Working for Justice

On Non-traditional Career Arcs: A Thank You to Working Moms

Although gender and pregnancy discrimination cases are a central part of my legal practice, Pregnant Lawyers’ July 11, 2014 post “Lawyering While Pregnant” was an alarming reminder to me of how far removed my experiences as a male professional are from the experiences of my female colleagues and clients, particularly those who are going through pregnancies.  While I don’t pretend to be able to empathize, I have gained a deep appreciation for the obstacles working women with families overcome and the sacrifices they make—particularly from watching my mom.  Her career demonstrates why employers should be open to hiring and promoting employees who have taken time away from their careers to focus on their families and personal lives.

My mom was born into a blue-collar, Southern family as the oldest of four siblings.  She met my dad her senior year of high school and married him when she was nineteen.  After they married, my parents soon moved to a nearby town so my mom could finish her undergraduate degree.  She was the first in her family to graduate from college.  She began working for the Department of Defense and became pregnant with me.  At the time, my parents’ combined income was enough for them to afford the monthly payments on our mobile home and my child care, but little else.

A few years later, after Coca-Cola promoted my dad into a job that paid slightly more, my mom did something that was quite extraordinary: she quit.  She walked away from her career to focus on making sure I did my homework and went to church three times a week.  The former helped me get into college and later law school, and the latter taught me that you should treat other people as you would want them to treat you.  (Both of these have more than a little to do with how a kid who was raised in rural Georgia came to be a civil rights lawyer in Washington, D.C.)  During this period, my mom also gave birth to my little brother and likely would have continued as a full-time mom but for my dad being laid off pursuant to corporate restructuring.

With my family worried about making ends meet, my mom again did something extraordinary: she went back to work.  At the age of forty, after being out of the work force for fourteen years, she got her teaching certification and began her new career as an elementary school art teacher.  Even though she was undoubtedly much older than most new educators, my mom excelled in her new career.  She earned her master’s in curriculum and instruction and parlayed the research for her master’s thesis on using art in education to win several large grants for her classroom, which is why her students, despite their grossly underfunded school system, are able to use digital cameras, laptops, and iPads in creating their artwork.  Six years after she began her new career, her school system recognized her contributions by naming her system-wide Teacher of the Year.

I fear, however, that success stories of this nature are too few and far between for women in professional settings.  I doubt that if my mother had decided to begin a career in the legal field as a forty-something that many firms would have been receptive to her.  In the legal industry and other professional fields, there is a palpable pressure to have every step of your career build on the next, and being unemployed for an extended period of time is viewed as a black mark on an applicant’s résumé.  As Pregnant Lawyer notes in her post, Title VII prohibits discrimination against employees based on pregnancies, and New York City now requires that certain employers provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant women. These laws are strong steps in the right direction, and provide attorneys like me effective avenues to fight the gender-based discrimination and pay disparities that persist in our workplaces.  Nonetheless, I doubt that legislation alone will ever fully address corporate cultures and attitudes that are hostile to women with families.

In her article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” Anne-Marie Slaughter makes a number of recommendations for reshaping the workplace to more easily allow women to have both a family life and full careers.  Slaughter recommends, in part, that we redefine the arc of a successful career to include periodically taking a step back in the interest of one’s personal life.  I agree.  Those in leadership positions should broaden the narratives they look for in prospective employees to include applicants who haven’t taken a direct route to the C-Suite.  Otherwise, companies risk wholesale exclusion of applicants who may be the best candidates for a given position.  Further, all of us should acknowledge the extraordinary benefits that we as a society and individuals reap from the sacrifices working mothers make.  I, for one, would have neither the diplomas on my office wall nor an office wall to hang them on but for my mom’s ability to define the arc of her career as she saw best.

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP is a nationwide litigation law firm with offices in New York, Washington, DC, San Francisco, San Diego, Nashville, and Baltimore. We represent individuals against powerful interests. We act as a private attorney general in support of the private and public good. Learn More

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