceived notions about what it means to be a mother in our culture and in the United States. I still struggle even though I made peace with my decision, and with where I am and what I’ve done. I still feel guilty about being a working mom. It’s still something that I don’t like to be judged for, and that I’m conscious of.

I love what I do and I wouldn’t not work. I think it makes me a better mom, but it’s hard to be judged and to constantly feel like I have to explain to people how I can be a great CEO and good mom at the same time.

Do you feel the expectations around being a working mother have changed much over the years?

I don’t know that it has changed. Working moms still struggle a lot. We are still trying to figure out what it means to be a “career” mom. It’s very clear what it means to be a working mother if you don’t have a “choice,” and need to work to make ends meet.

But what does it mean to be a career mom who works because she wants to, not because she has to? Why do people feel that women who work because they want to have compromised their kids? Why is it still socially acceptable to ask a career mom like me questions like, “When do you ever get to see your kids?”

It is frustrating to me that it is 2016 and yet still women struggle with rising in corporate America and being taken seriously as parents and people with careers.

It is frustrating to me that it is 2016 and yet still women struggle with rising in corporate America and being taken seriously as parents and people with careers.

Do you believe in the “lean in” philosophy that Sheryl Sandberg advocates?

To me, “lean in” is all about how you should change yourself as a woman to fit in and be more successful in a man’s world. Sheryl even has a passage in her book where she talks about how women should change how they negotiate in order to appeal to men and their perception of women.

I feel like that’s part of the problem. As successful as Sheryl has been, I don’t agree with this philosophy of trying to make women fit into the current corporate structure. I don’t want to have to negotiate to please a man. I want to negotiate the best way I can, and know how to, and not be told to make adjustments that will make me more likable to men. No one tells a man to “do it differently,” yet women are supposed to.

Talk a little bit about the “boss lottery” and how sometimes a working mother’s success only come when she wins the “boss lottery.”

I’m lucky to be an entrepreneur. I call the shots but because I’m the CEO, I don’t have to ask for permission. A lot of women in the working world tell me you can go really far in a company and in your career,  and work it your way if you win what people call “the boss lottery.”

If your boss gets it, values you, and sees how much you bring to the table, then you can get a lot of flexibility, and you can be a woman, a mother,  and still be given the opportunity be successful without pretending to be a man. But, if you don’t win the boss lottery, you’re stuck.

A lot of people don’t know that Michelle Obama took her second daughter, who was a baby at the time, to her interview at the Chicago Hospital because the babysitter canceled. She just called them and explained what had happened. She said something along the lines of, “Either I don’t come to this interview or I bring my six-month-old daughter.”

It turned out that the guy interviewing her didn’t care because he thought she was going to be great for the job. He said, “Bring your baby daughter.” After she was hired, she ended up actually being able to bring her daughter with her to work when she needed to. While she was the best person for the job, it took someone not being prejudiced against her as a working mother.

Are there any women who have inspired you?

Despite disagreeing with Sheryl Sandberg, I’m inspired by how far she’s gone. It’s just amazing. I’m also really inspired by Sonia Sotomayor and Sandra Day O’Connor. If you read some of Sandra Day O’Connor’s writing talking about when she came out of law school, some of the discrimination that she dealt with, it’s very inspiring that she still persevered.

It makes me feel that sometimes you just have to suck it up and show that you are the best—not that you’re the best woman, but that you’re just the best person for that particular job, or career, or whatever it is you’re doing. Don’t apologize, don’t whine, just get the job done and hit it out of the park. Be better than everyone else.

There is a woman in the Italian Parliament who I love, Licia Ronzulli, who brings her baby into Parliament with her. There are pictures of her nursing her baby, then as the baby gets older, pictures of the baby sitting on her lap while everyone votes. It’s inspiring because she basically said the same thing I did, “I’m not going to stop, but I’m not going to give up being a mom either. Who cares? I need to be there for the vote. Who cares if I’m there with my baby? If I’m nursing my baby underneath a blanket, no one can see anything. You have a problem? Imagine something else.”

What do you recommend other women battling with similar problems do?

I think one of the biggest things women do all the time is apologize for everything. We get into this habit of feeling like everything is on our shoulders and is our fault. We need to stop apologizing. Even if you invite friends for a weekend and it rains all weekend, a woman is likely to say, “I’m so sorry it’s raining.” Like, “It’s my fault it’s raining.” Women do this all the time and men don’t.

One of the things that I try to do is not apologize for who I am, and I don’t hide the fact that I’m a mom.

One of the things that I try to do is not apologize for who I am, and I don’t hide the fact that I’m a mom. My twitter handle is @mommyceo. My boys are very important. I’m not embarrassed or nervous if I bring a kid on a business trip. I just say, “This is who I am, and this is what my child will do. He will be perfectly appropriate, and polite, and not cause any issues at all, but this is what’s going to happen. There’s no reason my eight-year-old can’t sit here next to me at this financial conference.” He’s not screaming; he’s not a baby. He’s not throwing things. He’s sitting reading a book, doing his homework, maybe negotiating to watch a movie on his iPad. Meanwhile, he might be listening, hearing me talk about business and entrepreneurship, and he might actually get something out of it.

In general, I try not to apologize. This is who I am and I’m going to do a great job at my work but I’m also going to be a great mom. That means my lines are blurred. It wouldn’t work for me if everything belonged in compartments and if I felt I had to pretend I didn’t have kids when I was a work, and that when I was at home it was only about the kids. I have to float in and out of both worlds.

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