Office Mom: A Welcome Female Stereotype?
Many of us know her. She’s always cheerful, quick to provide professional and personal advice, frequently brings in homemade goodies, and is everyone’s shoulder to lean on. And now, thanks to The Wall Street Journal as of about a month and a half ago, she has joined the illustrious likes of the office gossip, the office grump, the office clown, and many more. She is the “office mom”; the mother hen of the white collar world, and the latest addition to a long list of office stereotypes – and specifically female stereotypes based on women in the workplace.
In honour of Mother’s Day this month, let’s take a more critical lens to the so-called office mom who, as The Wall Street Journal notes, may not even necessarily be an actual mother. Despite that, however, every office mom out there earned that title by embodying all the wonderful characteristics associated with motherliness: compassion, attention, and affection. She’s the warm ray of sunshine in an otherwise cold corporate slough. So what’s wrong with that? As female stereotypes go, especially surrounding women in the workplace, is that not a welcome foil to the high-powered “wicked witch”? Or, like the wicked witch, is the office mom simply today’s version of a Shakespearean archetype, plodding through the same tired plot in which all powerful women are definitively evil, and all good women are innately weak?
Diary of a mad office mom
All stereotypes are by definition overly simplistic, which means they inherently dismiss attributes that don’t fit their mould. The office mom may be warm, considerate, and caring, but to this day, in many people’s eyes, those qualities simply don’t mesh with what it takes to manage a company. No, no – if a woman’s going to run the show, she better be Lady Macbeth, manipulating her male peers, killing kings, and taking no prisoners. Of course, this regrettable yet enduring image of women in the workplace is as dismissive of people’s individual talents as the office mom stereotype is – and both can cause a great deal of harm. The “office mom” label in particular, some argue, plays into other demeaning female stereotypes: that as natural caregivers, they can never be as dedicated to their jobs as men can be, and that because they “obviously” aren’t the breadwinners at home, they don’t “need” higher paying positions.
On top of these discriminatory – and, frankly, illegal – prejudices that continue to rob many hardworking women of their rightful prestige, power, and pay, there’s the issue of the unrecognized – and uncompensated – additional work that goes into being the office mom. Almost every office mom has an actual title and actual duties – but, chances are, baking you a birthday cake isn’t one of them. Some have expressed concern that the mother hen qualities of those who fall into the office mom role are being exploited and that, over time, all that additional labour is eventually taken for granted.
Wanted: Office Mom
While some employers may be exploiting the office mom, others have actually turned it into a formal role, the duties of which can include everything you might expect from an office manager or administrative professional, such as keeping the office stocked and organized, but with the added responsibilities of ensuring everyone eats, takes breaks when they need to, and socializes with each other. Formal position or not, however, the question remains: Is the label of “office mom” a step backwards for women in the workplace?
Some argue that the concept of the office mom really isn’t so bad because it addresses a real need in today’s workforce; that, rather than reinforcing negative female stereotypes about weakness, the label highlights positive feminine qualities that today play a vital role in employee satisfaction and talent retention.
Mother knows best
So where does the truth lie? Does the office mom fly in the face of decades of women’s rights progress, or does she help fill an emotional void for many employees, thereby bolstering her organization’s bottom line? As with most polarizing debates, the truth is likely somewhere in the middle. But the most tangible concern is whether being branded the office mom impedes a woman’s shot at leadership. Some would say it doesn’t because they believe that today’s workforce is starting to recognize how attributes typically associated with women are vital to good leadership, therefore making women prime leadership candidates. Since women are generally believed to be more caregiving than men, they’re thought to more likely incorporate compassionate tactics into their roles as leaders – tactics that are integral to the “transformational leadership” style, which many assert is the most effective leadership style for today’s workforce.
Since team morale, group-oriented goals, and a motivational, inspirational leader are the cornerstones of transformational leadership, it’s believed that women would gravitate to that style more so than men. In fact, according to Northwestern University, they do, while men employ more “transactional leadership” tactics, where the focus is on rewarding success and punishing failure. While the debate between transformational leadership and transactional leadership can be just as polarizing as whether the office mom is a belittling or empowering female stereotype, the truth – just as in the office mom debate – consists of both A and B. However, if the transformational leadership style does in fact, like the office mom herself, help attract and retain talent because it makes a team feel more like a family, then who better to head up an office family than an office mom?