‘I’m sorry to all the mothers I used to work with’

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She used to roll her eyes at mums who couldn’t make it to after-work drinks, agreed it was wise to “hurry up and fire” a woman before she got pregnant, and decided a top editor was “too much of a mother” to work with. But now a powerful company president has apologised to working mums, saying she didn’t realise how “horrible” she had been – until she had a child of her own.

PowerToFly president Katharine Zaleski has penned an open letter in Fortune magazine, admitting she discriminated against mothers when she was a childless executive. But now, she says, “I wish I had known … that mothers are the people you need on your team”.

Ms Zaleski says she  “committed a long list of infractions against mothers or said nothing while I saw others do the same” as a manager at The Huffington Post and The Washington Post in her mid-20s. They included staying silent in an interview where a woman was asked “how in the world” she would juggle three kids and a job, to constantly scheduling last-minute meetings at 4.30pm, to looking down on women who didn’t stay in the office late – even if they’d started before everyone else. She decided against a partnership with the then-managing editor of Time.com, Cathy Sharick, after seeing the array of photos of her children in her office: “She wasn’t the first and only mother whose work ethic I silently slandered.”

“For mothers in the workplace, it’s death by a thousand cuts – and sometimes it’s other women holding the knives,” she writes.

Five years after that meeting with Ms Sharick, Ms Zaleski gave birth to a daughter. “Within her first week, I became consumed by the idea that my career was over. It was almost as if my former self was telling me I was worthless because I wouldn’t be able to continue sitting in an office for 10 hours a day. And I certainly wouldn’t be able to get drinks at the last minute,” she writes.

“I was now a woman with two choices: go back to work like before and never see my baby; or pull back on my hours and give up the career I’d built over the last 10 years. When I looked at my little girl, I knew I didn’t want her to feel trapped like me.”

So she quit her job and co-founded PowerToFly, which matches women to technical positions they can do from home. It’s processed more than $1 million in paychecks for women across five continents – and Ms Zaleski has become a ferocious supporter both of mothers in the workplace and of the benefits of a remote workforce. Former Time.com editor Ms Sharick has recently joined her company as executive editor.

“There’s a saying that ‘if you want something done then ask a busy person to do it’. That’s exactly why I like working with mothers now,” Ms Zaleski says.

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“Moms tell me when a project can be done and they give me very advanced notice when they have to take time off work. If they work from home, it doesn’t matter if a kid gets sick,” she writes. “Moms work hard to meet deadlines because they have a powerful motivation – they want to be sure they can make dinner, pick a child up from school, and yes, get to the gym for themselves.”

She says companies and managers need to “break the cycle” by changing workplace culture. “They don’t realise how that ‘culture’ pushes women out because it’s too often set up around how men bond. Many of these young women are just toeing the company line. I don’t begrudge them. I feel sorry for them,” she writes.

She also encourages women to better support each other and realise they have different needs at different stages of life.

“Now I know who I am. I’m mother who can manage a large team from my home office or on a business trip, raise money, and build a culture for women to succeed. I’ve never been more productive, satisfied and excited about my future and my daughter’s. I wish I had recognised this years ago. For that, I’m sorry to all the mothers I used to work with.”

(Images via Katharine Zaleski, Twitter)

Michelle Rose

Michelle Rose

Michelle is a journalist and mum to two girls who are obsessed with dinosaurs, fairies, pirates and princesses in equal measure. She lives in Melbourne's east with her husband, daughters and a giant, untameable labradoodle. Michelle loves all things vegetarian, wine (it's a fruit) and online shopping.

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