I was raised by a working mother who immigrated to the United States to give me and my sister access to better opportunities. Throughout my entire childhood, I observed my mother attempting to balance her social worker responsibilities while cooking us fresh Mexican meals and helping us with our homework. She was tenacious, full of grit, brilliant, and a devoted mother. She is not unlike most working mothers—we are extraordinary. But unfortunately, in American society, we are also undervalued and underappreciated in the workplace. The reality is that there is still a gender gap, and gender adversity remains prevalent.
But there is hope.
We have our voices, and we should feel empowered to advocate for our needs as parents in our places of employment. These types of conversations can feel uncomfortable, awkward, and make your palms sweaty. However, with a little research and planning sprinkled with some positive affirmations, you can feel prepared and inspired to speak up and share your truth. Most importantly, you deserve it.
I also feel that society is beginning to acknowledge the contributions and needs of working mothers. This was one of the positive effects of the pandemic that allowed our employers to “zoom” into our homes and watch first-hand how we masterfully juggled and sometimes struggled balancing both home and work duties. As plans for return to in-person work are being determined among many companies and organizations, the time to advocate for our working mama needs is now, as it coincides with the national discourse trending on this topic. Below, I demystify the process of self-advocacy at work and provide tips and advice to encourage you to embark on your own self-advocacy journey.
1. Be Your Own Cheerleader
As moms, we are very adept at advocating for our children. We are “mama bears” who cheer on our kids at soccer games and tell them they can reach for the stars and follow their dreams. But when it comes to our own self-love, working mothers can face feelings of guilt, imposter syndrome, and a lack of confidence, which can ultimately undermine our professional and personal goals. LinkedIn’s Workforce Confidence Index explains further this gender confidence gap that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. According to Jonathan Javier, cofounder of the Wonsulting, a career-advising site, “Men oversell themselves. Women sometimes undersell themselves.”
Be your biggest advocate and be your own hero. To prepare for self-advocacy, reflect on your own strengths and areas of growth. Speak kindly to yourself daily. Show yourself grace and accept that you are doing your best. Remind yourself that being a working mama carries unique challenges that you overcome with power, resilience, and determination every day. Adjusting your mindset to be more optimistic will lay the foundation for strong self-advocacy with your employer. I recommend saying the Working Mamas’ Affirmations below at the start of every work day. Consider it a gift to yourself.
2. Prioritize Your Non-Negotiables
Contrary to what popular media may lead us to believe, I do not think working mothers can have it all. I believe the very nature of being a working mother involves a sense of imbalance—the moment we start feeling we are excelling at work, the mom guilt starts to creep in. And on the flip side, when we take more time for our families, we may feel our work suffers and our unread messages grow exponentially in our inboxes. This seesaw effect can lead to feelings of frustration and does not lay a stable foundation for self-advocacy.
I believe the very nature of being a working mother involves a sense of imbalance—the moment we start feeling we are excelling at work, the mom guilt starts to creep in.
When advocating for yourself in your job, compile a list of your top three to five non-negotiables that you need from your employer to both succeed at work and feel fulfilled as a mother. One way to do this is by brainstorming your long-term and short-term goals in your career. Utilizing the SMART goals framework (setting goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound) might help you narrow your advocacy.
Prioritizing your top “needs” and not your “wants” will provide more realistic expectations as to what you may receive from your employer. You can’t have everything, but you can ask for what you feel you absolutely cannot live and work without. It’s absolutely OK to verbalize needing a more flexible schedule because you are a working mother. This is a perfectly valid request and one you can justify with verifiable outcomes about how this accommodation would help you feel more supported and productive at work.
I proposed an adjusted schedule with my employer because doing our daily commute with pick-ups and drop-offs during high-traffic periods had proven to be unsustainable for my own mental health and my work productivity. Even before the pandemic, a 2018 survey by Welch’s showed the hours mothers work actually equates to having two and a half full-time jobs. We are justified in asking for flexibility and understanding as working mommies.
Try saying: I find it challenging when I have to do ____ because as a mother I need to do ____ to support my family. Would it be possible to have some flexibility in ____ so that I can be even more productive in my current role in the company? This accommodation will set me up for success.
3. Connect Your Personal Goals to Your Company’s Goals
Do research on yourself and your employer (yes, do research on yourself!). List your accomplishments over the past year (or half-year or month). You’ll be amazed at how much you have achieved for your company when you put it on paper. These accomplishments are your ammunition! Begin to formalize a narrative that demonstrates your commitment to your company, the outcomes you’ve produced with actual quantifiers, and why your “ask” will produce even greater results for your organization.
Even though you know your worth (because you are worthy!), being explicit when advocating for yourself to your employer is best. This is especially true if your supervisor is not a working mother. Being direct and professional in your approach can avoid assumptions and miscommunication.
Before you propose anything, also take time to also research the vision and mission of your organization so that you can align your goals (tip #2 above) with those of your employer. Weave in your company’s priorities, both short-term and long-term, with what you are asking for so that it demonstrates a direct correlation between the two. Go beyond researching the company website by speaking with your supervisor, conducting informational interviews with senior leadership and colleagues, reviewing any organizational assessment conducted and its outcomes, and simply observing any gaps that are not being filled so that it can all inform your self-advocacy focus.
Weave in your company’s priorities, both short-term and long-term, with what you are asking for so that it demonstrates a direct correlation between the two.
Good employers want happy employees—and working mothers already sacrifice so much. Motherhood provides so many transferable skills that would benefit any organization. And if you’re a working mother, you can pretty much do anything!
Try This: In this past year, our company has produced ____ through my strategic vision and leadership. Because of this, I have accomplished ____ , which will allow our company to ____. I would like to request ____ to give me more opportunity to grow our company’s ____ .
4. Lean on Your Allies and Support Network
Self-advocacy can feel lonely, but it doesn’t have to be that way if you proactively seek support. Reach out to other working parents and ask for their guidance; there may be other mothers who have paved the way for you to succeed. I have found that moms helping moms can lead to a positive impact for all parties involved. Don’t be afraid to ask allies to advocate on your behalf. You will find that many are willing and eager to help.
Mentorship is another component that can electrify your self-advocacy. If you know of someone in a position of power on a personal level, set up a meeting with them and go over your non-negotiables and accomplishments so they can be well-informed when advocating for you. Even if your mentor is outside your industry or not in a position of influence, I would still recommend speaking with them to brainstorm together and ask for constructive feedback.
And if you feel your organization is lacking support for working mothers, I highly encourage you to form your own working mothers support group among mamas in your company. I did that within my organization, and it has expanded my network of women who are willing to advocate for me and vice versa. Working mamas unite!
Try This: I am hoping to ask for ____, and I would like to know if you would be willing to advocate on my behalf to ____. Your advocacy can positively support my growth and needs as a working mother, and I would be so grateful to you.
5. Create a Communication Plan
Make a plan to execute your self-advocacy. Provide your own timelines so you can effectively and strategically maximize your results. You want to advocate in a period that is best for the company, not during a stressful, busy time or a season of turmoil. Timing is key.
Draft your email to set up a meeting with your supervisor that gives a general indication of what you want to discuss but refrains from mentioning any details about the in-person conversation. Write out your talking points, which includes your three to five non-negotiables and the formal proposal. Prepare your justification, including your personal/familial needs. You also want to be ready to negotiate in the event that your employer is willing to grant some of your request but not all. Crafting your counter offer prior to your meeting can take away any nerves you may have about this discussion. Flexibility is also a valuable quality to possess when negotiating.
Be mindful of how you may feel when approaching the subject and determine coping strategies to ease any anxiety or nervousness that may arise. Personally, some deep breathing techniques have worked wonders to calm my nerves when any self-advocacy is involved. I know I can forget what I want to say when I’m nervous, so writing things down and practicing them beforehand helps me feel more prepared when the jitters begin to take over. It’s absolutely normal to be emotional about self-advocacy. Remember, you should be your biggest supporter.
Try This: I understand your concern about ____ in what I am requesting. However, I feel that granting me ____ will actually prove more effective for our company long term because ____. I am willing to be flexible regarding this ____ part.
6. Embrace the Long-Term Process
Self-advocacy is not always linear, and it certainly can be a process beyond one initial meeting with your supervisor. It may be that this becomes a recurring meeting with your supervisor to discuss further and implement an action plan about what you are advocating for. As a next step, you may need to present your proposal to key stakeholders. Details matter, and ironing those out also takes some time.
Having patience and flexibility but also perseverance will go a long way. Think both long term and short term when developing your communication plan.
And as part of your plan, you may also need to develop an exit strategy if your employer will not grant any of your non-negotiables. There is no amount of money or perks that can diminish the effects of working in a toxic environment not supportive of your needs as a working mother. Leaving a place that doesn’t value you and all your contributions is not only a brave move, but it is also an act of self-love.
I hope you feel inspired to begin your self-advocacy journey or continue where you left off if you have already started the process. Working moms are valuable members of the workforce, and we should be treated with respect and dignity. We deserve to be compensated properly for our work. We also need to have jobs that allow us to be the parents our children deserve so that we don’t feel so torn on a daily basis between being a mother and being an employee.
I think it’s long overdue for companies to rethink their policies when it comes to supporting working mothers. More outward support and resources for all working mothers should be the standard, regardless of what industry we are in. I would love to see more working moms in positions of influence to lead this culture shift and uplift other moms to grow. The Harvard Business Review’s podcast Women at Work did a whole episode about the positives of being a working mother. We need to remind ourselves of our own worth because we spend most of our time supporting and giving to others. We deserve to be valued, and employers should be accommodating to our needs.
Now, start crafting your plan, because you can do this. You have the entire motherhood community cheering you on!